The end of the war with Hizbullah came just in time to save a fast-growing Israeli industry: wine making. Growers were unable to tend their vineyards during the 34-day conflict as thousands of Hizbullah rockets pelted the Upper Galilee, Israel’s best grape-growing region. Luckily, the ceasefire last week came on the first day of the harvest.
Racing to salvage their crop, many growers are confident the season will be a huge success. “Beautiful, beautiful. Everything is perfect,” gushed Moshe Haviv, manager of Dalton Winery, before uncorking his newest favorite joke — whether guests would like to sample the “Katyusha special reserve.”
Dalton was among the hardest-hit wineries during the conflict — a direct rocket strike set part of the vineyard on fire. Yet Haviv expects his best year ever, with the help of great weather, a 20 percent increase in harvested land and growing international interest in Israeli wine.
Other winemakers are also relieved, though some say it is too early to know the extent of damage to a small but thriving industry that is just starting to make a name for itself abroad. Wine critics say kosher wine has improved greatly since the days when a thick, sweet and cheap vintage used for religious ceremonies was the only option.
Israelis drinking more wine than before
Today Israelis are producing and drinking more wine than ever before: Israelis drink around 15 pints per person per year — still not high compared to the more than 15 gallons consumed in many European countries or the 23 pints in the United States, but significantly more than the eight pints Israelis drank just five years ago.
“The second wine revolution came to Israel after 5,000 years,” said Recanati Winery manager Noam Jacoby, 43, alluding to the reawakening of interest in wines that started in the 1980s after several millennia of vinicultural history.
Most of Israel’s major wineries are kosher, though not all the boutiques are because of the higher complication and costs. The rules for making kosher wine are many, but include not using grapes from vines less than four years old, discarding 1 percent of the wine as a symbolic tax for the temple in Jerusalem, cleaning barrels three times and having only observant Jews who observe the Sabbath work on production.
Northern Israel offers ideal conditions for growing grapes: volcanic soil, an altitude of 800-900 yards above sea level and a relatively cool and stable climate.
This makes it attractive for wine entrepreneurs, and more and more are opening shop, from less than 20 that existed just a decade ago to more than 200 today, according to the Israel Wine Board. The industry generated about $175 million in sales last year, while exports totaled $13.8 million, compared to $8.1 million in 2001, according to IsraelWines.co.il, a Web site devoted to the local wine scene.
Good growing conditions are likely to offset the damage vineyards suffered during the war, said Hanan Bazak, chairman of the Israel Wine Board. He said he expected a 10 percent increase in Israel’s wine production this year, to 50,000 tons.
“It will be a quality year, because the climate and the grapes were very, very good,” he said. Strikes on vineyards were few, and fires were quickly extinguished by firetrucks and water-dropping airplanes, winemakers said. Some of the largest vineyards, in the Golan Heights area claimed by Syria, emerged unscathed.
The real damage came because growers had difficulty reaching their crops to prune and treat them during more than a month of fighting. The war might have led to the ruin of 15 to 20 percent of the Galilee’s grape crop, Bazak said.
Winemakers will also have to make up for lost sales in July. But they’re optimistic it can be done, with the help of renewed patriotism encouraging Israelis to buy local wine and upcoming promotional campaigns in the United States, the largest export market.
Scrambling to salvage its vineyards, Dalton hired an improvised crew of about 30 people to harvest and ship its grapes, working 18-20 hours a day. Among those helping was Uri Spiegel, a 24-year-old paratrooper who marched 12 miles home last from Lebanon’s Litani River.
Jacoby’s Recanati Winery, some of whose vineyards are literally on the border with Lebanon, was also rushing to recover. One of his main vineyards was declared a closed military zone during the war, and three rows of vineyards were plowed by tanks. Still, he considers himself lucky.
“The ceasefire was exactly on time, at the last minute,” he said. “Each day that would have passed, we would have lost part of the Chardonnay — you can’t miss the harvest time.”