Wineries in the West Bank area of Israel/Palestine are now producing high quality wine, but growing grapes and making wine are more than commercial viticulture; they are a way of reestablishing ancient Jewish winemaking practices and reconnecting to biblical sites. 

West Bank wineries are a small percentage of the 200 plus wineries in Israel/Palestine, which collectively produce about 40 million bottles of wine per year; but these Jewish wineries are on the precarious frontier of Israeli society, sitting outside the internationally recognized territory of the State of Israel. They are also situated on a series of ancient biblical sites. I am a cultural anthropologist at Harvard University, and I visited wineries in the West Bank and interviewed the winemakers to find out how winemaking is part of Zionism in the 21st century.

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The bulletproof Israeli bus heads north from Jerusalem, ascending Route 60, passing fortified bus stops sprayed with religious slogans and ethnic curses. The passage into what are known as the territories is seamless and unimpeded by security checks.

Tura Winery sits in the disputed area between Nablus and Ramallah, in the small settlement (they prefer the word “community”) of Rachelim. Although Tura has won more than 40 awards at international wine competitions, the winemakers face serious challenges. “We’ve lost a lot of friends over the years… We’ve had three explosions in the vineyard,” says Vered Ben Sa’adon, co-owner of Tura. It is not the pursuit of wine awards that underpin Vered and her husband Erez’s perseverance. Rather, “bonding to the land is our purpose,” she tells me. Their dedication lies at the intersection of religious Zionism and commercial agriculture in contemporary Israel. She describes the success of their winery as a “miracle,” something that “cannot simply be explained by hard work.” She tells me that wine production in the biblical land of Israel was prophesied in the Bible, where Jeremiah says Jews will return to plant vineyards in Samaria. Establishing wineries in this area also helps to reinforce the Jewish national identity.

“Here is where everything starts… Jews as a nation started here,” says Amichai Lourie, owner of award-winning Shiloh Winery, which he proudly named after the religious settlement where the Bible says the Tabernacle was erected following the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt. Lourie, who exports over 100,000 bottles a year, sees wine production in Shiloh as part of the process of redemption. The Bible, he tells me, says we will know the redemption is near when “branches of fruit will flourish.” Indeed, for religious Jews, wine is about much more than good taste.

The label on Shiloh Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve features a drawing of the Tabernacle, which the Bible says was erected at Shiloh. (courtesy)

The label on Shiloh Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve features a drawing of the Tabernacle, which the Bible says was erected at Shiloh. (courtesy)

Jews use wine ceremonially in blessing and marking important religious occasions and celebrations: Wine is essential for weddings, brit milah, every Jewish holiday, and Shabbat. Founder of the US based marketing company West Bank Wines, Greg (Tzvi) Lauren, says “We can’t have our culture without wine… it transcends connoisseurism.” And winemaking in Israel is also building on a long history.

Local wine initially became famous in the 4th and 5th century — the Byzantine period — when the Romans distributed it. After a long break, during Muslim and Ottoman rule, wine production resumed in the 19th century, when Baron Rothschild aptly brought French varietals to Palestine. It was not until the late 20th century that Jewish wine production focused on quality, and chose grapes with a wide market appeal, such as Merlot and Chardonnay. Today, this wine region is yielding grapes of outstanding quality. In the British Decanter, a blind tasting competition, West Bank wines have scored a series of 90 points plus. Establishing wineries on biblical sites only enhances their brand.

A few miles south is the religious settlement of Beit El, named after the biblical site where Jacob spent a night sleeping on a rock and had his dream of angels ascending and descending from Heaven. “The vines of Beit El are rooted in biblical tradition,” reads the brochure from the Beit El boutique winery (defined as under 100,000 bottles a year). Winery owner Hillel Manne grew up in the United States and studied agriculture in California, before moving to Beit El “for Zionism.” As we tour the site of Jacob’s Rock, he shows me a cave that “looks like a Second Temple cave.” This, he tells me, “gets people excited.”

Beit El winery

The sun goes down over the vines in Beit El, the settlement named after the biblical site where Jacob had his dream of angels. (courtesy)

Further north is Har Bracha, an outpost settlement of about 350 families, perched in the Shomron Mountains at almost 1,000 meters above sea level. I sit with Har Bracha Winery owner Nir Lavie in the visitor center that overlooks the Palestinian city of Nablus. “This is Bible land… Har Bracha is beside the burial ground of Joseph, the son of Jacob.” A territorial connection underpins Lavie’s winemaking philosophy: a banner hangs over the wine bar reading, “Wine, land, and culture: and the connection between them.”

The view from the Har Bracha Winery visitor center overlooks the Shomron Mountains and the Palestinian city of Nablus (courtesy)

The view from the Har Bracha Winery visitor center overlooks the Shomron Mountains and the Palestinian city of Nablus (courtesy)

But not all West Bank wineries dwell heavily on the biblical past. A few miles north is Ofra, one of the larger settlements in the West Bank, and home to the boutique winery Tanya. Winemaker Yoram Cohen’s face is tanned and weathered from years of sun and outdoor adventures, but his slim frame moves with the agility of a man half his age. I find him in his backyard, washing cherries with his son amidst blaring Hebrew blues-rock. He greets me with bright eyes and a firm handshake. He is a busy man, with eight children, and hobbies including skiing, gliding, diving, writing, and painting.

Yoram Cohen, owner of Tanya Winery in Ofra, pours a glass of wine in his backyard tasting room. (courtesy)

Yoram Cohen, owner of Tanya Winery in Ofra, pours a glass of wine in his backyard tasting room. (courtesy)

We taste his tannic and fruit-chocolate noted red wine, as he plays a Cat Stevens song on his phone; the lyrics he says capture the relationship between man and wine. Cohen defines himself as a pacifist, who fell in love with the area years before there was any settlement, when he was a young schoolboy visiting an archaeological site in the area. Having pursued careers in journalism and photography, he turned his hand to winemaking as a hobby with an initial purchase of 300 kilograms (some 660 pounds) of local grapes and a plan to make just 200 bottles of wine for family and friends. Tanya now produces about 30,000 bottles a year.

When I ask Cohen about his opinion about political problems in the area, he says that when his 14-year-old nephew was killed in a Jerusalem terrorist attack, he felt mercy for the perpetrator, claiming, “He who hurts himself kills his own life.” Cohen has named each cuvée after his children, and he plans to make a brandy from white grapes.

I hitch a ride up the steep hill into the guarded settlement of Psagot, a few miles outside Ramallah. Security barriers are plastered with Hebrew posters celebrating the “50 years of Zionism, building, and sovereignty” since Israel expanded into the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War. Here I meet Ya’acov Oryah, chief winemaker at Psagot Winery. Oryah is warm and gentle, and offers me a coffee as we sit at a table in the winery visitor center. The walls boast dozens of awards, and glass tiles offer views of the cellar stocked with oak barrels of previous harvests. He shares his interests and hopes for the winery as we sample a glass of Psagot’s premier wine, The Peak.

Psagot’s premier wine, The Peak, is adorned with a replica of a gold coin dated from the time of the Jewish revolt against the Romans. (courtesy)

Psagot’s premier wine, The Peak, is adorned with a replica of a gold coin dated from the time of the Jewish revolt against the Romans. (courtesy)

Psagot has a recognizable brand. The bottle is adorned with a replica of a gold coin that was found in a cave near where the initial winery was established. The original coin is dated from the time of the famous Jewish revolt against the Romans. Psagot’s output is 300,000 bottler per year, about 70 percent of which is exported. Oryah’s agenda is not to grow, however, but to focus on quality. He sees great potential in the Israeli wine industry, especially because of the exceptional quality grapes that can be produced from the unique terroir of the Judean Hills and Shomron region — half Middle Eastern and half Mediterranean, with long dry summers and a wide daily temperature range. He plans to produce a sparkling white wine, but is unsure how a Champagne-like commodity would fit into Israeli culture, where he sees wine having a ceremonial status, consumed solemnly, rather than sprayed in celebration.

A gold coin dated from the time of the Jewish revolt against the Romans, which was found in a cave near where the Gva’ot winery was established. (courtesy)

A gold coin dated from the time of the Jewish revolt against the Romans, which was found in a cave near where the Psagot winery was established. (courtesy)

Despite the historical connection and the biblical stories that wine production in this area is anchored in, the challenge, Oryah tells me is “Israel does not have an identity… While Italy has Barrolo and Nero d’Avola, and Australia has Shiraz, the first association with kosher wine is bad… We don’t have an identity because we don’t have varietals.” Jewish halacha (religious law) demands that the handlers of the grapes during wine production be religious, Shabbat-observant, Jews. The strict rules emerge from ancient times, when Jews were afraid they would drink wine made for pagan practices. Consequently, Israeli wine has historically been branded as “kosher wine,” deemed lower quality than world wines. But this label is dissolving.

Export is a growing part of the Israeli wine industry. Ami Nahari, a New York based importer of Israeli wines says “Israeli wine is making a name for itself.” While Israeli wine was once $13 a bottle, now a single vineyard bottle will retail for $45 and up. The high price can be attributed to the cost of labor and water in Israel, but American Jews still want to buy expensive Israeli wine “because they feel closer to Israel than to California.” West Bank wineries are leveraging the powerful narratives behind their product, selling a connection to both the Bible and to the ancient winemaking traditions of the region.

Gva’ot, a boutique winery in Givat Har’el, has the mission of renewing the winemaking tradition and connection to the land in Israel. Gva’ot is producing wine from so-called indigenous varietals, like the jindali grape, which yields a fresh and crisp white wine. Such indigenous wine has market appeal; winery manager Eliav Miller tells me, “Even without tasting, everybody wants it.” Indigenous varietals could also help solve the industry’s identity problem. But making indigenous, biblical-era wine takes the latest in agricultural science.

Gva’ot manager Eliav Miller shows me an ancient wine press at the winery site in Givat Har’el. (courtesy)

Gva’ot manager Eliav Miller shows me an ancient wine press at the winery site in Givat Har’el. (courtesy)

Gva’ot’s winemaker, Dr. Shivi Drori, is also the head of Ariel University’s Wine Research Center, where he is actively molding Israel’s wine identity: “What are we, new world, old world, or ancient world?” The task at hand, he asserts, is to “find the ancient grape varietals and understand the ancient winemaking.” Drori is collaborating with archaeologists, who have found grape seeds at ancient sites and his lab is performing genetic analysis and 3D laser scanning of the seeds to identify the varietals used to make wine in the Second Temple period.

Dr. Shivi Drori and a wine researcher discuss the properties of a sweet and strong “sun wine” made from an indigenous grape varietal in Ariel. (courtesy)

Dr. Shivi Drori and a wine researcher discuss the properties of a sweet and strong “sun wine” made from an indigenous grape varietal in Ariel. (courtesy)

He found more than 600 varietals growing in Israel, which after genetic analyses were narrowed down to 70 unique indigenous varietals. These varietals are growing at Drori’s laboratory and research winery, where his team is assessing their suitability for wine production. So far 20 varietals have the right sugar, color, acidity, and complexity, for quality wine production. I walk with Drori to his research winery, where he is experimenting with an indigenous red grape to make what he calls “sun wine.” This grape accumulates a very high level of sugar, and yields a smoky and raisiny red wine — with 16% alcohol and high residual sugar content. This is the style of wine he believes was produced in ancient times — one that could be transported easily and diluted to decontaminate water.

Dr. Shivi Drori examines a cluster of an indigenous grape varietal at his research winery in Ariel University. (courtesy)

Dr. Shivi Drori examines a cluster of an indigenous grape varietal at his research winery in Ariel University. (courtesy)

When I ask about biblical narratives, Drori says, “Telling stories is very nice, but high-end research makes the story more credible.” If he succeeds, the Israeli wine industry can say to the world: “Come and taste the wines of the Bible… and they are good!” Drori thinks biblical-era wine will also appeal to Christians around the world, who can imagine they are drinking the same wine Jesus did at the Last Supper.

Regardless of religious narratives and contested territory, the West Bank area north of Jerusalem is producing innovative and world-class wine. But the wineries are a mixed bag, motivated by a combination of biblical prophecy, oenological excellence, and the determined claim for territory. The winemakers I met voiced a spectrum of views, from pacifism, connoisseurism, marketing savvy, to messianic conviction. While the political future of the West Bank area remains uncertain, in the years to come we can expect this group of winemakers to make excellent wines and tell powerful stories.