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Domaine Herzberg: Aged to Perfection

A transplanted horticulture finds a new home in Israel
Illustrative. A vineyard in the West Bank. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
Illustrative. A vineyard in the West Bank. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

I guess out of concern that I would get a little dirty, or maybe even stumble along the way, Max looked me up and down with a raised brow and asked, “Are you all right walking through the vineyard a bit? I want to show you my Malbec vines.” I scoffed. “Working in agriculture myself, my wife can attest to the unforgiving stains I pick up on my clothes,” I told him, snobbishly. But even more absurd to me was the fact that Max was questioning my physical capabilities, when he is nearly three times my age. I laid my arm on his shoulder as if he needed my help to get along; Max opened the gate and, within a few strides, I found myself struggling to keep up with this ageless man in a white baseball cap.

Max was born in France, where, in his day, he explained, “Every young man was taught three things: how to knot a necktie, how to play bridge, and how to drink wine.”

“It would be pas nisht to bring a pretty girl to a fancy restaurant and not know which wine would pair best with the food,” he told me. Arriving in Israel shortly after The Six Day War, Max came down with an agonizing case of culture shock trying to accustom himself to drinking Manishevitz and choosing between only two types of cheese.

Although his French palate was suffering, Max became a well-respected professor at Tel Aviv University and began pioneering the biotech industry in Israel. After many years of managing innovative companies and launching successful start-ups, Max decided, at the noble age of 65, “I want to start doing what I want to do.”

Having always had a deep love for wine, when Max gazed out at the young orange orchard adjacent to his home, he couldn’t help but envision the lush wine grapes that had grown in their place centuries before. It was clear to Max what he wanted to do, but like any good Jewish man, he had to run it by his loving Tunisian wife. And like any loving Tunisian wife, she said, “absolutely not.” Max pleaded with her, promising he would start with only one of the twelve dunams of their Judean Foothill backyard. To which she responded flippantly, “Do what you want. I will have no part in this.”

With permission granted, Max went off to acquire some skills and traditional techniques from an old friend in the Bordeaux region of France. “You can’t force anything anywhere,” Max told me, matter-of-factly. “Bordeaux is Bordeaux, and Israel is Israel.” Max explained that any attempt to make Israeli wine taste like a Bordeaux is a dangerous manipulation of the grapes. “The most important job of a winemaker,” Max claimed, “is not to ruin the grapes.”

As these stories tend to go, one dunam quickly became twelve, the neighbor’s old chicken coop became a  barrel room, and, most importantly, it was just a matter of time until Max’s wife couldn’t help but adore his delicious rosé.

Aside from being a gifted vintner and a wonderful host, Max is an exceptional prankster. When a pretentious fine wine connoisseur came to visit the winery, Max served him a glass of one of his wines. The wine connoisseur made a sour face upon taking his first sips of Max’s wine and exclaimed, “This, this is not wine.” Max apologized profusely, promising the next glass poured would be that of a much higher quality reserve wine. He went back into the kitchen and poured that same wine into a new glass and placed it on the table in front of his guest. The connoisseur lifted the glass, sniffed, took a swig, and began smiling from ear to ear. “Now that is what I’m talking about,” he exclaimed, banging the table with his fist. “This is a wine.” Max made his best poker face, bursting inside with the excitement of telling his wife what had happened.

Shortly after Max had completed planting the final third of his vineyard with Malbec grapes, a friend of his who is a prominent scholar of agriculture came for a visit. “Are you crazy?” the scholar asked rhetorically. “Malbec grapes are planted only at altitudes above 600 meters — you are barely at sea level.” Max shrugged and answered, “I wanted to plant Malbec, so I planted Malbec.” Years later, the friend ventured back to Max’s vineyard to see how the vines had developed. Peering through the perfectly trellised rows of green vines, the beautiful inky, dark, thin-skinned grapes stared back at him with pride. His face about as red as the grapes, the scholar looked at Max and said, “Seems these Malbecs didn’t read my book.”

After spending some quality time with Max, it became evident that it wasn’t only the Malbec vines that didn’t read “the book.” Starting a winery at the age of 65 after an extremely successful career in biotech, he is still doing almost everything himself ten years later. Max lives according to his own set of rules, and it seems that even the grapes learned a thing or two from him about rising beyond the expectations of your given condition. Tasting and speaking with Max was an inspiration. I can only hope that his ambition and youthful energy rubbed off on me as much as it has on his wine.

Tasting: Coteaux de Sitrya Malbec 2011herzberg

“Malbec is a real man,” Max told me as he opened the bottle. Although small amounts are commonly added to traditional blends, the production of 100 percent Malbec only started in Israel over the past few years, and Max’s was one of the first. I peered into my glass skeptically, noticing the color of the wine to be a quite light ruby red. Most of the Malbecs that I had remembered enjoying in the past were a much darker shade of deep purple. Quickly reminding myself that Max’s malbecs didn’t “read the book,” I curiously started my tasting.

Sure enough, just like Max, this wine was not what it seemed to be. Full of long lasting, perfectly balanced, vibrant flavors, this wine is truly a lesson in Malbec production to the rest of the country.

Open this bottle over dinner with family, listening to Bill Evans Trio’s “Sunday at the Village Vanguard,” or Tim Buckley’s “Happy Sad.” Definitely give Max a visit at Moshav Sitria.

About the Author
Born and raised in Chicago, Uri is now an Israeli farmer, living in Gush Etzion with his wife, Debbie and his daughter, Rakiya. When he is not farming, you can find him tasting wine with good food and even better company. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments you might have at:
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