It is no secret that Yossi Yittach, owner of Katlav Winery produces some of the best wine Israel has to offer, but don’t make the grave mistake I did of calling him a winemaker.”I don’t make the wine,”Yossi quickly corrected me. “The wine makes itself, I am merely the conduit.”
Yossi loved his first career. He was a workaholic entrepreneur with his own architecture firm, which he referred to as “the Israeli high tech of the early 90s”. Although his office was within an arm’s reach of his home, he was rarely seen out of the office. “Everything seemed perfect,” Yossi boasted, “I was making great money and developing a prestigious reputation. The sky was the limit.”
Until one day a letter from the IDF arrived in Yossi’s mailbox calling him to report for a routine reserve duty. Over the years, Yossi had tried time and time again to exempt himself from laying that olive green uniform upon his fatigued middle-aged body, but after great efforts, it became clear that this time there was no way out. After packing up some personal belongings and saying goodbye to his family, Yossi reluctantly delegated his responsibilities amongst his staff and went off to base.
Without leave, atop a God-forsaken hilltop, Yossi was surrounded by rancid socks, cigarette butts, and regurgitated sunflower seed shells for about five weeks too many. He climbed out of his stale, green tent to breathe some fresh Galilean air when, suddenly, for the first time in his life, Yossi began to yearn.
“I was sure it was the many projects I had been in the midst of or my loyal employees that I would miss,” admitted Yossi in a quiet voice, “but it wasn’t. My heart ached to be home. I missed my family.”
At that moment, Yossi made one of the most extreme and courageous life decisions I have ever heard of. Yossi, picked up his phone and called his office. “I’ve decided to close the firm,” he announced to them. In less than a few minutes of conversation, Yossi had instructed his workers to finish whatever assignments they were working on, inform their customers, pack up their things, and shut down the office. Yossi would never step foot into the building again.
“As an infant, my mother would drip sweet wine off of her finger into my mouth,” Yossi recalled. “I was a very relaxed baby.” But that syrupy taste left a strong impact on Yossi and would guide him through this challenging time of change, to find his life’s passion — winemaking.
Yossi remembered a conversation he had shared with his former colleague at the firm whose traditional Persian mother had been making wine for many years. Yossi arranged to study winemaking under “The Persian Mamma” as he affectionately referred to her, and he never looked back.
“Opening a winery in my backyard was the best way to be at home while I followed my passion,” Yossi explained. Although drunk in the romance of starting his own winery, Yossi was well aware of the struggles that laid before him. “There were a few years I ran a nursery out of my home just to help make ends meet,” he said with a grin. With tremendous patience, exceptional skill, and extraordinary support from his wife, it was just a few years until Yossi’s wine received worldwide recognition, and the toys from the children’s nursery were replaced with wine barrels.
Modernizing the outdated Persian wine recipe – which included the archaic method of adding sugar to the barrel – to meet today’s standards was no simple task, but in no time, this Persian Mamma was loosening her harem pants and doing The Hora. Yossi’s ingenious touch of taking a primitive family recipe and filtering it through the sophistication and precision needed to be a part of Israel’s wine revolution is what makes Katlav Winery one of Israel’s leading wine producers.
As we opened bottles and drank together, Yossi told me stories about his children, their hobbies, and how he enjoyed “teaching them to drink”. I wondered to myself silently – had he not changed his life path, would he would still have been able to share those memories? Yossi is a remarkable individual, and listening to his wisdom and tales are only second to tasting his brilliant wine.
Tasting: Nes Harim 2012
Yossi chose to name this line of wines after the community in which he resides, “Nes Harim”. In recent years, the moshav has undergone many changes, creating a heterogeneous collage of residents from different ethnic groups, levels of religious observance, and socioeconomic backgrounds. This unusual mix of people is wonderfully represented through Yossi’s atypical blend of half merlot, and half petit verdot. Yossi claims that there is no other winery (that he knows of) in the entire world that produces this blend; similarly, he does not believe there is a community quite as diverse as Nes Harim.
When I asked Yossi how it dawned on him to create the “Nes Harim” line, he explained that he had no choice. Yossi had planted several plots of merlot grapes and had been producing, selling and exporting top of the line bottles of merlots all over the world. That is, of course, until the vintners’ nightmare of a movie “Sideways” was released in 2004. Minutes after the main character, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti uttered the words, “If anyone orders merlot I am leaving. I am not drinking F@#!ing merlot!” Yossi’s cases of merlot became utterly worthless.
With necessity being the mother of invention, Yossi needed to find some artistic idea that could breathe the life back into his unwanted merlot grapes – and fast.
In traditional wine grape growing regions, petit verdot grapes ripen long after the other more common varieties like cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Petit verdot is the “paprika” of traditional wine making, adding color and bringing out the other flavors. In warmer climates, like Israel, petit verdot grapes ripen quickly and can be found as the front runner, if not the one-man show, in many varietals of Israel’s top wineries, creating a Hungarian chicken paprikash like you’ve never seen before.
Yossi’s merlot and petit verdot blend provides a lush flavor that even an untrained palette could pick out as remarkably original. As complex and exciting as this bottle is, it is surprisingly easy to drink. If you are looking for a first class wine to enjoy with friends who might not be wine connoisseurs, but will notice a delicious wine if it smacked them across the face, this is a good choice. Pop this cork open on a comfortable couch with your feet up, playing either Dave Mathews Band’s “Under the Table and Dreaming” or The Band’s “Music from Big Pink”.
I cannot even begin to tell you how enjoyable it is to sit and talk over a cup of wine with Yossi. I encourage you to visit him at Katlav Winery in Nes Harim. If and when you do, I’d love to hear about it.Feel free to email me about your wine drinking experiences and with any questions you may have at firstname.lastname@example.org.