As Jews around the world prepare to drink wine in honor of Passover observance, the winemakers at the Golan Heights Winery feel proud of the quality revolution they continue to lead in the world of kosher wine.
On Passover, Jews are commanded to drink four glasses of wine. While biblical passages don’t elaborate on what type of wine, nowhere does it say it must be viscous and cough-syrupy sweet like kosher wines of old.
Israel’s first commercial grapes came from Baron Edmund de Rothschild, who sent varietals from France in the late 1800s to help Jewish pioneers gain a foothold in the Holy Land. Today, Israel is home to more than 150 boutique and 16 industrial wineries—though not all kosher. Award-winning wineries produce kosher wines that compete with the world’s best quaffs. And the place where that happens most is the Golan Heights Winery in Israel’s north.
Kosher winemaking didn’t come of age until the 1980s, when California technology, Israeli high-tech farming and the pluck of young entrepreneurs merged. “The development in the last 25 years has been astronomical,” says Daniel Rogov, wine critic for the Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz. “Things start[ed] with the Golan, and it continues with them.”
Created in 1983 by eight residential collectives near the town of Katzrin, the Golan Heights Winery generates 15 varieties on three labels—for a total goal of 450,000 cases of wine in 2007. Its wines win prizes—and not just among kosher competitors.
Courtesy Golan Heights Winery
The Golan’s vineyards thrive in volcanic soil ranging from rocky and shallow to deep, red loam on breezy plateaus. Beyond symmetrical rows rise the mountains, over which the wind seems to speak.
Rabbi Sholom Aharonson walks among the Golan Heights Winery’s vines and barrels, ensuring that every step meets religious requirements; certification comes from three governing rabbinic bodies. For a small producer, certification can be too costly, which explains why many Israeli wineries are not certified kosher, even if their processes are.
The Golan Heights Winery spends August to November harvesting around-the-clock, says Ella Shtebel, who has worked in the visitor’s center for 18 years. To tend to the 1500 acres during harvest, the winery operates 24-hours-a-day, so production workers work 12-hour shifts, except during the Sabbath (Friday afternoon to Saturday night). The rest of the time it’s business-as-usual with daily tours except on the Sabbath and holidays. The winery employs 130 people, half working here and the rest in a mid-country distribution center.
Odem Vineyards is located in northern Golan. Courtesy Golan Heights Winery.
Does being a kosher certified winery present any issues? “The kosher issue almost never comes up,” says head winemaker Victor Schoenfeld, a graduate of the University of California-Davis. As an everyday part of the winery, being kosher is not an issue, as it is for the nonkosher wineries that must alter their processes to make them kosher.
Any wine can be kosher if production processes follow biblical guidelines. Because wine is sacred to many traditions, Jewish law says it can’t be sanctified by another religion. That means observant Jews handle every step of production, says Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division.
There are other requirements, too—like letting fields lie fallow for three years before harvesting the first grapes and leaving grapes untouched during sabbatical years. No animal products can be used in clarifying the wine, either. Because this rules out gelatin, egg whites or Isinglass (from non-kosher sturgeon), kosher winemakers employ a clay material called bentonite to pull suspended particles to the bottom of the barrel.
Most kosher wine is produced at non-kosher wineries, which must convert processes and seal tanks. The always-kosher status of the Golan Heights Winery enables its people to devote time and resources to finessing the process—with its network of 13 meteorological stations, vine spectral-imaging and “green” procedures like wind-power and increasing organic growing.
It’s an inspiring place to work, says Schoenfeld, “one of those lucky strokes of life.”