A California-born foodie lured to wine by its flavors, Victor Schoenfeld headed to Israel on a three-year contract 26 years ago and remains passionate about his role as Head Winemaker at Golan Heights Winery.
Why did you become a winemaker?
Winemaking was the intersection of a love of food—in which I include wine—and a desire to be a farmer and grow food. In the early 1980s winegrowing was one of the only agricultural fields…that focused on flavor and not on appearance and shelf life. When I first considered winegrowing and winemaking as a possible subject of study, something inside me clicked.
Where did you study winemaking?
I started at UC Santa Cruz in 1982 and transferred to UC Davis in 1984, with an intention of studying viticulture, which I started to do. After taking a year off to manage a vineyard in 1985 and 1986, I understood that to be in charge of the whole process; one also has to study winemaking. So in my fourth year of university, I changed my major to Fermentation Science, the name of the major at the time. I had to do an additional two quarters in my fifth year to get all the coursework done. I graduated in 1988.
When and why did you leave the U.S. for Israel?
In 1991, I was hired to take over the position I still have. At the time, I was living in Glen Ellen, California, working at Chateau St. Jean. I was hired on an initial three-year contract. I never would have dreamed I’d still be here after so many years. But I never dreamed the area had so much potential.
How many people are on your team? What is your management style with them?
We are six winemakers in addition to our viticulture and vineyard management team and lab team. All together we are 23. The winemakers work very much as a team, while each also specializes on a number of wines and subjects. I try to promote independent thinking, and my team knows that when they come to me, it is with a recommendation about what to do. I expect my team to be professional and “big picture” and to think about what they are doing and not to let routine and mechanics dictate what they do. With that, I try to nurture professional and personal development.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for Israeli wine in the global market?
I am extremely optimistic about Israeli wine in the global market. Recognition for our wines is constantly increasing. As a small producer (if Israel were a U.S. state, we would be number 45 in size), modest international success will be more than enough. And if the current trend continues, it is just a matter of time, as long as Israel keeps pushing quality forward, which is happening. Of course, there are some markets where politics confuse the matter, but my personal experience is that this phenomenon is generally overstated.
What has been your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?
We understood the extent of the problem of leafroll virus in Israeli vineyards earlier and more clearly than others. (Leafroll is a chronic, but not fatal vine virus.) We took steps to protect ourselves, especially the establishment of our own vine propagation block and vine nursery. And while we sounded the alarm, not that many people heard it. We should have raised more hell. While the Israeli wine industry is getting more and more recognition around the world, the industry would be in even better shape now if we had been more effective in getting the industry to internalize this big problem.
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