My friend Linda and I were hiking along the trail by the nearby village of Solelim, chatting and trying to keep my labrador, Na’ala, out of trouble (she rolls in every cow poop and splashes in every stream). We took in the gorgeous natural beauty around us; a gnarly oak forest, colorful spring flowers, lizards, butterflies and birds galore, and the occasional dugout cave in the limestone.
“Linda”, I said, “Did you know that many of these hills have ancient wine presses carved into the limestone bedrock?”
“Really?” she answered, “I didn’t know that”.
Now, I don’t know if she does this on purpose, but being the good friend she is, Linda always sets me up to tell the history of this hill or that ancient site. And she listens patiently. That’s what friends are for.
So I started telling her about the ancient wine production that flourished in the Lower Galilee during the Roman and Byzantine times.
When the Romans expelled the Jews from Judea and Jerusalem in the 1st and 2nd centuries and forbade their return, many of the Jewish people migrated north and settled in the Galilee. They eventually lived side by side with the Roman soldiers, developing friendships and business relationships in many small villages and larger mixed towns. When the Byzantine Empire took control of the land in the 4th century, the Jews continued living among the growing Christian population until the conquest of the Muslim empire in 640 c.e.
The Jews have always used wine as part of their religious rituals. Vineyards are ubiquitous in the Bible; Noah planted the first vineyard, Micah’s vision of peace was when one sat under his vine and fig tree, grapes are one of the seven special agricultural species of the Land of Israel, and don’t forget Moses’ spies returning from scouting the Promised Land with a huge cluster of grapes. The Hebrew word for wine, ya’een, is mentioned 141 times in the Bible!
Moreover, wine was widely consumed by all ancient Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent peoples; Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans alike. The alcohol in the wine killed the bacteria in the otherwise fetid water they drank. The wine was diluted with water and due to its short production time, contained only around 4% alcohol.
Romans believed wine to be an essential daily necessity and made it available for everyone: slaves, peasants, legionnaires, women and aristocracy. In fact, Roman citizens (and Jews) consumed a liter of wine per day!
Therefore, as the Jewish and Roman population of the Galilee grew, so did their need for wine. Lots of it! Wine production was a major local industry and was exported to the rest of the Roman Empire, providing jobs, giving growers and merchants needed business and trade opportunities.
Hundreds of vineyards were cultivated in the hills of the Galilee, and each vintner needed a place to crush the grapes and ferment the juice. Theses wine presses, some small enough for one vineyard, others large shared by several vineyards, were carved into the limestone bedrock.
As I was jabbering away to Linda about Galilean ancient wine making, we came upon a couple walking towards us on the trail.
“Are you coming from the ancient wine press?” they asked.
“What wine press? Where? Here?”
And lo and behold, they led us a few paces off the trail to a most magnificent Roman-Byzantine era wine press at the top of the hill, complete with two liquid gathering vats, and a beautiful mosaic covered grape crushing floor.
We find hundreds of ancient wine presses in Israel today, from the Negev desert in the south to the Golan Heights in the north. Many of these are located close to my home in the Galilee.
For example, there is one among the ruins of Usha, a village that served as the first Galilean stop for the Sanhedrin in the 1st and 2nd centuries.
And there is also one located just a few steps from my home, on the Kibbutz Hannaton hill!
What is even more exciting is that not only does Kibbutz Hannaton have its own ancient Roman-Byzantine wine press, but it is also the home of Jezreel Valley Winery.
My friends Jacob Ner-David and Yehuda Nahar followed their dream of reconnecting with the land and renewing the ancient Jewish tradition of wine making by founding a new “start-up” boutique winery that is already winning prizes.
‘Recently acknowledged by the Terravino Wine competition with a silver medal (RedBlend 2012), the Jezreel Valley Winery wines have already been featured in leading restaurants in Israel with the most discerning wine lists, as well as served to visiting delegations from all over the world.’
I love the fact that Jacob and Yehuda purposefully chose to use grapes with a unique Israeli story for their flagship wine, the RedBlend.
The Argaman variety was developed in the Weizmann Institute in Israel in the 1990’s, making it a ‘sabra’ (Israeli born) grape. Jezreel Valley Winery is the only Israeli boutique winery that chose the Argaman as its main varietal.
The Syrah originates from southern France and is perfectly suited for Israel’s Mediterranean climate.
And the Carignan? This Mediterranean variety was introduced to the Land of Israel at the end of the 19th century, just as the modern Israeli wine industry was in its infancy. It gave high yields cheaply and became the backbone varietal used to make the thick, sweet, sacramental wines produced for so many years by Israel’s major winery, Carmel Mizrahi.
As the Israeli wine industry underwent a quality revolution in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Carignan vineyards were slowly neglected, many of them uprooted and replanted with more sophisticated varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
However, about twenty years ago, vintners noticed that the abandoned Carignan vineyards were yielding less clusters but the quality of the grape had greatly improved. Once abandoned and left to die, the Carignan grapes made an amazing comeback!
The Carignan varietal once used solely for sacramental wines in Israel is now being used to create prize winning, world quality wines. Wow!
Jacob and Yehuda have built Israel’s first successful ‘start-up’ winery, now offering all of us wine and Israel aficionados an opportunity to partner with them in this venture.
The story of wine making in Israel today is a continuation of an ancient tradition, renewing the old, returning to the roots, reconnecting with the land.