Renewing the Old – the story of wine making in Israel

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.

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Linda and Na’ala wait for me at the newly discovered ancient wine press. The site is dated to Roman and Byzantine times (1st to 6th centuries c.e.)

The grape-crushing platform, carved out of the limestone, sometimes had a mosaic floor like this one

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.

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One of the grape juice collecting vats in the wine press complex in Usha, evidence of a large wine making industry in the area

And there is also one located just a few steps from my home, on the Kibbutz Hannaton hill!

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The Hannaton wine press sits atop the hill, overlooking the Nazareth hills in the background

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.

Click here to meet Jacob and Yehuda and hear their story

‘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 Jezreel Valley Winery RedBlend, made from three varietals with an Israeli story

The Jezreel Valley Winery RedBlend, made from three varietals with an Israeli story

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.

Click here to learn more about their ‘start up’

crowd sourcing campaign

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.

L’Chaim !

 

 

 


 

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On dogs, caves and a gorgeous hike

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We have a great dog. We do! And we love her to pieces, although she sheds hair like there’s no tomorrow and she jumps on people (just to say hi and play, mind you) and she is as big as a horse and barks very loudly…

But most of all, Na’ala loves to go on hikes and dip and splash in every single puddle or stream she can find. She’s a lab mix, and labs love water!

And so, we aim to please her. And making her happy, makes us happy. Know what I mean?

One of Na’ala’s favorite hikes lately has been to the Aviv Stream canyon, up north near the border of Lebanon. The Aviv Stream spills into the Dishon Stream and eventually drains into the Jordan River in the Hula Valley.

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So today’s topic is a great hike in gorgeous northern Israel, one to be had with family,  friends, lots of photos and of course, your dog.

The start of the walk along Nahal (stream)Aviv is strikingly beautiful, as one walks along the dry river bed through a narrow canyon. As you may notice in my photographs, one of the reasons I mention our dear dog, Na’ala, is that she somehow managed to jump into most of my photographs that day, obviously wanting to be the center of attention. And so be it.

At the start of the hike along the Aviv canyon, one passes impressive karstic formations on either sides of the canyon walls. The karstic geological process, one by which rainwater dissolves and carves out the limestone, leaves interesting formations in the rock.

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In this instance, the rock formations on the right seem to depict ‘maidens’ carved into the canyon walls.

On the other side of the canyon, the hard limestone has been smoothed over and eroded by dripping rainwater, creating a striped, playful combination of colors on the walls.

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The karstic process also digs out and carves a variety of caves in the limestone rock. The Aviv canyon has impressive ones, some of which were inhabited in ancient times. Along the hike we can find a Byzantine era burial cave, with 10 ancient tombs and a decorated entrance. It is very possible this cave was used by the cave-dwellers who lived further down the canyon.

Walking along the marked trail, we arrive beneath the Hanya cave, sitting about a kilometer after the start of the hike, high up on the cliff, accessible by quite a steep, challenging climb. One need not climb up, but to do so is exhilarating!

Hanya Cave as seen from below

This natural cave was carved by humans into a three-storied habitat, where the upper floor has a number of rooms and windows that look over the beautiful valley.

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The trail continues down the stream bed, dotted with blooming flowers and trees. The next stop on the path are the Aviv caves, a large complex of caves that have been carved by nature and its human inhabitants, complete with water cisterns, rock-carved stairs, upstairs and downstairs apartments…

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It is very probable that Byzantine monks lived in these caves in their attempt for isolated meditation about 1500 years ago.  These inhabitants are probably the ones buried in the burial caves we passed an hour ago.  Not only did they create a very livable space in these caves, but they also carved out a wine press into the cliff!  Na’ala found the rainwater-filled, squeezed grape juice reservoir very entertaining. I was just hoping she wouldn’t fall over into the abyss below…

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Nahal Aviv eventually flows into Nahal Dishon, which drains into the larger Jordan River.  The walk along the Dishon is leisurely and we ended the trek a couple of kilometers downriver by the parking lot.

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A big thank you to dear friends,  Zvi and Linda, for suggesting this tiyul (trek, hike, trip) and accompanying us. It is a very satisfying hike; a little history, a little geology, a little adventure, some cave exploration, beautiful scenery, beds of blooming flowers, good friends and a happy pooch… what else can one ask for?

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Olives for a Better World

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Rish Lakish organic olive press… your destination

Picture this:

You are in the beautiful Lower Galilee and feel the need to get out to nature and walk among the lovely, green, oak filled  hills… not only that,  you want to end this leisurely hike in style.  Something different, something interesting, something educational and certainly tasty…

Well, do I have a suggestion for you!

Put on your  walking  shoes and head to Ha’Movil Junction, near Kibbutz Hannaton,  where you will pick up the Israel Trail for 4 mile scenic walk towards the village of Tzippori.  At this time of year, the blooming red, white and purple anemones, the wild irises,  wild orchids and lupines are spectacular.

As you walk in the Tzippori forest, you will pass a few ancient wine presses along the way.  As Christianity spread and Christian pilgrims frequented the Holy Land during the Byzantine times (4th – 7th centuries), the local valleys became dotted with vineyards.  The sacramental wine industry flourished and vintners crushed their grapes close to their vineyards, carving wine presses  from the ubiquitous limestone bedrock.

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Rabbi Yehudah Nasiah’s tomb

When you arrive in the village of Tzippori, you will come upon the grave site of Rabbi Yehudah Nasiah, president of the Sanhedrin in Tzippori from 235 – 265 c.e. His tomb is visited several times a year by believers asking for special favors.

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The rebuilt Crusader Church of St Anne

After a short visit to the tomb, one may wish to visit the Church of St. Anne, originally a Byzantine church built on the ruins of an earlier synagogue, destroyed during the Persian invasion of 614 c.e., rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century, destroyed by the Mamluks and finally rebuilt by the Franciscans in 1879.  Oh, and did I mention the two Argentinian monks who care for the chapel? Complex, I know, but so is this land.

But I have saved the best for last, because now you will end this wonderful hike with a visit to Rish Lakish, an eco-friendly, organic gem.

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800 yr old olive tree

Rish Lakish is a family-run olive press, where hand-picked olives are crushed using ancient and modern methods and their delicate oil extracted to make the most delicious olive oils I have ever tasted. The olives are picked from trees, (some dating back 800 – 1000 years!) surrounding the village of Tzippori and they  produce a variety of high-quality, cold pressed, kosher and organic olive oils.

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The olive press

What is there to learn about olive oil production? Plenty!

  • In order to improve the quality of the olive fruit, the Ancient Romans used to graft different types of olive branches to create new and better breeds.  We still do that today!
  • Olive trees grow in almost every kind of soil, making them the ideal fruit tree. The only soil they do not like is the swamp!
  • Suri olives make oil that is good for cooking; Nabali oil is delicious on salads; and the Rish Lakish specialty, rosemary infused olive oil, is absolutely incredible for cooking vegetables.
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The ‘green’ building was constructed of bales of hay, wrapped in layers of adobe mud. This small window shows one of the bales

The Rish Lakish olive press and small cafe are located in an  environmentally friendly, ‘green building’, that the Noy Meir family built of bales of hay and adobe mud. The menu  includes fresh, organic, vegetarian light meals and mouth watering tastings of their delicious olive oils.  One may purchase their olive oils and olive oil products in their small store, as well.

But best of all, the Rish Lakish olive oil press is involved in Olive Oil Without Borders, a three year project implemented by the Near East Foundation and funded by USAID, whose  subpartners include the Peres Center for Peace and the Palestinian Center for Agricultural Research and Development.  This project aims to strengthen grassroots, cross-border economic cooperation and to promote peace and reconciliation between Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

Dan Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, explains the project in this video as he visits Rish Lakish in December of 2012. 

Want to learn more?

The Noy Meir family, Rachel, Micha and Ayalah would love to host you at Rish Lakish. Visits can include organized tours of the olive groves, workshops about olive oil production and ‘green building’ and, a favorite of young visitors, olive picking during the harvest season of  October/November.

Bon Appetit!

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