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.

usha winepress

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!


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 !





An Insignificant Hill

An Insignificant Hill

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The view from my front porch

Looking out my front porch, I enjoy oaks and pines, vast olive groves, a beautiful Beit Netofah valley floor checkered with shades of green and brown agricultural fields,  two mountain ranges dotted with Bedouin villages and a small, green hill in the middle of it all.

In Israel, however, one can never make assumptions or think that something seemingly benign can’t have deep, historical meaning. Like this green hill. Right outside my window. The insignificant one.

Tel Hannaton may seem like a nothing hill, but the history of this artificial mound (tel) goes back over 3500 years! It happens to be located at an important crossroad; on the Via Maris, the ancient road leading from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and on the road from Damascus to Akko, an important port on the Mediterranean Sea.

We first learn of Tel Hannaton in the El-Amarna letters, 380 clay tablets (written in Akkadian and found in excavations in Egypt), used as correspondence between the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (who eventually called himself Akhenaten) and Burnaburiash, king of Babylon.  Tablet number 8  translates like this:

To Akhenaton,  King of Egypt, my brother, to say:
Thus speaks Burnaburiash King of Babylon, your brother.
I am well. To your country, your house, your women,
your sons, your ministers, your horses, your chariots,
many greetings. I and my brother have signed a treaty,
and I spoke thus: Like our fathers, who were friends, we will be friends.
And now, my merchants who traveled with Ahutabu delayed in Canaan for business.
After Ahutabu set out on his way to my brother and in the town of Hanatun which is in Canaan,
Shumda Son of Baluma and Shutatna Son of Shartum from Akko
sent their men there. They beat my merchants and stole their money.
Ahutabu , whom I sent to you, is before you. Ask him and he will tell you.
Canaan is your country and its kings are your slaves, in your country I was robbed.
Bind them and return the money they robbed.
And the men who murdered my slaves, kill them and avenge their blood.
Because if you do not kill these men, they will again murder
my caravans and even my ambassadors, and the ambassadors between us will cease.
If this should happen the people of the land will leave you.

Don’t know about you, but I find it spectacularly fabulous that a Babylonian king wrote to an Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh about wanting his money back because his merchants were robbed outside my front porch about 3500 years ago. “And if you don’t give me my money back”, he states, “I won’t be your friend no more!”

Tel Hannaton has several more claims to fame:

  • It is mentioned in the Bible (book of Joshua 19:14) , as being the northern border of the lands of the tribe of Zebulon.
  • Tiglath Pileser III

    Tiglath Pileser III

    Our dear friend Tiglath Pileser III(732 b.c.e), King of Assyria, carved the stories of his victorious military campaigns on the walls of his grand palace in Nineveh and boasted that he conquered and plundered five Canaanite cities, the fifth one being… you guessed it, Hannaton!

  • The Greeks, the Jewish priestly families, the Romans, all left their mark in the area
  • The Crusaders built an agricultural farm at Hannaton in the 13th century, during their 2nd Kingdom of Jerusalem.  It is the ruins of this Crusader building that are still visible under the ground.

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    Entrance to the underground dining hall at Tel Hannaton, exhibiting typical Crusader arches and masonry

  • The Mamelukes first, then the Ottomans turned the Crusader structures into a caravanserai, a roadside inn where travelers and their animals could rest and recover from the day’s journey.
  • Tel Hannaton is called Tel Badawiyya in Arabic, from the Arabic word for Bedouin, nomad.

Tel Hannaton was partially excavated in the 1980’s but has remained untouched for many years.

Today, school children on educational seminars at the Hannaton Educational Center visit and learn about the site, and it also gets visits from occasional curious families and hikers.

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Israeli school children on a visit to the underground ruins of a Crusader farm building on Tel Hannaton

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Typical Crusader architecture windows provide light in the underground room

But for me, its a constant companion, the ancient hill outside my front window.

Tel Hannaton

Tel Hannaton