Wineries Spring Up Across Israel

A wine culture is springing up around Israel, which now boasts more than 200 wineries.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

I don't want to knock Manischewitz, but let's just say it's no Chateauneuf-Du Pape. Well, go to Israel and you may be drinking fine wine on Shabbat or on any other day. The winemaking industry is booming there, with close to 200 Israeli wineries now producing 50 million bottles each year. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

(Soundbite of museum grounds activity)

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Hundreds of Israelis stroll the grounds of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, wine glass in hand. Representatives of Israeli wineries are offering tastes and explanations. The crowd is mixed--young, old, secular, religious--and everyone is drinking wine. For a $10 entrance fee, each patron receives a glass and as many tastings as he wants.

Reuven Rubin, who is in charge of wine tastings for the Golan Heights Winery, says there has been a revolution in Israeli wine culture over the past 15 years. He said before then, Israelis knew almost nothing about wine and preferred the heavy, sweet wine often used for the Friday night Sabbath blessings.

Mr. REUVEN RUBIN (Golan Heights Winery): The knowledge in the last 15 years, it's unbelievable. It just went up, you know, like a rocket in the sky. It's very nice to see, you know, people--the interest, it's so high.

GRADSTEIN: The Golan Heights Winery is at least partly responsible for the new wine culture in Israel. It opened in 1984, 17 years after Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria. It now produces more than five million bottles a year. Its more expensive wines have won dozens of prizes and often have a price tag to match.

Wine has been made in this region since ancient times. Wine critic Jonathan Livny(ph) says the climate is perfect.

Mr. JONATHAN LIVNY (Wine Critic): We have a lot of sunshine, very good soil, extremely good conditions in some higher areas in Israel, very hot, actually, during the day, cool in the evenings. We even have places where there's a very long and cold winter, which is good for the grapes as well.

GRADSTEIN: At the boutique Chateau Golan Winery(ph), winemaker Uri Hetz gives visitors a tour of the vineyards.

Mr. URI HETZ (Chateau Golan Winery): And these are the wine grapes, and you can see the difference in size of the cluster, OK? So that's basically a cluster.

GRADSTEIN: Hetz, who trained in California and Oregon, says he grows 11 different varieties of grapes and the winery produces 50,000 bottles a year. He says wine consumption in Israel has gone up recently, from four liters per person per year to seven liters per person. However, that doesn't come close to the 56 liters per capita the French drink.

A few miles away at the Dalton Winery, bottles are being labeled. This state-of-the-art winery in the upper Galilee has gone from producing 50,000 bottles per year to 600,000 bottles, a third of which is exported.

Winemaker Na'amam Walim(ph) says Israelis are now willing to spend money for good food and wine. They're also characteristically impatient.

Ms. NA'AMAM WALIM (Winemaker): People in Israel are looking for new things all the time. They make you--`OK.'

(Soundbite of knuckles rapping on wood)

Ms. WALIM: `Enough with the Carbonnieux. What's new?' So they are looking for new varieties. So it's not really that difficult to introduce new wines.

GRADSTEIN: Wine critic Livny sees the newfound Israeli interest in wine as a way to escape the complicated politics of Israel, at least for a while.

Mr. LIVNY: Drinking good wine is a way of--and appreciating good wine is first of all appreciating that life is not only the political situation but there's lots of things around it, and Israelis want to be normal human beings; live regular lives. Regular lives nowadays include wine as well.

GRADSTEIN: Linda Gradstein, NPR News.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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