Anyone rambling along the paths and byways of Israel these days, will come across a sign by the roadside, directing him to a family or boutique or industrial winery. These current day wineries are none other, than the most recent, in the long and fascinating list of various sized wineries from different periods, uncovered and revealed in archeological digs. At many sites throughout the country, ruins were found of large and small wine presses, from the simplest kind to the great and complex ones capable of large production. These are all remnants and indications of a magnificent wine-making culture which has continued to exist in the land for the last five thousand years, interrupted for short periods during rebellions, devastation and conquest.
At the Tel Jericho dig, five thousand year old and more grape seeds were discovered, evidence of the vineyards around the city. We have interesting documents recording that ancient viniculture. The goddess is included in a victory letter by Oni, Pharoah Pepi’s 1’s commissioner in Canaan: “And his soldiers destroyed the forts…and cut down the fig trees and vines” (2,375 BCE). And in the second one, of some five hundred years later, we find that the country “was a wonderful land…it grows figs and grapes and there is more wine than water.” This document was written by Shinoat , an Egyptian political refugee in the land of the Hittites, who is writing to Pharaoh for a pardon and the right to return to Egypt (1,950 BCE).
During the Biblical and Talmudic periods, a family’s property and status were evaluated by the area of olives for oil, figs for dried and bunched figs, and the vineyards for raisins and wine it possessed. The ancient presses of the pre-Bronze Age (3rd century BCE) were small and included a pressing area and a pit to collect the grape juice and its fermentation. Despite the wars and exiles, the increasing size of the country’s population forced a process which led to the growth of the presses, which were then enhanced, extraction installations utilizing a lever and weights were introduced and finally, during the Roman-Byzanteum period, screw presses.
Most of the presses were found in proximity to the vineyards or within them. The presses reached the apex of their development during the Roman-Byzanteum period when they became wineries which included storage shelves, fermentation pits, screw pressing units etc. These were built alongside the vineyard areas or in the residential area itself, or in the large farms of that period (of the nobility, the wealthy, the monastries or imperial estates).
The development of the wine presses and the scope of wine production from the earliest times were accompanied by trading activities, export and wide inter-country commerce. As examples of this we have the inscription “Carmel Press Material” imprinted on the amphora handle from the 3rd century BCE, recovered near Dor-Nachsholim; or the testimony of Herod “Twice a year wine is sent to Egypt…and also from Phoenicia” (fifth century BCE). Wines which were known to be of good quality and mentioned, were the wines of Abel, HaArbel, Nablus, Lod, Caesaria and Halutza (Osevius, 3rd century BCE, Hyronimus 4th Century BCE).
When the Moslems conquered the country, the presses were destroyed, wine production was forbidden, grape cultivation was confined to making raisins, or grape honey or as a fresh fruit. In the event that the Moslem ruler was enlightened and tolerant, he would allow the production of wine, but limited to its use by the Christian and monastic residents. During the time of the Crusader conquest and the establishment of their kingdom, wine production was restored for a relatively short period which ended with the defeat of the Crusader regime by the Mamelukes of Egypt up until the foundation of Turkish rule in the country. The ban on making wine was absolute, except for home use and quantities needed for ritual use by the Christian and Jewish populations.
In mid 19th century, due to the pressure by European powers and the rights they had procured from the Turkish regime, the ban on wine-making was partially lifted. In 1848, several family wineries in Jerusalem were opened for producing wine, of which the only active winery still operating in Jerusalem is the one founded by Rabbi Shur (today this has evolved into four Shur family wineries – Shur Winery, the Cedars Winery, the Arzah Winery and the Mishor Edumim Winery). In 1870 Mikveh Israel and the Ephrat Winery of the Teperberg family were started, which even exported methylated spirits to Europe…in Mikveh Israel a training winery was established and the first vineyard of European grape variety was planted (they were Elicant Buche, Burdoleze, Petite Buche and Carignian).
With the establishment of the moshavot and the increase in immigration and settlement in the country, the permitted scope of wine-making was enlarged and as a result, modern vineyards were planted under the guidance of Baron Rothschild’s experts (Elicant Buche, Elicant Grenache, Cabernet Franc and Cabarnet Sauvignon, Carignian, White Muscat, Alexander Muscat and Sauvignion Blanc) and two wineries were founded, one in Rishon L”Zion (1882-1888) and the second in Zichron Yaakov (1889-1892). The Friedman family founded a winery in Petach Tikvah. In its last evolvement, this winery is a component of today’s Barkan Wineries. An additional winery was founded in Rehovot and named “Gat” (operating until 1934).
In the monasteries, which were established in those times, there were also commercial wineries; in the Carmizan Monastery of Bet Jalah (1885), the Latrun Monastery (1895) and others after them. The wineries in the moshavot suffered too from the Philoxera pest. This pest, which ruined most of the vineyards caused their uprooting and then the replanting of grapes grafted onto bases able to withstand the pest. The German immigration of the thirties brought expert agronomists here and also varieties like White Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Franc Colombere, Pinot Noir and others, of which there remains the the Franc and the Chenin Blanc.
At the creation of the State there were 14 wineries, but since then many more have been added. At first the Eliaz Winery, which became the Binyamin, was founded in 1951 in Benyamina. Simultaneously the Zion-Ashkelon Wineries of Segal were founded in Ramleh. The vineyards and wineries prior to the establishment of the state, operated according to the traditional French systems introduced by the experts of the Baron in the latter part of the 19th century. When the state was founded, many traveled to the USA to study agriculture and upon their return, brought with them new technologies, modern varieties (e.g. Emerald Riesling, Ruby Cabarnet etc) and a new awareness of quality wines. The formation of the “Israel Wine Institute” in 1957 brought a change which was reflected in the management of vineyards and the operation of wineries.
The transformation occurred in 1983, when the Golan Wineries, a modern installation based on updated technologies and a “New World” approach, was founded. Golan Wineries’ success resulted in the other wineries making improvements and adopting many of the American management systems in the vineyards and wineries. Later came the commercial family wineries (Tishbi-Baron, Dalton) followed by many boutique wineries. Today there are over 150 active wineries both small and large, where the competition existing between them, increases to a great extent the selection of types of wine and raises the quality of Israeli wines to a standard hitherto unheard of. Export overseas which was begun by the Ephrat Winery in the 19th century as a minor drizzle, has broadened lately, because of the quality of the wines, and no less because of the prizes and medals won at international wine fairs.