Wine Making in Israel: a short history of a winery

    January 2010            
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A Taste for Israeli Wine

By Jay Levinson

This is an appropriate time to look at Israeli wine. Today there are almost countless wineries in Israel --- both large and small, both old and new.

The History of Zion Wines

In 1848 Yitzchak Galin, the son of a Chassidic Jew who had immigrated to Tsfat thirteen years earlier, started a very modest wine business on Chevron street (today Ma'aleh Chaldieh street) in Jerusalem's Old City. Jews always needed sacramental wine, so commercial production seemed to be a promising venture. Rather than contending with Ottoman bureaucracy, he used a business name of an extended family member - Shor. Unbeknownst to this Karliner chassid, his upstart winery in rented space would burgeon a century and a half later into a strong series of companies producing wine and other alcoholic beverages.

People did not use street numbers. The store was "next to the public baths." It then expanded, adding a storage facility a couple of hundred meters away. As the winery family fondly relates, barrels of wine were stored next to one of the walls (an extension of the Kotel), so that no one would mistakenly touch the area.

Ronald Storrs, the Mandate governor of Jerusalem, had his private and very definite ideas of how Jerusalem should develop, and in 1925 a ban on all "industry" in the Old City took effect. The area was for residence and small retail stores only. The winery had to move out.

As happenstance would be, the owner of the Shor winery had just purchased a plot of land with a water source in the Beit Yisroel neighbourhood (adjacent to Mea Shearim) for a residence and small store. Don't fight with reality! Plans quickly changed. The owner moved elsewhere, and a winery was built. The underground water source was used for cooling and for the manufacture of non-wine alcoholic beverages.

In many respects the move was fortuitous. After the anti-Jewish riots of 1929 and 1936 there was no longer a Jewish presence on Chevron street. The Jews fled for their lives, some to the Jewish Quarter, but most to the New City outside the walls.

In the late 1920s Shor wines (there was virtually no grape juice in those days) became international. A large order for wine was received from Poland, but there was a condition. The Polish Jews wanted assurance that the Shor wines were kosher. In those days before formal supervision, the owners of the company went to the religious court of the time and secured a letter attesting that they are "G-d fearing Jews."

As business expanded, the company became too large, and in 1944 it split in two. One brother kept the wine business, and another brother dealt with vodka, arak, and the like. A wall was built to divide between the two businesses, and a door with the name Dr. Albert Abouchedid was erected at the new entrance. That door still stands today. Who was this doctor? No one knows. The door was bought second hand from a scrap-metal company!

The winery kept the name Shor, and the hard drinks operation took the name Arza after it eventually moved out (and went into the wine business as well). When the British came up with a new law - businesses could no longer have family names --- they adopted the brand, "Zion."

Elisha Shor joined his father as an accountant in the re-organized winery in 1944 while he was also learning in Etz Chaim Yeshiva, but those were difficult times. In August 1948 this Karliner chassid was fighting in the Palmach. On a day off and just outside the winery he walked a few steps behind his brother, a nephew, and another family member A Jordanian artillery shell fell, killing the three, but he was saved virtually unscathed. Elisha spent two years in the army, then started to work full time.

As Elisha relates, one of the famous Shor customers was Dr. Wallach, head of Shaarei Zedek Hospital and in earlier years an enthusiastic student of HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (1848-1932). Wallach trusted no one for the kashrut of wine (except for the Shor family, of course) --- not even his Shomer Shabbos driver. In the days before bottled wine, Wallach would arrive at the winery and personally supervise the transfer of wine from big barrels into tubes, and then into containers which he brought.

Even under Israeli rule times were difficult in Beit Yisrael. New zoning laws in the early 1950s meant fines and legal battles for the winery. Water was scarce (sold by ration tickets at one point), and as a result running the business was a challenge. But, there was nowhere to go until well after the Six Day War, when the winery was finally offered a six dunam plot of land in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone near Jerusalem. The company moved gradually from 1982 until 1986.

There are no compromises with kashrus. Supervision is by the Eida. Absolutely no water is added to either the wine or grape juice, nor is there grape concentrate.

What is in the old Beit Yisrael winery today? The water source has dried up. There is a storage area for sales to customers who want to buy directly, fearing that grocers might tamper with the kashrut of the wine. And much of the winery building has been renovated into a synagogue and kollel.

Times have changed. Grape juice, which once constituted about 5% of production, is now in much stronger demand. On the other hand, since the advent of synthetic vinegar for Passover use(kosher l'pesach), there are only minimal requests for wine vinegar.

In 2000 the company also decided to address the new wine market of charedi Jews. In addition to sweet wines, Zion now produces such varieties as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

When asked about the quality of wine, Yossi Shor (in charge of marketing) explained that grapes are brought specially from various parts of Israel during regular years and Spain during the last Shmitah (Sabbatical) year, and Cyprus before that. Taking pride in his company's product, he offered that knowledge is a good part of making wine, "It is impossible to make a good wine from bad grapes, but it is quite possible to make a bad wine from good grapes." Shor uses extensive controls to insure a superior product.


from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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