A Vineyard Blooms in the Negev

“It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested,” David Ben-Gurion said more than 50 years ago.

Israel’s first prime minister expected others to follow after he moved into Israel’s southern desert in 1954, when he was still in office. He would live there for nearly two decades, but few would move to join him.

In recent years, Israel’s government has taken up the cause and been encouraging people to leave increasingly congested cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to move to Be’er Sheva and Sde Boker. But even today the prospect holds as much appeal for most Israelis as moving to Bakersfield would for many Angelenos.

Moshe and Hilda Zohar, however, are among the Negev pioneers. The couple came to the desert more than 10 years ago with a dream — to grow wine grapes on the desert’s ancient terraces.

“What you see here is the result of one family and our decision to come here with our three kids. Everything you see here we built ourselves. We created something from nothing,” Moshe Zohar said.

What you’ll find at the Nahal Boker Vineyard Farm, located off Route 40 near Sde Boker and Ein Avdat National Park, is a vineyard on about 25 acres that’s set back against the area’s yellowish-gray loess hills. There’s also a restaurant, The Wine House, along with a wine-tasting bar, cabins for a new bed and breakfast, and horses for desert excursions. Nearby activities include jeep and hiking tours, archery, mountain biking, thermal baths and camel riding.

In recent years, the Zohars have also begun partnering with Ben-Gurion University to expand the farm’s offerings — including olives, lemons and pomegranates — all of which are grown organically. While life in the Negev isn’t easy, Moshe Zohar said, the lack of moisture and humidity has the added benefit of making the area inhospitable for most pests and diseases.

“After 10 years of growing grapevines, I realize that this location has certain added advantages,” he said. “Even in places that do organic growing, when they have a problem they end up using some kind of pesticide or some kind of organic system that’s more supportive to the environment. But I’m blessed with this gift of my location. I really haven’t had that issue and haven’t had to confront it.”

Zohar, 48, has the quintessential look and laid-back attitude of a California surfer — tanned skin, long hair and few days’ scruffiness. Born in the southern costal city of Eilat, he spent most of his 20s and 30s working at kibbutzim and moshavim, growing produce like tomatoes and melons.

When he settled in the Negev with his wife and three children in 1999, Zohar said he did so with no outside funding. Instead, the family worked hard and slowly added to the farm’s offerings each year.

“We’ve added a bed and breakfast, and the wine has come into its own,” he said. “We can breathe deeply.”

In 2003, the couple built the restaurant, which serves Italian and French fare and such entrées as beef bourguignon and coq au vin. Using the curve of two Quonset huts, the restaurant’s interior is designed to look like a split wine barrel. Wooden tables and handmade ceramic light fixtures compliment the restaurant’s wood-lined walls and ceiling, and an ornate window overlooking the desert contributes to the intimate ambiance.

In addition to its own wines — made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, which are bottled at Barkan Winery in central Israel with a label that reads “From the grapevines of the Negev” — Nahal Boker also sells locally produced olive oil, olives and cheeses.

Accommodations, which were added to the farm in 2007, include three family lodges, a cabin for couples that runs about $165 for a weekend and a tent for groups or families of up to 20 people.

Since water is scarce in the Negev, any used in the lodge or cabin bathrooms is diverted to irrigate nearby herbs and flowers.

Water scarcity continues to be the biggest issue facing the farm. The water available during the April to August growing season tends to be brackish, which isn’t good for most crops.

“One of our problems is we don’t have enough water to expand. Also, the soil tends to be salty, but that we can deal with that and the water issue,” Zohar said.

Fresh water from flash floods irrigate the vineyards in the winter, but Ben-Gurion University biotechnology professor Zeev Weisman is looking at methods to help dilute the water’s salinity, and also suggests planting crops that can thrive in brackish water, like olives and pomegranates.

Weisman said these crops will likely ripen earlier in the Negev, which will enable the Zohars to get organic pomegranates to the European market before the regular season starts, thus ensuring less competition and better income potential.

“They are the real pioneers of this area,” Weisman said. “Agriculture will move from the center, a little bit to the north and most of it to the south. This is the future. [David] Ben-Gurion said it from his dreams 50 years ago. We can see that he was much smarter than we thought in those days. This is the only remaining piece of land that can be used.”

For more information about Nahal Boker Vineyard Farm, call 011-972-52-682-2930 or visit http://www.hnbw.net.


Rogov’s Puts Israel on Oenological Map


At a seder last year, the host put out a few bottles of Israeli wine.

“Oh, kosher wine,” one of the host’s relatives observed with flared nostrils and a raised brow, “Yum.”

The topic of Israeli wines — not all kosher wines are Israeli, not all Israeli wines are kosher — can seem like a meeting place that’s made specially for snobs and rubes to share. To paraphrase a certain White House Cabinet member, a lot of people don’t know what they don’t know or don’t know what they think they know. “Kosher” triggers associations with Manischewitz, the syrupy, sacramental stuff found in the fruit and jug wines section.

In fact, Israel has followed the global trend of crafting quality wine and is now regarded by wine experts as an up-and-comer. The industry is technologically modern, with state-of-the-art facilities and know-how. It’s also growing aggressively, with more than 120 wineries, an implausibly high number given Israel’s small population. To put that in perspective, if Israel were a U.S. state, it would rank fifth.

“Israeli wines are on a steep upward curve,” said wine writer Rod Smith. “The country has the conditions, especially in the Golan Heights with its cool high-altitude sites, varied exposures, and volcanic soils. Israeli growers and winemakers are among the most progressive and cosmopolitan in the world. They have the financial backing, too, so all the parts are in place.”

The latest part is “Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines 2005,” the first comprehensive English-language book on the subject.

Rogov has long played the role of food and wine ambassador for Israeli tourism, and readers have consulted him for wine and restaurant choices for more than 35 years in his columns in Ha’aretz and the International Herald Tribune and on his Web site. He has, and is, a big personality, who knows the skinny on seemingly every chef, restaurateur, supplier and wine expert in Israel.

The guide aims to put Israel on the oenological map a la John Platter’s South African Wine Guide or annual Pocket Wine Guides by Britain’s Hugh Johnson and Australia’s Oz Clark. Rogov’s endeavor is handsomely published, and its portable format underscores its usefulness for wine-travelers.

The book includes a fine introduction with a history and an overview of the subject, then reviews vineyards and their varietals using the convention of stars and the 100-point ratings system, with evaluations according to the flavor wheel. Although wine talk can be generally hard to understand even for experienced wine drinkers (What, after all, is the difference between an 86 and an 87? What is an 87, anyway?), Rogov can be amusing. Of one lowly regarded bottle, sarcasm overflows.

“Drink up,” he writes, proving how brevity is wit.

The introduction, though, is worth the book’s $14.95 price. For all the effete and inaccessible talk that wine sometimes seems to invite, wine is fundamentally about the land. Wines’ roots in the Land of Israel extend back to ancient times, and they laid the foundation for the Zionist enterprise. The Torah notes that Noah planted the first vineyard, and how Moses’ spies in Canaan brought back immense clusters of grapes. Deuteronomy lists wine among the blessings the Promised Land will yield. Ezekiel even makes reference to wine-growing methods, specifically trellises winemakers used to train vines. There’s a considerable archeological record to back up the Bible, too, with remains of ancient wine presses and other wine-making paraphernalia across the entire Land of Israel. The only interruptions of wine production were during certain periods of Muslim rule, since Islam forbids alcohol.

That vines, like people, need strong roots was a metaphor that wasn’t lost on the earliest pioneers in Palestine, the Chalutzim, who saw a prospect to meet the Jewish world’s demand for kosher wine. In 1882, with backing from the Baron Edmund de Rothschild, who owned the Chateau Lafite, one of the most esteemed wineries in Bordeaux, the early settlers planted vineyards in Rishon LeZion. Rothschild sent experts, supplies and grape varieties from Europe and funded wineries in Rishon, as well as in Zichron Ya’akov, which opened in 1890. Heat killed the first harvests, followed by a plague of insects, and the ventures failed. Even so, Rothschild subsequently organized a collective to manage the two wineries in 1906 called, Carmel Mizrahi — and that entity dominated the Israeli wine industry through the 1980s.

Quality improved dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially with the rise of dozens of boutique and artisanal producers. Some produce fewer than 1,000 bottles, some more than 100,000 bottles. The challenge for small wineries is distribution, and various efforts are under way, including one by Carmel, to organize boutique producers and help them reach a wider market. The big producers, notably Carmel and Golan Heights Winery, dominate shelf space in the metropolitan Philadelphia region. In New York, selection is somewhat better.

The question now is the future, and where, given the competition, Israeli wine will go from here. Because it’s Israel, wine also faces political pressures, especially because some of Israel’s best wine-growing lands are in disputed areas, most notably the Golan Heights but also in the hills of Judea.

That aside, Rogov looks to the niche success of places such as Sicily and the Penedes region of Spain, which succeeded by appealing to wine drinkers in search of novel, high-quality wines, as examples Israeli winemakers should look to for guidance. As niche wines, Rogov writes, Israelis wines “will move off those shelves limited only to kosher holdings and begin to appear in a special Israeli section. Their appeal to the broader population will come form their unique qualities, reflecting their Mediterranean and specifically Israeli source…. Those that prove their excellence will find themselves in greater demand by both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.”

“Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines” is available online at ” target=”_blank”>www.tobypress.com/rogov.