Settlement winery touts vino with a biblical vintage
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Settlement winery touts vino with a biblical vintage

Situated a stone's throw from Ramallah, Psagot doesn't blush over its politics, ancient terraces or evangelical pickers

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Psagot Winery's first home now serves as Yaakov Berg's house in the Mateh Binyamin settlement (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Psagot Winery's first home now serves as Yaakov Berg's house in the Mateh Binyamin settlement (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

It’s either the best or worst location for a winery.

With vineyards planted on the ancient limestone terraces 900 meters above sea level, the Psagot Winery creates earthy, mineral-rich wines with hints of Mediterranean herbs, wrote the late wine critic Daniel Rogov.

It’s also situated in the middle of the West Bank, butting up against the suburban edges of Ramallah’s El Bireh neighborhood.

The settlement is close enough to the Palestinian city that weekend guests could stay at the Ramallah Mövenpick and walk over.

None of that bothers Yaakov Berg, the entrepreneur who founded the winery back in 1998. In fact, the winery’s location in the heart of Israel’s biblical landscape is one of the details he likes to mention when showing off the winery’s visitor center overlooking the striking rock-strewn hills.

“This is where everything started,” he said. “The idea is to connect people to the place. Wine is part of Judaism; people think it was invented in France and Italy, but wine is Jewish and it started around here.”

The visitor center, just down the road from the settlement of Psagot, was built in conjunction with the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, which includes 42 settlements and illegal outposts in the southern hills of the West Bank. Psagot, a community of some 1,600 people, is the seat of the council.

Pinchas Wallerstein, the former director of the settlement movement’s umbrella organization Yesha Council, wanted there to be a center for Mateh Binyamin, said Eli Sales, Psagot’s export manager.

“A winery was the perfect anchor,” he said.

And so, a visit to the winery includes a look at a virtual glass map of Israel that drops down from the ceiling of one room, surrounded by individual screens with questions for visitors about the population, geography and history of the region.

It’s a little like “Jeopardy” for Judea and Samaria.

An oversized map of greater Israel serves as one of the activities in the Psagot visitor's center, where wine tasting isn't necessarily on the menu (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
An oversized map of greater Israel serves as one of the activities in the Psagot visitor’s center, where wine tasting isn’t necessarily on the menu (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Upstairs, the center’s tasting room overlooks the barrel room; the window that separates them also acts as a screen for a film about the winery that is rich in biblical imagery and references.

An entire visit can go by without a single taste of the wine. Still, the center offers a kind of staging ground for the winery, said Josh Hexter, one of the winery’s partners and its first winemaker. It’s often used as a venue where locals can host weddings and bar mitzvah parties.

“We get guests coming to their second cousin’s wedding, people who wouldn’t have necessarily tasted Psagot wines otherwise,” said Hexter.

The visitors center is an extension of the winery’s first home, a corrugated tin warehouse that was later turned into Berg’s rambling family home — now renovated and faced with rough, hewn stones.

His home is still an active part of the winery; besides the Shiraz vineyard behind the house, Berg and his wife, Naama, found a 2,000-year-old cave and ancient press in their backyard. It offers the perfect, dark, humid environment for barrels of Edom, their best-selling Bordeaux blend.

A bottle of a 2011 Psagot Edom, adorned with a copy of the ancient coin found in the cave behind Yaakov Berg's Psagot home (Courtesy Psagot Winery)
A bottle of a 2011 Psagot Edom, adorned with a copy of the ancient coin found in the cave behind Yaakov Berg’s Psagot home (Courtesy Psagot Winery)

An ancient coin found inside the cave became part of the winery’s marketing campaign, reproduced in the thousands and now attached to each and every bottle. The original coin is now part of the permanent exhibitions at Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum.

“People buy wine based on the bottle,” said Hexter. “The bottle sells.”

But those are all external details, he said. The wine also has to be good. Very good.

“You try to blend the old and the new,” he said. “Sure, the story is important. But even during lean times, you can’t skimp on quality.”

According to the critics, Psagot makes some good wines.

Rogov called it a “winery on the up and up,” back in 2009. He was a mentor of sorts to Hexter, who spent a lot of time with the late wine critic while earning a winemaker degree online from the University of California at Davis.

Eight Psagot wines won varying numbers of stars in last January’s annual French wine competition, 1001degustations.com, a wine site created by French wine producers.

The winery has also won accolades in Panama, England and the United States. And now it has a new winemaker, Ya’acov Oryah, who started the Midbar Winery in Arad and became known for his white wines made from grapes grown in the desert.

“We need to develop some good whites,” said Hexter.

Psagot was established by Berg with Hexter and Sales in 2003, who bottled just 3,000 reds after their first harvest. The winery grew slowly, reaching 50,000 bottles in 2007 and then developing new markets n a process of “organic growth, nothing outrageous,” said Hexter.

“The market was there and we could sell the wines,” he said. “We sell out almost every year.”

In the growing market of Israeli wines, selling 200,000 bottles annually is a feat.

For Psagot, as with most Israeli wines, most of the export market is in the US, and it’s primarily kosher consumers who buy its wines. Besides the tri-state metroplitan area on the East Coast, as well as Florida and Los Angeles, there are pockets of Psagot drinkers in Texas — Berg charmed them on a recent visit — and in Europe.

But Psagot’s biggest overseas customers are Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox wine drinkers, said Hexter.

Yaakov Berg, 37, is a lawyer by training who established the Psagot Winery on his hilltop settlement (photo credit: Mira Levy)
Yaakov Berg, 37, is a lawyer by training who established the Psagot Winery on his hilltop settlement (photo credit: Mira Levy)

With that kind of customer base, the global Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment Movement (BDS) against Israel, as well as Psagot’s politically controversial location, is a non-issue for the winery, he said.

“It might even be a plus for some of our customers,” joked Hexter.

Berg likes to tell reporters that “there’s no real difference between me and the other Israeli wineries,” he said. “If people are boycotting, they’ll boycott Tel Aviv too.”

In fact, Psagot sells quite a few bottles to non-kosher Tel Aviv restaurants, said Berg.

“If we were selling tomatoes and avocados, sure, then [our location] would be an issue,” said Hexter. “But we’re selling wine and you can sell 200,000 bottles of wine made in 2012 over the course of a year or two.”

For Berg, a brash, charming 37-year-old who immigrated to Israel from Russia with his family when he was a toddler, Psagot’s location was his choice, and one that he always defends.

He relishes recounting the historical origins of winemaking in the region, recalling the ancient map of vineyards and wine routes that’s shown in the winery’s marketing video. He relies on that history through every aspect of the winemaking process, from bottling through marketing.

Even Psagot’s grape pickers were chosen for their sense of connection to the land. Each year, a group of evangelical Christians from HaYovel, an organization founded by Tennessee Mennonite farmer Tommy Waller, comes to Psagot to help with the grape harvest.

This year, Waller’s sons, Brayden and Zack Waller, and their young families, arrived in August, organizing groups of their own volunteers to help eight different farmers in the Shomron district. They live in caravans nearby and some years they spend up to five months in Israel, using the government’s kibbutz volunteer visa system.

Brayden Waller and his young family will spend several months in Israel, helping out with local harvests as part of HaYovel, the evangelical Christian organization founded by his parents (photo credit: Mira Levy)
Brayden Waller and his young family will spend several months in Israel, helping out with local harvests as part of HaYovel, the evangelical Christian organization founded by his parents (photo credit: Mira Levy)

“It’s pretty awesome to see things happening here,” said Brayden Waller. “Nobody knows that there weren’t vineyards here just a bunch of years ago, and last year we harvested 450 tons of grapes. The industry is growing like crazy.”

It’s just the kind of thing that Berg likes to hear.

According to Berg, Psagot can succeed because consumers are looking for a unique product, and they’re not all that concerned with where his grapes are grown.

“You think all the other wineries’ grapes come from Rishon?” he asked, implying that other wineries too get their grapes from over the Green Line. “We’re all the same, we have the same army, pay the same taxes. So what if I disagree with them on different things?”

And while Psagot relies on exporting 60% to 70% of its wines to the US, it’s also making headway in Russia and the Far East, said Berg, where people are “more open-minded.”

“People are looking for a unique product,” he said. “The idea is to connect them to this place, and we’ve got a lot to show them.”

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