Bottled up by war, Judean hills vintners open anew to let visitors ‘breathe a little’

Wineries from the Matte Yehuda region offer a month of tastings and tours with notes of melancholy and grief for those affected by the fighting and hostage crisis

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Eyal Drory (left), Shuki Yashuv and Elad Katz, co-owners of Agur Winery, hosting wine tastings in June 2024. (Courtesy)
Eyal Drory (left), Shuki Yashuv and Elad Katz, co-owners of Agur Winery, hosting wine tastings in June 2024. (Courtesy)

Agur Winery owner Elad Katz poured some rosé, clicked wine glasses, and shook his head in disbelief that he was sitting in the back garden of his Judean Hills winery.

On October 7, when Hamas attacked Israel’s south, Katz was on a camping trip with his wife, four daughters, and family friends, when sirens began sounding. By 10 a.m., he received an emergency call-up to report for reserve duty near the Gaza border.

At 43, and as a reservist in the Nahal Brigades, Katz hadn’t served actively for several years, but ended up spending some six weeks in and around Gaza before returning home at the end of November.

Now, in early June, Katz is immersed in hosting events for the annual wine celebration in the Matte Yehuda region that includes the Elah Valley and Jerusalem hills, Israel’s only official wine appellation. Agur, along with another 20 or so wineries in the region, is hosting tours, tastings and visits through the month of June.

It’s not being called a festival this year, given the ongoing war, the remaining 116 hostages in Gaza and the overall sense of grief and sadness, noted one of the organizers. Rather, it’s an opportunity to gather and drink some wine, sometimes with a chef-prepared meal as well, offering visitors a chance to support local wineries and the region.

Katz said that when he returned to the winery at the end of November, he and his fellow owners didn’t feel all that comfortable opening to host visitors.

Agur Winery co-owners Eyal Drory and Elad Katz in June 2024, as their winery takes part in the Mateh Yehuda wine event. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“People weren’t really drinking wine,” he said.

Eventually, however, visitors came to Agur once again, to take breaks from the war and the news, and customers often included reservists on weekends off with their spouses.

“We had the father of a hostage who came one Friday and said that for the first time in six months, he had an hour of peace and quiet,” said Katz.

It’s a similar kind of story at Ulu Winery, a neighboring vineyard that feels a little like Provence, with thick lavender bushes lining a wide staircase that leads into the spacious, high-ceilinged tasting room, overlooking the grapevines planted below, and the hills beyond.

Ulu makes five wines, a Grenache, Chardonnay, Rose, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Cabernet and Merlot blend, all from grapes grown nearby, but they sell other Israeli and international wines as well, offering a deeper dip into the world of wine.

Hila and Amir Ulu, whose new winery was just opened when the October 7 Hamas attacks shut business for several weeks. (Courtesy)

It’s Hila Ulu who kept her family winery going for months, with her husband, Amir Ulu, back in reserve duty. He headed south right away, after being stationed there for many years during his thirty years as a colonel in the army.

“People slowly started showing up, they needed to breathe a little,” said Hila Ulu. “They would come, a little embarrassed that they were here.”It’s far different from what these wineries were experiencing in the days before the Hamas attacks of October 7.

On October 5, said Agur’s Katz, he sat at the winery with famed director Quentin Tarantino, drinking wine and trading stories.

“I had to say goodbye because we were going camping,” said Katz. “I drank an espresso before I left and when we came back in November, the espresso cup was still there,” he pointed, “on the counter.”

Katz lives up the road in Moshav Luzit, arriving in the region when he first began delving into the world of wine. At the time, armed with a law degree and stint working at the Finance Ministry, he worked one day a week and then full-time for Domaine Du Castel, becoming the CEO of one of the oldest and most well-established wineries in Israel, also located in the Jerusalem Hills.

Four years ago, he proposed buying the existing winery from its founder, Shuki Yashuv.

He brought along Eyal Drory, a young winemaker who by chance had spent time at Agur in his teens. The three men are now partners in the kosher winery, which jumped from producing 12,000 bottles annually to 75,000 of six different wines, including a Rose, Sauvignon Blanc, three Red blends including a Syrah-based and a Special Reserve, and one Roussanne-based white blend.

The Agur Winery in the Mate Yehuda region will offer tastings and tours during June 2024. (Courtesy)

Agur was a smaller winery, developed by Yashuv, a carpenter who built tables out of old casks and developed his boutique wines.

Katz and Drory expanded on Yashuv’s plan, using grapes grown throughout their region, making their seven wines from 20 types of grapes, exporting some 10 percent of their wines, and still aiming for more.

They changed the labels and names of some of the wines, keeping the wines they felt were good, such as Yashuv’s Rose, which they improved with a Cabernet Franc and some other grapes.

“The names are their passports,” said Katz, who has plans for the winery’s growth, especially abroad, where Israeli wines are still popular, especially with Jewish clientele. That said, he’s okay with a smaller winery. “There’s something nice in being smaller in that you don’t have to have everyone love you — as long as it’s authentic, that’s the most important.”

Agur also experimented with growing their own vegetables for serving with their cheese platters, aiming to keep the farm-to-table vibe, but eventually decided to use vegetables grown by Katz’s father-in-law down south, in Tzofar. In turn, they help with his boutique Moa Winery, making its blends and selling their wines.

The cheeses served are also part of that communal effort, in particular the aged wine cheese made by the Beeri Dairy with Agur’s wine. Beeri’s cheesemaker, Dror Or, was killed, along with his wife, Yonat Or, on October 7. The Ors’ two teenage children, Noam and Alma, were taken hostage and released in November, and their elder brother wasn’t home that weekend.

A bottle of Agur Winery’s rose, photographed earlier in 2023. (Courtesy)

“This is the last batch made by Dror,” said Katz, pointing at the wine-edged cheese that was aged for seven or eight months.

Community, both local and farther afield, plays a big role in this month’s wine event, with local winemakers and other purveyors working closely together.

One of the evenings brings together Katz with his good friend Nurit Hertz, a local chef who is serving her version of foraging-to-table events, with wines from local vineyards. Her husband and Katz were enlistees in the army together, more than 20 years ago, and recently served reserve duty together in Gaza.

The neighboring Ulu Winery, located across the road in Givat Yeshayahu, a community with several wineries, is where the Ulu family settled 14 years ago, after Amir Ulu, retired after 30 years in service.

Amir and Hila Ulu had dreamed of opening a winery, and after they built their home and horse stables, they looked at a second stable, intended to be a pension for horses, and thought, how about a different kind of winery?

They decided upon their wine-tasting business, along with making their wines, and while they may reach 40,000 bottles, they may not, and that’s fine with the Ulus.

“We want to make the best wine we can,” said Hila Ulu. “It’s still very fun to do this, but what’s fun is when people come here and say how amazing it is and have a good time.”

The Hamas attacks of October 7 affected both wineries. At Agur, both Katz and his kosher supervisor, who has to handle all stages of the wine preparation in order for the wines to be considered kosher, were called up for reserve duty, leaving winemaker Drory alone for weeks.

October is the height of the harvest season, with all grapes picked and fermenting in containers, needing to be handled on a regular basis.

“101 things could happen, it could just turn to vinegar,” said Katz.

They survived, as did Ulu, and right now, both wineries recognize their good fortune to have customers who spend money on wine, even now.

“The atmosphere is terrible, we’re fine in the business, but our real business is to make wine for the long run,” said Katz. “We don’t feel very optimistic but we have no choice but to go forward. We’re doing what we can in our little corner and for now, we’re still cleaning up the mess of the last months.”

Ulu Winery is hosting a launch of its wines on June 20, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at NIS 70 per person and with pre-registration.

Agur Winery is hosting an afternoon of Greek music and its young wines, on June 21, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., NIS 120 per person with pre-registration.

There are also tours of wineries in the Elah Valley and Judean Hills regions, and chef meals with wine talks and tastings.

Most Popular
read more: