The 14 original homes in the picturesque village of Bat Shlomo, a verdant moshav on the southern slopes of Mount Carmel, are still standing, their stucco exteriors, wooden windows and red-tiled roofs a testament to the country’s early history.
When established by British benefactor Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1889, he planned for the moshav to grow mulberries for silk and grapes for the winery he had founded in nearby Zichron Yaakov, a sister village. Neither idea came to fruition, but the village still exists, its original street inhabited by a combination of old-timers and newcomers. Now it is another newcomer, serial entrepreneur Elie Wurtman, who plans on bringing back grapes, wine and the pioneering spirit to this particular piece of land.
Born in the US and raised in Israel, Wurtman has been a pioneer of the high-tech sort for the last 15 years, starting up several successful Israeli companies and eventually moving into venture capital. His dream, however, has been to create a small winery, something that would engage him as an investor and farmer, and involve others as well. Yet it was only when he stumbled upon the rundown, one-street community of Bat Shlomo, named for Rothschild’s mother, Betty Salomon, the daughter of Salomon or Shlomo, that the idea for the Bat Shlomo Winery came to, well, fruition.
“It’s this melding of a long-held desire to make wine, together with the Zionist emotional dream around reviving this place where everything started,” said Wurtman. “It was as though this whole place had been forgotten, and I thought it needed to be a living museum to the pioneers. If I hadn’t stumbled upon Bat Shlomo I probably wouldn’t have started the winery, but it just made sense.”
We were speaking on a hot July day, standing at the top of Wurtman’s latest vineyard of the Bat Shlomo Winery. A crew of paid and volunteer workers had been planting young Sauvignon Blanc grapes since early morning, packing them into the holes dug by the high school students who are also part of this project. The water dripping through the irrigation tubes was boiling hot, some of the planters were enthusiastically singing nostalgic pioneering tunes and every once in a while, an iPhone would ring — providing a compelling mix of then and now.
The field workers included Wurtman’s friends from his home in Jerusalem, a smattering of high-tech colleagues, the group of high school students from Beit Shean who are taking part in their own visionary agricultural work-and-study program, local farmers from the area and Ari Erle, the Bat Shlomo winemaker and an old friend of Wurtman who has shared this particular dream of establishing a new winery from planting vines to making wine.
Their plan is for Bat Shlomo to become an Israeli estate winery, similar to the small wineries found in northern California’s Napa Valley, where Erle spent six years studying winemaking and working in vineyards. Beyond the winery, Wurtman plans on refurbishing one of the original houses and turning it into a guesthouse, offering visitors the opportunity to experience the landscape through work in the vineyard, horseback riding or biking around the area. The idea, he said, is an oasis in the old settlement.
“We’re not trying to compete with the large wineries, we’re creating a Napa-style estate winery in Israel,” said Erle. “We have our own vineyard, and we control growth in the vineyard where most of the winemaking is done. It’s going to be a full package of wine and tourism, only producing wines that the vineyard can support.”
After seven harvests and six full years in Napa, Erle had been ready to return home to Israel. And since his return, he’s found that he obtained a certain level of knowledge from his Napa years that doesn’t necessarily exist in the local wine industry, despite its degree of success. He described a lack of certain wine services, a smaller selection when it comes to choosing grapes for planting, and more expensive labor. That said, the smaller market is both collegial and competitive, making it exciting and relentlessly innovative.
One of Erle’s innovations is using an egg-shaped tank for the winery’s Sauvignon Blanc, a method that brings out different toxicities and flavors and is a first for the local industry.
“That made it harder to do and I had to push against the system, but it’s fun and challenging,” said Erle. “This is going to be the full package, from the vines we plant in the ground to the control over the growth and how you grow. The vineyard is all about labor, but every time you go through the vineyard, making an extra pass to tie up shoots and then leaves, it makes a better grape and a better wine.”
Bat Shlomo has already released several wines, made from grapes purchased from nearby vineyards, and they have been well-reviewed and received in the local wine and restaurant scene. The kosher winery planted its first grapes in 2010, but had to “drop all the fruit” in order to observe orla, the Jewish law prohibition against using fruits in their first three years. The grapes planted during my morning at the vineyard won’t be used until 2015, said Erle, although the winery will have its own grapes in 2013, from the first vineyard planted two years ago.
“I just want to continue on from here,” said Erle. “To manage my own estate, and run it from top to bottom, from planting to making wine. It’s as good as it gets.”
As for Wurtman, he said he is only interested in doing this with the promise of making a great product. He’s not looking to export because he believes the winery is a local story.
“We are going to know most of our customers,” he said. “We’ll sell to people who like our story and are interested in us. We’ve been able to form strong bonds with our customers, and we’re trying to offer great quality at a middle-of-the-road price. People in Israel make great wine and then charge $100 for it.”
Priced at around NIS 89 per bottle, Wurtman believes Bat Shlomo wines will be more accessible.
Despite the inherently competitive edge that exists in Israel’s small market, both Wurtman and Earle have found that they’ve been welcomed by the local farmers and winemakers. The farmers, said Wurtman, have come out to meet him, excited by his concept of community-driven farming. The winemakers like his tourism angle, the historical context that offers a unique experience and creates “a great addition to the [wine industry] landscape,” he said.
“I think that when you’re buying space on restaurant wine lists, no one is looking for competition, but we’ve been successful and people like the quality and what we’re doing,” he added. “I want to see the industry succeed. It’s my view in life: I’d like to see 100 Israeli companies succeed, and the same goes for Israeli wineries.”
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