Negev vintners grapple with winemaking challenges in shadow of war zone

The small wineries and vineyards of the Gaza border communities and Negev always persevered with their boutique operations; now they’re struggling to get help and sell wine

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

Meital Leffler, (left) is one of a crew of four volunteers who make wine and beer at Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, who were all evacuated to Eilat after the Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023 (Courtesy)
Meital Leffler, (left) is one of a crew of four volunteers who make wine and beer at Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, who were all evacuated to Eilat after the Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023 (Courtesy)

Boaz Dreyer isn’t a newcomer to living through a war. The South African-born winemaker immigrated to Israel with his wife, Rena Dreyer, in the middle of the 1990 Gulf War, finding their home in Kerem Shalom, on the Egypt-Gaza-Israel border.

They later moved to Moshav Be’er Milka in the Negev desert, where they grow premium Cabernet grapes in the sand dunes for their Shefa wines.

On October 7, when Hamas terrorists launched an assault on the Gaza border communities and towns, killing some 1,400 people, Be’er Milka wasn’t directly affected, but “everything stopped,” said Dreyer.

The Dreyers have two grown children who live in Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha and another two in Dekel. There were no terrorists in Dekel, but Ein Hashlosha was attacked and those families were evacuated to Eilat.

“They would normally help out, but that’s not in the cards right now,” said Dreyer. “We’re just trying to get there every second weekend to give them a break with the kids.”

The Dreyers usually have help from Nepalese and Zambian students who come to Israel for year-long agricultural internships.

Rena and Boaz Dreyer of Moshav Be’er Milka in the Negev, whose Shefa winery is struggling after the vicious Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023 (Courtesy)

During the October 7 attacks, ten Nepali students were gunned down, four were injured, and one was abducted from the Gaza border communities where the Hamas massacres took place.

All of the Dreyers’ students from Nepal were flown back home, he said.

The lack of students means four months of solid income “down the drain,” said Dreyer. It also means he has no help with their double-trellised grapevines on 14 dunam of vineyards that produce some 6,000 bottles of wine, including an all-natural wine.

For now, it’s just Rena and Boaz, who had bypass surgery last year, and they’re getting a little help from the army, with a group of soldiers who come by once a week.

“At least we’re keeping the weeds down,” said Dreyer, who finished harvesting in July, and figures he’s in survival mode right now.

The Shefa Winery vineyards in Moshav Be’er Milka in the Negev, whose owners, the Dreyers, are on their own following the vicious Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023 (Courtesy)

Wine and grapes aren’t necessarily top of the list when it comes to the agricultural pressures that exist right now in Israel.

Some 30,000 Thai farmhands were employed in Israel until the war with Hamas broke out, with around 5,000 of them working in communities close to the Gaza Strip, where 75% of the country’s vegetables are grown.

An estimated 12,000 workers will leave because of the war, according to current estimates, considered a disaster for Israeli food production.

Most of the wineries in the area of the Gaza border communities are smaller, community affairs. But the greater area of the Negev, with 40 vineyards and wineries were all affected in one way or another, said Aya Dvorin, who works with the Merage Foundation Israel, a US-based family philanthropy supporting efforts to fully realize the tourism potential of the Negev.

Pepo’s Winery in Kibbutz Or Haner had to close when the kibbutz was evacuated following the Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023 (Courtesy)

Ramat Negev, one of the biggest wineries in the area, had a rocket hit a storeroom full of new bottles from the last harvest. Pepo’s Winery, a small family vintner in Kibbutz Or Haner, had to close when the kibbutz was evacuated.

The Argaman wine bar in Kibbutz Nir Am, owned by the family of Inbal Rabin-Lieberman, the kibbutz security coordinator who famously saved her community on October 7, is closed as well. There are wineries whose winemakers were called up for reserve duty, too.

“There’s also just less motivation to buy and drink wine right now,” said Dvorin, whose brother and family survived the brutal attack in their home community of Kibbutz Be’eri. “Who feels like opening a bottle of wine, hearing that pop of the cork and celebrating anything?”

That said, it’s important to ensure these young boutique wineries don’t fail or lose too much ground going forward.

Merage stepped in and created a digital platform for selling Negev wines online, offering Israelis the opportunity to order 12 bottles from different Negev wineries through Friday, November 10, with heavily discounted prices and pickup from half a dozen wine shops around the country.

There are also plans on creating a similar effort in the US.

Local wine stores are helping out by putting Negev wines at the front of the shelves, such as Tel Aviv’s Delicatessen and the market in the Tel Aviv port.

At Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, a community wine project was about to become a proper business, with a visitors’ center, when disaster struck with the October 7 attacks.

The tasting room of Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha’s community winemaking project, en route to becoming a proper business, even after the Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023 (Courtesy)

Hamas terrorists looted and burned many of the kibbutz houses, killing four residents and taking hostages. Since then, the residents were evacuated to one hotel in Eilat.

The kibbutz, located three kilometers from Gaza, planted its first vineyard in 2010 and harvested its first grapes three years later.

They usually bottle around 1,000 bottles of merlot, Shiraz, a blend and a rosé each year, giving them out to kibbutz members on Rosh Hashanah and Passover, with some left over to sell to visitors.

“We love what we do,” said Meital Leffler, an Ein Hashlosha lifer who is one of the volunteer vintners.

The wine is called Giva 112, for the highest location of the kibbutz, and they also make Sabresa beer, namd for the sabra prickly fruit plus the Spanish term cerveza, or beer, for all the South Americans who helped establish the kibbutz.

Giva 112, the wines from the Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha community project, being turned into a business, even after the Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023 (Courtesy)

Ein Hashlosha also grows lemons, lettuce and potatoes, but those fields are filled with army tanks right now, said Leffler. There’s a skeleton staff in the cowshed, making sure the cows are milked twice a day.

As for their wine, it’s aging in its stainless steel barrels and Leffler’s fellow winemakers are taking shifts in the kibbutz emergency squad.

“When they’re there, they look and check on it,” she said. “We’re not really worried, even with the white wines.”

It also helps that one of the winemakers has a PhD in chemistry, “so we rely on him,” said Leffler.

For now, their plan is to bring their wine and beer to the hotel where 240 Ein Hashlosha members are currently living, to honor the staff who’s doing everything for them, said Leffler.

“They’re just trying to make us feel at home,” she said. “And this is our pride.”

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