This is wine before its time

The novice vintners of Jezreel Winery blend technology with out-of-the-box thinking to produce a new red, flavorful but easy on the palate

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

A red, a white and a rose from Jezreel Valley Winery (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A red, a white and a rose from Jezreel Valley Winery (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

In a land of seven million inhabitants and some 300 boutique wineries, it took a high-tech entrepreneur, an organic landscape architect and a branding designer to come up with a new concept for their fledgling wine venture, Jezreel Valley Winery.

They call it the RedBlend, and it’s a classic Israeli cross-pollination. They took an inexpensive local grape, the Carignan, around since Baron Edmond de Rothschild’s first attempts to establish the local wine industry, and mixed it with Argaman, a solely Israeli creation, made from a crossing of Souzão and Carignan grapes at the Volcani Institute of Agricultural Research in the 1990s.

To that they added the Syrah, one of Israel’s most well-suited red grapes, which grows easily in the local climate without needing mountainous heights and weather. Each varietal was aged separately for ten months and then carefully mixed to create a deep blend that’s easy on the palate.

“We wanted to make a wine the sommelier could love, but so could the rest of the population,” said Jacob Ner-David, Jezreel Valley’s co-founder and chairman. “Something you could drink and enjoy but appreciate.”

Meet Jezreel Winery, so-called for its location at Kibbutz Hanaton amid the rolling patchwork fields of the Jezreel Valley in the lower Galilee. This is a kosher winery looking to combine the smarts of technology with the best of the local wine-making tradition.

“I’m an early adapter,” said Ner-David. “I knew I wanted to do something agricultural. And if you’re gonna do this, you have to differentiate yourself and figure out how Jezreel is going to be unique.”

For Ner-David, a serial entrepreneur who has started several successful companies — including his most recent, Zula, a What’s App for the business crowd — owning a winery has always been one of his dreams, but he didn’t have a clue about how to make wine.

Serendipitously, Yehuda Nahar was another new member at Hanaton, a landscape architect formerly from the center of the country, where he planned and planted organic gardens for customers. He moved to Hanaton to find a new kind of Jewish community for his young family and met Jacob, who has had his own meandering Jewish path along with his wife and their seven children.

Serial entrepreneur Jacob Ner-David speaking to a group of visitors at the Jezreel Winery (Courtesy Jezreel Winery)
Serial entrepreneur Jacob Ner-David speaking to a group of visitors at the Jezreel Winery (Courtesy Jezreel Winery)

The two established a kind of “hevruta,” said Ner-David, examining not Jewish texts but ideas about what they could do together as a sustainable business. Eventually they brought in another partner, Shlomo Shmilovitz, known as Momo, a well-known brand and label designer who has worked with many of the country’s largest manufacturers.

But first, they had to figure out what they were going to make. They considered organic olive oil, a hydrotherapy center, even a hydro wine spa, said Ner-David, and they may still end up following through on some or all of these ideas. What they did know was that they didn’t want to grow cucumbers, according to Nahar.

After deciding on wine, they quickly set their sights on an abandoned garage situated on a remote corner of Hanaton’s land, which became the winery and visitor’s center.

And the wines? Jezreel bottled three wines in 2012, their RedBlend, a Chardonnay and a rosé, all made from grapes grown in the Jezreel Valley, Upper Galilee and Judean Hills. The choice of wines was a mix of decisions, said Ner-David. White wines can be bottled more quickly, and the nicely toned Chardonnay was aged eight months, while the younger rosé is a deep salmon color with a light, fresh flavor. The RedBlend, however, is the clear star and was more “out of the box,” he said.

Yehuda Nah, the Jezreel winemaker, out in the fields (Courtesy Jezreel Winery)
Yehuda Nah, the Jezreel winemaker, out in the fields (Courtesy Jezreel Winery)

The world did not need another Cabernet, said Ner-David, and they knew they wanted something traditional but rooted in modernity.

The reaction to the Jezreel RedBlend 2012 has been overwhelmingly positive, and the wine won a silver medal at the recent Teravino International Wine Competition.

It’s a light red, pointed out Shmilovitz, an easier fit for food without being overly sophisticated.

Momo Shmilovitz, a Jezreel Winery partner and the man behind Jezreel's 'distressed' look labels (Courtesy Jezreel Winery)
Momo Shmilovitz, a Jezreel Winery partner and the man behind Jezreel’s ‘distressed’ look labels (Courtesy Jezreel Winery)

The prices are also relatively low for a boutique wine at NIS 95 ($27) for the RedBlend, NIS 85 ($24) for the Chardonnay and NIS 69 ($20) for the rosé. All the wines can be ordered online from the winery website. The winery began with 25,000 bottles a year, and are hoping to double their output this year.

Nahar, who earned a Cellar Master certificate in winemaking from Tel-Hai College, shepherds the bulk of the winemaking process, with some help from Ari Erle, a local consulting winemaker.

Their approach to publicity also differentiates the winery. Besides hosting regular visits from Federation groups and missions, the winery has sought new ideas for exposure, from a recent gathering of boutique wineries at Google Tel Aviv — the high-tech network always pays off — to becoming the house wine at the Ambassador Hotel, an East Jerusalem establishment.

“We’re unorthodox and we think out of the box,” said Nahar. “We’re not 100% wine people.”

“We’ve got a start-up approach,” added Ner-David. In fact, given the recent success Ner-David and his Zula partner, Jeff Pulver, have had in crowdfunding for Zula through another Israeli start-up, OurCrowd, they’re thinking of doing the same with Jezreel, as well as selling wine futures.

“We want to tie people together,” said Shmilovitz. “That’s how we like things to happen.”

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