Israeli wineries near Lebanon fear harvest failure as war with Hezbollah looms

Ongoing cross-border attacks cause manpower shortage, challenges working in fields; Dalton Winery owner says vine pruning must be done by March or crop will be ruined

A man walks next to a Dalton Winery sign in the northern moshav of Dalton near the Lebanon border on January 29, 2024. (jalaa marey / AFP)
A man walks next to a Dalton Winery sign in the northern moshav of Dalton near the Lebanon border on January 29, 2024. (jalaa marey / AFP)

Black clouds loom over grapevines in northern Israel on hills that stretch to the Lebanese border, where months of violence have raised fears of a wider war.

The tense border area — where the Israel Defense Forces has traded deadly fire with the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group for months — can be seen from atop the Dalton Winery’s fermentation vats.

Alex Haruni, the vineyard’s owner, worries that if a full-scale war were to break out, it could also ruin the coming vintage.

“That’s quite a lot of wine,” he said.

The vines must be pruned before spring, and nature won’t wait for peace.

“We have until March to get this done,” Haruni said. “If not, the year is gone.”

A worker in Dalton Winery sorts wine bottles in the northern moshav of Dalton near the Lebanon border on January 29, 2024. (jalaa marey / AFP)

Israel has been at war against Hamas since the terror group launched its October 7 onslaught on southern communities, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253 to the Gaza Strip while committing brutal atrocities.

Israel responded with an air, sea, and ground offensive to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza and release the hostages.

On October 8, Hezbollah-led forces began launching daily attacks on Israeli communities and military posts along the border. The terror group says it is acting in support of Gaza amid the Israeli military’s ongoing offensive.

Four months of conflict have heaped new challenges on Israel’s wine industry, including labor shortages and falling demand in the war-weary nation, a year after extreme heat caused a poor harvest.

Along the UN-patrolled border with Lebanon, where vineyards and orchards crowd the mountain slopes, the situation is particularly precarious ahead of the growing season, experts say.

Hezbollah has fired rockets and missiles almost daily since the Gaza war began, killing nine Israeli soldiers and six civilians.

This picture shows a general view of the Lebanese village of Maroun El Ras from the northern moshav of Dalton near the Lebanon border on January 29, 2024. (jalaa marey / AFP)

Israel’s frequent retaliatory strikes have killed more than 200 people in southern Lebanon, most of them Hezbollah fighters, according to an AFP tally.

There are fears of worse to come. Israel and Hezbollah last fought a major war in 2006.

At the time, rockets rained down on Israel’s north during the summer, but a ceasefire was struck in time for growers to harvest their grapes.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Sunday he had directed the air force to “point the noses of the planes north and prepare for any harm that may come.”

‘Manpower crisis’

Rami Na’aman, owner of a winery in Ramot Naftali, a moshav near the Lebanese border, said the fighting had forced him and thousands of others from their homes.

He can only reach his establishment twice a week, provided the military hasn’t closed the roads.

The head of the Bank of Israel, Amir Yaron, warned last month that the war’s “adverse economic impact… is substantial,” especially on the construction and tourism industries.

Migal, an Israeli research institute, in November published a survey of 389 farmers, more than three-quarters of whom projected an “average 35 percent drop in production and income.”

The farming sector faces “the greatest manpower crisis since the state’s founding” in 1948, the Agriculture Ministry said recently.

Eyal Miles gestures during an interview with AFP in Miles Winery in the northern moshav of Kerem Ben Zimra near the Lebanon border on January 29, 2024. (Jalaa Marey / AFP)

Thousands of foreign workers have fled Israel since the start of the war, and many agriculture laborers have been called up to the army as reservists.

The government has barred entry to tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers from the West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip, citing security concerns in the wake of the October 7 massacre.

Like other sectors, the wine industry has been hit by these problems.

Eyal Miles cultivates vines and cherries on the slopes around Kerem Ben Zimra, a farming hamlet home to four wineries just six kilometers (less than four miles) from Lebanon.

Miles, too, is worried about whether the pruning can be done by spring.

The field hands he typically hires to help on his seven hectares (17 acres) of land, he said, are “afraid to work here due to the proximity to the border.”

Falling consumption

At Dalton Winery, a Hezbollah projectile damaged vines in one plot near the frontier, forcing the business to issue field workers with helmets and flak jackets.

Around 10 percent of its vines are in closed military zones and inaccessible.

Visitor centers, usually a key source of revenue for northern wineries of all sizes, now lie empty with tourists steering clear of the region.

On top of these problems, the war has “clearly caused a decline in wine consumption” across Israel, said Haim Gan, a wine industry expert and founder of The Grape Man, a wine-tasting emporium.

A worker in Dalton Winery walks past wine barrels in the northern moshav of Dalton near the Lebanon border on January 29, 2024. (jalaa marey / AFP)

He blamed the call-up of more than 300,000 reservists, the postponement of weddings and other celebrations, and the generally “lifeless, unpleasant atmosphere” in the country.

At Dalton Winery, the slate of difficulties means that Haruni is considering laying off staff.

Miles, meanwhile, said a sharp drop in visits to his business has meant that “since October 7, the winery is closed,” while online sales barely pick up the slack.

He remained optimistic, however, that despite the threat of war in the north, “we will overcome this.”

By the end of March, he predicted, “it will all be pruned and it will be ready for the coming harvest.”

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