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Winemakers at War

By Dr. Kenneth Friedman

The Israeli winemaking world is experiencing an extraordinary moment in time. The brutal Hamas attack on October 7 and the ensuing war in Gaza have left no part of Israeli society unaffected. The difficulties faced these past months by the people who comprise the Israeli wine industry have rendered livelihoods a distant second worry to life itself.

The collective trauma endured by families in Israel whose loved ones have been killed, injured or taken hostage in the course of Israel’s existential war has resonated throughout the entire country and beyond. Jews worldwide have become mindful of “our chayalim,” soldiers, and the innocent hostages still in grave danger as of this writing. May they all return safely home.

The physical and economic toll of war on a country the size of New Jersey, in which everyone seems to be connected, will be heavy under any circumstance. It is important to remember that Israel called up 360,000 miluim (reservists) to active duty following the terror attacks, the greatest number since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Some miluim living abroad rushed to assist their country following that fateful day. With this call to duty came the excision of hundreds of thousands of citizens, the lifeblood of Israel’s economy as both workers and consumers. The wine industry was bound to take a serious blow.

The Israeli Economy

Like all sectors of Israel’s economy, the wine industry is permeated with citizens who are reservists. This war has left many wineries empty-handed and understaffed. Some very small wineries, such as Family Baum Winery, of Efrat, were left totally bare. Rivka and Sam Baum, olim from the United Kingdom and business partners in the three-year-old winery, were left scrambling to maintain a functioning winery when its winemaker, Sam, was called to duty. “Without Sam, there is only [me] left in the business,” Rivka said, “and so we were deeply affected, especially since Sam is our winemaker, not to mention the pillar of our family and everything that is Family Baum Winery. Nevertheless, our logo says, ‘Lovers of the Land and its people,’ and it couldn't have been clearer that there was only one place for Sam to be, fighting for the existence and the future of our people in our homeland.” Rivka, a nurse at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, was immediately thrust into the role of head winemaker, obligated to learn on the job lest the vintage become a total loss, while Sam, a deputy company commander in the Harel Brigade, left for an unknown amount of time in what would turn into four months in Gaza.

The Physical and Emotional Toll

Guy Eshel of Dalton Winery inside a crater left by a rocket from Lebanon. It destroyed about half a dunam of sauvignon blanc grapes.

While the initial focus of the war has been on areas within short range of Gaza, the terrorists of Hezbollah, backed by Iran, loom in the north, with a constant barrage of rockets that have caused evacuations and terrible damage, including to many Israeli vineyards. Alex Haruni, CEO of Dalton Winery, in the Galil of northern Israel, has been writing a near-daily diary of events as they unfold. “Life in the north is violent and noisy,” Haruni told me, noting that the Dalton visitor center has been closed to guests since October 8. Operations and sales have taken a huge hit.

The staff of Dalton Winery in a bomb shelter.

“Some of our staff have been evacuated, their homes reduced to rubble by an enemy who takes daily shots at the border villages to see how many homes they can destroy. Some of our staff have been on reserve duty since the beginning of the war. Some of our staff don’t want to work on-site for fear of leaving their families alone.

“We come to work every day not knowing what to expect, how many times we will need to seek shelter throughout the workday, whether it will be the last day we will be able to work before we have an all-out war in the north,” he shared.

Throughout Jewish history, dark times have been met with a (dark) sense of humor, as Haruni quipped, “We are dealing with what you in the U.S. would call a hostile work environment.”

Personal Losses

Eli Shiran of Shiran Winery.

Eli Shiran is the owner and winemaker of Shiran Winery in Kiryat Arba, and has built a second career from a passion, learning through trial and error to grow his boutique winery. While the ever-humble Shiran says his winery will be fine, his family has been hit hard by the war. “Like most Israelis, our children also serve in the IDF,” said Shiran, who has two sons and two sons-in-law currently serving.

“Sadly, my family paid a heavy price in blood in the battles for the defense of the homeland. On the first day of the war, my nephew, Captain Ori Mordechai Shani, HY”D, was killed near Kissufim after leading a heroic battle with some of his soldiers for nine hours.” The Shiran family also lost Captain Liron Snir, HY”D, the son of their cousin.

Yaakov Berg, CEO of Psagot Winery, in Gaza.

Shiran shared that he initially had trouble focusing on work. “For the first few weeks,” he said, “I hardly went to the winery. Most Israelis, like me, weren’t in the mood to drink wine; we even hardly drank for Shabbat, just for kiddush.” Shiran continued, “But we know how to cope with changes, we know how to adjust,” and then quipped, “We moved to more heavy drinks!”

Shiran continually shifted attention from himself to other wineries, telling me: “People who actually fought in Gaza, or are up north, deserve more attention than me. People have been buying from others who served in the army, such as Munitz, or Zwebner. I actually bought from them myself, to support our colleagues and friends.” The persistent thread of brotherhood runs especially deep during these times.

The author with Itai Munitz.

Itai Munitz, owner and winemaker at Munitz Winery in Kfar Yedidia and the winemaker mentioned by Shiran, has served alongside his brother in the same reserve unit since the start of the war. “The main impact we had was that for the first six weeks we didn’t sell any wine,” said Munitz. “People didn’t want to drink, and we didn’t want to sell.” Munitz had a team of friends step up in his absence to keep the winery afloat. “Fortunately enough, I’m in charge of my brother in the army, so I was able to release him once in a while, so he could do the minimum amount allowed in the winery.”

The 2024 Vintage and Beyond

The outlook for the 2023 vintage, struck by war, is still remarkably optimistic, but winemakers are worried for the 2024 vintage. Much of the planning and early work for the next harvest occurs during these winter months. As Munitz said, “We are supposed to be returning to service, so it’s really hard to plan that way.” In addition to large numbers of winery employees being absent from work or unsure of future service, some wineries have faced a different menace.

The Munitz brothers in Gaza.

Wineries on the northern front have been under constant duress, with daily indiscriminate rocket attacks from Hezbollah, while the dark storm clouds of perhaps a more dangerous war threaten. “The rocket attacks began as soon as Israel entered Gaza,” said Haruni, “and since then every week the intensity gets worse and worse. Sometimes I feel that we are like the frog who is getting boiled alive and not noticing.”

Israel has been careful with its response to Iran-backed Hezbollah, who Haruni called “an enemy more sophisticated and powerful than Hamas.” He agrees with the issues facing wineries in 2024 and even 2025. “If we are unable to prune our vineyards this winter we will face repercussions through 2024 and 2025,” said Haruni. “Bear in mind that we have about 10-15% of our crops coming from vineyards in the line of sight of the enemy in Lebanon. No one enters those vineyards if they want to leave alive.”

Some vineyards have been heavily damaged by rocket fire, and the important winter maintenance of the vineyard has been impossible to conduct, as these areas have been heavily restricted or closed off by the army, which certainly leads to closed visitor centers and nonexistent wine tourism.

Sam Baum of Family Baum Winery, in Gaza.

“We have kind of settled into a routine of war,” said Israeli wine specialist and writer Adam Montefiore. “We should not forget what the Upper Galilee wineries are going through. The wineries and vineyards are under fire. Wineries are closed. Workers are displaced from their homes. Growers are even forbidden from entering their vineyards. It is a totally unsustainable situation.” Montefiore stressed the importance of the obstacles in the north, saying, “What applies to the Upper Galilee, also applies to the western Negev, but the Galilee is one of our largest wine growing regions.” Indeed, the Galilee and Golan Heights are characterized by elevations up to 1,200 meters above sea level, a cooler climate than the rest of Israel, and soils that are ideal for world-class winemaking. While so much attention is rightfully drawn to areas in the western Negev near Gaza, the danger facing the wineries in the north may be more perilous to Israel’s wine industry.

S. Simon Jacob, a well-known kosher wine advocate originally from New Jersey who lives in Jerusalem, saw the hand of Hashem at work in the aftermath of October 7. As reservists headed to duty and foreign workers fled back to their homelands following the onset of the war, extensive gaps were left to fill in the agricultural workforce. “So many people pitched in,” said Jacob.

“Many civilian members stepped into the shoes of reservists, learning new skills each day to keep the farms, vineyards and wineries functioning. The immediate collective unity Israel expressed as a national response was humanity at its finest.”

Rivka Baum of The Family Baum Winery.

Those without the ability to travel to Israel have had the opportunity to help as well. More than ever, buying a bottle of Israeli wine is a Zionistic act, and a symbol to the world that the Jewish people are deeply connected and supportive of each other.

Buy Israeli Wine

Still, while Jews in the Diaspora generally don’t have children, siblings, husbands, wives, fathers and mothers on the front lines, they are still seeking ways to lend a hand. Israelis will continually effuse praise for the inspiring support they have received. When asked, “What suggestions do you have for Americans looking to help?” each Israeli winemaker answered the same thing: “Buy Israeli.” Put Israeli wines on your table.

“Buy more and more Israeli wine,” said Shiran, “so these businesses will not collapse.” Social media is another tool to promote Israel, and Shiran suggests public support as another means of helping. Baum echoed these sentiments, saying, “Show solidarity in whatever way you can, share stories of wineries affected, and spread the word.”

Antithetical to how the rest of the world would avoid traveling into a “war zone,” many Americans have made an effort to fly into Israel, helping feed chayalim at the front, hauling much-needed supplies, picking produce at unmanned farms and pitching in to help wherever possible.

Israel’s blossoming wine culture is saturated with known names and internationally recognized wineries, but also with artists, pioneers and dreamers. The wines being produced in Israel today belong on your table not only owing to a love of Israel, but equally to a love of Israeli wine. “Be proud of what Israeli wines and culture have to offer,” said Baum, “because it is exceptional.” Baum sums up the drive, determination and heart of all Israeli winemakers: “We are here to stay.”


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