By Jewish Link Wine Guide Staff
During our tasting of hundreds of bottles of wine in the course of the making of the Jewish Link Wine Guide, some wines consistently appeared at the top of our rankings, pleasing our palettes time and again and delivering a superior experience in the glass. The designation of fi ve Wineries of the Year honors the passion and innovation of the winemakers behind these consistent, approachable labels, as well as their consistency in placement in multiple rankings categories. We asked each winery representative what their focus is at their winery, how they’ve emerged from the pandemic, and what we can expect from them going forward.
Yaffo Winery is a boutique, family-owned winery in Israel’s Ella Valley, owned by one-time physical therapist Moshe and his wife, Ann Marie Celniker. The winery is their long-time dream come true: “We started with the production of 1500 bottles at our home cellar in Jaffa, following our dream. Today, we produce nearly 70,000 bottles annually in our boutique winery located in Neve Michael, close to our vineyards in the Judean Hills, and plan to grow our production to 200,000 bottles, while keeping it a family winery,” Moshe said.
The couple takes pride in hearing their wine is well-received: “We are happy whenever we meet people who tell us they love our wines. It makes all the complications we had on the way worthwhile.” But they are perhaps most proud that they “succeeded in convincing our son, Stephan, to study enology and become our next, future generation of winemaking,” shared Moshe.
Having a family winery has its benefits and detractions, noted Moshe, since sometimes not everyone agrees on new trends, “but we understand that it is part of working with the family.”
Yaffo winery is a labor of love for its founders: “We put all our efforts into improving the quality of the wines, testing new varieties that will differentiate us even slightly from the global wine industry. It is not always simple, but it is a long-distance game and we love it,” Moshe said.
As to the future? “We will keep on producing quality wines that happen to be kosher, “ promised Moshe.
Shiloh winemaker Amichai Lourie is passionate about making wine in the Land of Israel. “One of my goals,” said Lourie, “is to connect people to the land of Israel through Shiloh wines.” Whenever people compliment Shiloh wines, he always makes a point to “give the credit to the Land of Israel …We have an attitude of gratitude, hakarat hatov, for the land and that we are here,” he shared.
Lourie is proud of how Israel’s wineries have collectively created superior products that have received notice by critics and customers alike: “I think that the international recognition for our wines and for all Israeli wines is very important.
The best wine critics give high scores to Israeli wines, and they are winning medals; and the critics say they can age for years and are worth purchasing and putting them away.”
“We are living in a country that’s blessed,” Lourie said simply, “so you can feel the blessing in the wines; Our making wine here in Israel has the explicit endorsement and backing of HaKadosh Baruch Hu.”
Lourie’s plans for the future include expansion. I am planning more vineyards, mostly in this region.” Looking ahead? “We’ve been working on a new high-end wine for several years and hope to release the wine in a year or two.”
Hagafen Cellars is located in the Napa Valley, in the heart of California’s premier wine grape region. Owned and operated by Irit and Ernie Weir, the winery is located near the famed Stags Leap and Oak Knoll Districts, where the soil is ideal for ripe, rich, intensely fruity small-lot estate bottled wines. Ernie’s motto: “I never seek to change what nature has provided. My goal is to showcase the best that our land has produced.”
Another passion at Hagafen, according to Ernie, is sustainability. “We actively take part in several sustainable activities such as powering the winery by solar power, collecting rainwater for reuse in irrigation and growing all of our own grapes organically, just to name a few.”
What’s next for Hagafen? Ernie is keeping mum: “As for future wines, well, we typically keep that quiet until release so let’s just say that we continue on with our full energy, effort, skill and knowledge of Napa Valley soils, grapes and wines to produce premium varietal and blended wines to be bottled as one or more of our three main labels: Don Ernesto Vineyards, Prix Reserve Wines and Hagafen Cellars.”
Covenant was founded in 2003, in Napa Valley by American winemakers Jeff Morgan and the late Leslie Rudd, who “hoped to honor Jewish culture, heritage and tradition through fine wine.” Today, Covenant operates in both California and Israel— the only winery to make wine in both locations.
“I am trying to make wine that accurately reflects terroir and is also on a par with the finest wines I was privileged to taste as a wine critic,” shared Morgan, who was previously West Coast editor and wine reviewer for Wine Spectator.
Morgan touched on climate change when discussing recent fires in California, noting, “We are learning to deal with the challenge of smoke and heat. Access to water is an ongoing challenge for all vineyards in warm regions like California and Israel; We are dealing with this through innovative irrigation and gray water [recycled water] use.”
Morgan gave a sneak peek at some new bottles to look out for: Covenant Solomon Blanc, a high end Sauvignon Blanc, will be available later this year, as well as the winery’s first vineyard designate—Covenant Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard 2020—set to be released after Pesach.
To add to your Pesach shopping list: perhaps the little known Covenant fine brandy The Double Edged Sword (kosher for Passover).
Dalton is a modern Israeli winery located in the heart of the Galilee. It is an “estate winery which means that we grow our own fruit using sustainable vineyard practices,” noted CEO Alex Haruni.
Haruni continued, “I am looking to constantly keep the winery relevant for our customers and bring new wine drinkers into the fold. We do this with constant innovation, creation of new wines and evolving packaging,” Haruni shared.
Covid prompted Haruni to “build closer ties to our customers. We intensified our digital presence and built our own e-commerce site. We also reduced prices to help people get through the worst of the economic challenges.”
What’s next from Dalton? “We are experimenting with clay amphorae and ancient grape varieties, and have a new vermouth and sparkling wine that were recently released in Israel that we hope to bring to the U.S. soon. We also have a few more surprises in the offing that I can’t yet reveal.” Stay tuned.