Benjamin’s Vineyard

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The hills and valleys that once were the domain of the tribe of Benjamin were known for their wine and olive oil in ancient times. The current residents are continuing the tradition and using the latest technology and knowledge to produce outstanding wine and olive oil.

> by Heidi J. Gleit and ERETZ Staff

Grapes and olives were the mainstays of ancient agriculture in the Land of Israel. The vine was probably first cultivated in the area around the Black Sea and then its cultivation and the culture associated with it slowly penetrated the lands to the west and south of what is today Georgia. By the Middle Bronze Age, some 4,000 years ago, grape vines already were widespread in the Land of Israel; remains of viticulture have been found in many of the archaeological excavations from that period and onward.
By biblical times, it was well rooted in the land, mainly in the hills and mountains home to the tribe of Judah (the southern mountain backbone) and the tribes of Benjamin and Efraim (the central and northern mountains). The Bible mentions vines, grapes, and wine hundreds of times, detailing laws and conduct related to them. It refers to the vine over 300 times, with different names for different kinds of vines and for the plant’s different parts. The Bible associates its growth mainly with the tribe of Judah and cites it as a sign of peace and prosperity. The vine also symbolizes future divine retribution for misdoings and will be an indication that the people of Israel are at peace again after their return from exile or redemption.
The abundance of biblical references to the vine may be related to the fact that wine was the main beverage on Mediterranean shores for millennia. Less alcoholic in ancient times than the modern version, wine was consumed in lavish amounts. Both wine and the vine also were believed to have therapeutic qualities; they were used to treat a variety of maladies, from stomachaches to dysentery. By Roman and Byzantine times, that is, the time of the Mishna and the Talmud, wine from the land of Israel was exported all over the world. It was not as famous as the wines of Italy loved by the Roman emperor and served at the table of king Herod, but it was a staple of the diet of the less wealthy and famous as well as a mainstay of the Jewish economy in the land. The hundreds of ancient winepresses, discovered throughout the mountains of Judea and Samaria and in the lowlands of Judea to their west, attest to the quantities of wine produced – a quantity that exceeded by far the needs of the local population. These wine presses attest not only to the amount of wine produced, but first and foremost to the amount of grapes grown in the mountains, resulting in harvests that are far larger than today. When the Mamelukes rose to power in the thirteenth century CE, viticulture declined. Moslems were forbidden to drink wine then and so from that time, the vineyards supplied only grapes for eating fresh or drying, not for fermenting. Except for the area around Hebron, most of the vineyards were uprooted and olives were planted in their stead throughout the land.
Today viticulture is being reintroduced with a vengeance in the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. To the settlers, it is a historic redemption and a meaningful way to make a living. As a result, vineyards are springing up throughout the Mateh Benjamin Regional Council along with agricultural research focused on improving the yield and the quality of wine. The vineyards there benefit from the relatively cold, dry climate and the stable weather throughout the summer.
“The climate here is a great advantage, but the real secret behind successful innovations in vine cultivation,” tour guide Chezky Betzalel says, “is stress – just like the stress of daily life in Israel forces Israelis to search for original solutions to various dilemmas.”
The vine grows best and yields the best grapes when it is cultivated on marginal soil on steep mountain slopes with minimal water, explains Dr. Yishai Netzer of the R&D Center of Samaria and the Jordan Rift. Grapevines produce richer, more aromatic grapes when they lack water because the drought stress conditions force them to produce “defense materials” that eventually make red wines darker and powerful.
Betzalel, who had coordinated a day of visiting vineyards and wineries in the Mateh Benjamin Regional Council, notes, “During Roman times, this area was called the district of Gophna and its capital city was Gophna. The name Gophna comes from the Hebrew word gefen, which means vine, and it indicates the importance attached to vine growing in this area in the past.”
The first stop was Shlomi Cohen’s vineyard near the settlement of Dolev, which is named after the grove of ancient plane trees (known in Hebrew as dolev) in the riverbed just below it. Eight kilometers east of the 1967 border and three kilometers west of Ramallah, Dolev was established in 1983 and today is home to some 250 families. It sits on a prominent mountain, 600 meters above sea level. The ancient wine press discovered at the entrance to the settlement attests to the vineyards that once flourished in the area. However, when the first residents arrived at Dolev, agriculture did not seem like a feasible option to any of them. There did not appear to be fertile ground around and the few plots that were available for cultivation were not considered fertile enough to be worth the effort. However, after Cohen planted Dolev’s first vineyard, almost 20 years ago, the residents came to realize that this land is ideal for cultivating grapes.
Cohen was born and raised in the Jezreel Valley at Moshav Sede Ya’akov, which his grandfather cofounded, and moved to Dolev in 1992. He started growing grapes in 1996 because “agriculture connects people to a place,” he explains. Everyone thought he was crazy, but his venture not only worked, it turned out to be extremely successful. One of the secrets to his success is integrated pest management (IPM). Instead of automatically spraying the fields with pesticides at regularly scheduled intervals, an expert regularly and methodically inspects the leaves of grapevines throughout the fields for insects, viruses, and other predators. Pesticides are then sprayed in accordance with the findings. Though this is labor intensive, it actually ends up saving money since less is spent on pesticides and potential problems are averted early.
Mundar Nofel is Cohen’s right-hand man. He is from the nearby Arab village of Ras Karkar. Most of his extended family lives in the village and works in Cohen’s vineyard and Nofel makes sure that everything goes smoothly. The original kernel of the village, which sits on a steep mountain spur, is a picturesque fortress that the local Moslem peasants built in the 1840s as part of the revolt against Muhammad Ali, the Egyptian governor who conquered the Land of Israel from the Turks. The residents of the village today live in the fortress and in modern houses that have been built around it.
Betzalel and Netzer live in Talmon, across the riverbed from Dolev. Talmon is actually a string of settlements, spreading out along the ridge from the hilltop on which the original settlement was founded in 1989. It is a work in progress, with additional Talmons sprouting up on the surrounding hilltops; each is labeled as a neighborhood of the original settlement in order not to be classified as a new settlement. As a result, Neriyya is located to the north of the original settlement and Zayit Ra’anan (Hebrew for the fresh olive tree) is further on. Beyond them are Horesh Yaron and Hursha on Mount Dier Haresha, 754 meters above sea level, with a magnificent view and a radio-television antenna in its center.
Netzer specializes in grapevines and has just returned from China, where he was advising a huge table grapes vineyard in northern China on how to increase yield. He is in the midst of conducting a number of research projects in a plot in the valley of Shiloh belonging to Meshek Achiya, one of the main wineries in the Mateh Benjamin Region. The research plot, which also contains a meteorological station with NIS 250,000 worth of instruments funded by the Israeli Ministry of Science, Technology and Space and the Israeli wine council, has six water meters that allow Netzer to control and record irrigation separately for six different sections. Each row of plants is numbered and so is each plant to help Netzer and his PhD student Sarel Munitz collect detailed recordings of everything happening to each and every plant in the field. The sophisticated equipment includes 28 instruments that measure how the main trunk of 32 of the vines expands or contracts. Sensors attached to the leaves of selected vines measure their stiffness, which is an indicator of how much water is contained in the leaf; another instrument measures the shadow cast by selected vines on the ground below them.
One of Netzer’s most elaborate research projects is trying to discover what happens if he gives grapevines as much water as they want. For this, he is growing six vines in six large containers that are embedded in the research plot. Each one receives a large amount of water, which is measured precisely, as is the amount of water that runs off, revealing exactly how much each vine absorbs. The whole process is fully automated, from the irrigation to the measurements of the runoff water to the recycling of the runoff water after it is measured, and the data is transferred directly to the lab via cellular communication technology.
While the research plot at Achiya is on the flat floor of the Shiloh Valley, Cohen’s fields at Dolev extend over the terraced mountain slopes. Such terraces have been an attribute of the mountains of Samaria and Judea since the first settlers there began to clear the wood-covered hills in order to build villages, raise sheep and goats, and farm. This process has been going on for 3,000 years, when the first wandering tribes tried to settle in these mountains. Water was of the essence and so the discovery of plaster that could seal cisterns and wells made it possible for settlement in the mountains to begin in earnest. These early settlers would coalesce into the Israelite tribes. They would develop their own culture (not consuming pigs, for example), practice their own system of burial, have no figurative ornamentation on their utensils, and worship at high places.
The terraces soon crisscrossed the mountains, “and on these terraces,” Netzer says, “grape vines would spread out. A vine can grow good grapes for 20 years,” easily lasting for a whole generation.
“To obtain high-quality grapes, cabernet sauvignon for example, the grapevine must be exposed to drought stress of some sort,” he adds. “The preferred stress for good wine is giving them less water, which results in smaller grape berries. This also means the ratio of peel to flesh is higher, which is good since the peel is a source of flavor and color.”
Netzer has discovered that giving the plants lots of water at the start of the season and then a little water for the rest of the season results in the best combination of relatively high yield and improved wine quality. The higher up the mountains, the stonier the field is and thus the higher the quality of the grapes is. In other words, more marginal agricultural land results in better grapes if the right agro-technical practices are applied.
Cohen, for example, grows cabernet on the entire hillside. On the other side of the valley, where there is basalt stone and very little soil, he grows merlot. Merlot is more sensitive to stress and he waters it once a day in small quantities during the extremely hot days of summer. More than a few wine experts are shocked that he manages to grow merlot in such harsh conditions.

Vats Overflowing with Oil
Olives are the other staple of the mountains of Samaria. Betzalel has an olive grove of his own in Talmon. He began planting Barnea olive trees 14 years ago, as a hobby in his spare time. Today, 60 trees are flourishing on five acres. His children help him with it – it is a better activity for them than watching television, he says.
The grove sits on a steep hillside that his neighbors laughed at him for trying to cultivate. However, this location, the terroir, is what gives his olives their character – instead of the mild flavor that the Barnea is known for, his olives have a strong flavor that is more reminiscent of the Souri, another of the strains of olives indigenous to the land of Israel.
Betzalel is very enthusiastic about his agricultural hobby and follows the latest research and techniques. Each row of trees is different and some ripen as early as September, while others ripen as late as November. Since this is a hobby for him and his family, that actually is an advantage: they harvest the olives gradually in their spare time at the optimal time for each tree.
However, pressing such small quantities of olives was a problem. No one wanted to deal with such small quantities. So he and his wife Yehudit established their own press that is designed especially for small quantities. At his insistence, she took a course to be an olive oil taster. At first, she was somewhat skeptical of the idea behind the course, but she is amazed by all that she learned about flavors and quality of oil. She also learned that the more bitter the oil is, the healthier it is.
One factor that has a significant impact on the oil’s quality is the amount of time that elapses between picking and pressing the olives. In order to produce optimal oil, clients must coordinate with Yehudit in advance, before they harvest the olives, so that the olives can be pressed immediately after they are picked, literally straight from the tree.
The couple bought a small olive press that can press 40 kilograms of olives in one hour and works in two steps, Yehudit explains. First, the machine crushes the fruit and the pit and mixes everything together, enabling the oil molecules to bond with one another and form small pockets of oil and the shards of the pit to cut into the pieces of fruit, releasing more oil from them. About 20 percent of the oil is in the pit, along with substances that act as preservatives for the oil, she notes. Then everything is transferred to a centrifuge that separates the oil from the water and the pulp, which is called gefet in Hebrew. The presses for large quantities of olives generally work in three steps: crushing the olives; separating the liquid from the pulp; and then separating the oil from the water. However, separating the water along with the pulp actually is better for the environment, she explains, because the water is so acidic that it is better not to isolate it. In addition, oil produced in the three-step process has less polyphenols because some of them are separated out with the water. Polyphenols are the antioxidants that neutralize free radicals and so the more of them there are in the oil, the healthier it is, she adds.

Quest for the Archetype
An amazing assortment of grapes is growing in the experimental field at the R&D Center of Samaria and the Jordan Rift Valley, which is located on the campus of Ariel University. They all are part of the many research projects underway at the center, explains its agricultural research coordinator, Dr. Shivi Drori, who lives nearby in Givat Harel.
“We make 120 different kinds of wine each year from all the different experiments at the center. We put 50 liters of wine in each barrel, prepare each wine the same way, and then try to figure out how the various factors influence the wines,” he says, adding that the wine that is left after the experiments is used to create a blend which is sold; the profits are used to support the research.
That said, most of the grapes growing at the center are intended to be eaten and not drunk as wine. That means the fruit is larger, tastes better, has thinner skin, and has less juice. However, Drori’s most exciting experiment, which he is conducting in cooperation with Netzer and Prof. Zohar Amar of Bar-Ilan University, focuses on wine.
During Mameluke times, cultivation of grapes declined sharply. By the time that Baron Edmond Rothschild reintroduced viticulture in the Land of Israel in the 1880s, local varieties were not being cultivated and so he imported grapes from France, Drori explains. These became the standard varieties grown throughout the land. Drori is searching for native grapes that are the equivalent of the Barnea olive, the native variety of olive that Prof. Shimon Lavee of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem rediscovered and has since become popular all over the world due to the combination of its high yield and fast growth rate. Drori hopes to find a local variety of grape that adapted over the ages to the conditions of this area and is both easy to raise commercially and makes excellent wine, characteristics that could make it an international best-seller.
“We want to find the best of the land and connect to it and to bring history and tradition into our research. Our goal is to identify maybe three that can compete on an international level,” Drori says.
For the experiment, he collected 270 types of grapes growing wild all over the country. After analyzing them, he found they include about 70 unique varieties. That said, the wild plants are very close to the cultivated plants, which hints that this area could be where grapevines first were cultivated.
In addition to his scientific research, Drori also established the Gvaot Winery, a boutique winery in Givat Harel. He experiments there too and has gained a reputation for making tasty and unusual wines, most notably a white cabernet sauvignon.
Gvaot is one of over 20 wineries in Judea and Samaria. Eight are in the Mateh Benjamin Region and the others are in Samaria, Gush Etzion, and Yatir. Most of them use locally grown grapes, which are being raised by the several dozen farmers in the Mateh Benjamin Region who have followed Cohen’s lead. The wineries vary in size and tend to export about two-thirds of their wine, mainly to the US. Many of them host tastings and other activities.
Joe and Daphne Bazer named the winery they established in Shiloh a decade ago Talia, after their youngest daughter. They settled in Shiloh 23 years ago, with their two-year-old daughter. She is now a college student and has six younger siblings.
When they made aliyah from the US, they came directly to Shiloh because they wanted to be close to Jerusalem, Daphne recalls. They are artists and artisans – she makes ceramics and paints, he works with wood, crafting bowls and musical instruments, mainly flutes from reeds that grow nearby. He prefers to use local wood for bowls, such as maple, cherry, olive, cedar, and almond. The preference for local and handcrafted carries over to their winery, which initially produced 800 bottles a year and now produces 2,400 bottles of cabernet sauvignon annually. The Bazers use grapes grown by Shiloh residents and pick the grapes themselves – with the help of their family and some workers – early in the morning so the grapes still are cold when they reach the machine that crushes them slightly.
“We rely on the grapes having everything on them to create wine and do not add anything to them. We make it by hand, so we push it down every day for two weeks and then we put it in glass to age. We do not use oak barrels to age it because we want the wine to taste like grapes, not oak. That is why we do not add anything to the wine,” Daphne explains.
The Bazers’ studio, which includes the carpentry workshop, the winery, a display space for the work of local artists, and a comfortable wooden deck, offers a picturesque view of the Shiloh Valley, with its vineyards and biblical sites. After a day of touring, this is a great place to relax with a glass of wine while listening to the sounds of the flute, the ancient woodwind instrument with roots as deep in this land as grapevines and olive trees.

Useful Information

  1. Talmon Tourism
    Khan Talmon is a unique tourism site that was built in Talmon over the summer of 2014 by youths from Talmon, under the supervision of Moshe Aberjel. The khan hosts groups interested in becoming better acquainted with the area. Guests can sleep in the khan’s large tent and then go hiking or biking in the area accompanied by youths from the community. The site can accommodate groups with up to 50 members and has showers and toilets. For reservations and details, phone Yael Ben Zimra at 052-423-9999.
    Visitors can rent bikes to explore the area around Talmon from Pini Greenberg by phoning 052-464-3683.
  2. Olive Press Cafe
    In addition to pressing freshly picked olives into oil (by appointment only), the Olive Press Cafe in Talmon serves excellent coffee and a variety of breads and pizzas baked on the premises. It operates as a pizzeria on weekdays and a café on Thursday evenings and Friday mornings. For details and reservations about the olive press, phone Yehudit Betzalel at 052-464-3481 and for details about the cafe, call Ahuviel Nizri at 050-993-5299.
  3. R and D Center of Samaria and the Jordan Rift
    The research center, which is located on the campus of Ariel University, offers tours by appointment and sells a unique blend of wine that is produced on the premises. To arrange a visit or buy wine, phone the center’s office at (03) 906-6140.
  4. Gvaot Winery
    Shivi Drori crafts tasty and unusual wines at his Gvaot Winery in Givat Harel. In addition to tastings and tours of the winery, he hosts seminars and workshops on various aspects of viticulture by appointment. For details and reservations, phone 052-775-7574.
  5. Joe’s Place
    Joe and Daphne Bazer work wood, craft pottery, and make wine in their spacious workshop on Habikurim Street in Shiloh. Opposite the workshop, they have a gallery space in which they display and sell work by artists from Shiloh. In addition to hosting flute-making and crafts workshops for adults and children and wine tastings for adults, they often host music nights and a variety of events on the large wooden deck and lawn between the workshop and gallery. For details and reservations, phone (02) 994-2736 or see www.Shiloflutes.com.

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