The Golan Heights Winery has contributed to putting Israel on the interntional wine map.If the words ‘Israel’ and ‘wine’ only make you think of the sweet sticky sacramental traditional syrup, think again.

Israeli wineries today produce sparkling products that are winning prizes and fans worldwide. Last month, two wineries took the gold medal at Challenge International du Vin at Bordeaux in France: Ramat Hagolan won for its 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, and Barkan for its Merlot 2001 Reserve. The contest included entries from 31 countries, which submitted approximately 5000 wines.

Today, on its 20th anniversary, Golan Heights Wineries is unquestionably one of Israel’s top three wineries, and no one can take away its leadership role in launching the Israeli wine revolution. Its products account for 38% of Israeli wine exports, with even more wine sold domestically, appealing to the evolving Israeli palate.

It all started more than two decades ago, with a visit to the Golan region by reknowned wine expert Cornelius Eve. “You’re in a superb wine-growing region,” he declared on a visit to the Golan with a group of California oenologists – experts on producing grapes for wine

He was speaking to a group of local farmers, who were mainly growing flowers. The oenologists thought that the combination of wide diurnal and annual temperature ranges, high altitude, and rich volcanic soil created optimal conditions for grapes

The Golan farmers listened to the experts. They planted vineyards of sauvignon (white) grape, and sent the fruits of their labor to wineries in the center of the country, which produced highly-praised vintages. The farmers then installed their own press. The vintage was sent abroad, where it immediately won awards and praise. The result, exactly 20 years ago, in 1983, was the founding of Golan Heights Winery.

Four kibbutzim (collective agricultural settlements) and four moshavim own Golan Heights Winery. The communities are scattered and their soils and climate vary widely, providing a range of beds for different grape varieties.

“We began growing high-quality classic grape varieties, dragging the commercial wineries in our wake. They, too, began to plant high-quality grapes,” says Golan Heights Winery CEO Shalom Blyer.

When Blyer talks about the Golan’s vineyards, his pleasure pours out. “Look at the peach flowers,” he exclaims at the sight of the pink flowers blossoming on the trees awakening from their winter slumber. He displays the same emotion when standing before the terroir table of soil types that hangs on the wall in the winery visitors center, and when he explains the importance of the different soils at each vineyard and the selection of the most suitable grape to produce the best wine.

But romance does not make a business, certainly not a successful one. As Blyer explains at every forum, “We were commercially successful in 2002, meeting all our targets.” Numerically, the target was $21 million in sales.

Setting such a target during a severe recession was rather astonishing, especially for a sector that is export-oriented. The fall in exports, which has caused many business financial hardships, cost Golan Heights Winery over 30%.

“Israel’s struggle for a commercial place in the world has two facets,” says Blyer. “On one hand, Israeli products are removed from the shelves in places that detest us. Elsewhere, however, in places that have many Jewish consumers, such as the US and UK, customers demonstrate support for Israel by buying Israeli products.”

The result has been a doubling of wine exports to the US, taking advantage of the recent public tendency to boycott French products, while exports to European countries, such as Germany, have plummeted.

“For quite a few years, many people were surprised that the Golan communities decided to plant more and more vineyards, saying, ‘Why are you investing when we’re about to leave the Golan’ If we had listened to the naysayers, we wouldn’t be making wine,” says Blyer. The prospect of withdrawal from the Golan has been on the horizon many times, and just as frequently it has disappeared.

Today, with boutique wineries popping up across the country, you have to be an expert to keep track of all the Israeli wines filling the shelves, and it’s hard to remember that the Golan Heights Winery was launched into a local alcoholic vacuum. The winery immediately set new standards that jolted the entire sector to new levels of excellence.

“You should bear in mind that we entered the sector at the right time,” Blyer says. “Global wine consumption began to grow then, and the drinking of high-quality wines spread from its earlier preserve of the wealthy and aristocrats. Israelis also began traveling abroad at that time, and tasted new wines that they then sought back home.”

The new popularity of wine and the success of larger vineyards have led to the launch of smaller, boutique wineries.

One has an unlikely location: right next to David Ben-Gurion’s house at Kibbutz Sde-Boker in the Negev, is one that directs visitors to the kibbutz’s latest venture – a boutique winery.

Follow the gravel paths and you will find yourself in front of what used to be the communal shower block – a drab, squat building that has been converted into a wine cellar-cum-wine-tasting and sales room.

“You have to be a little bit crazy to be a winemaker,” San Franciscan-born kibbutznik-vintner Zvi Remak told Ha’aretz. “You don’t have to be crazy to live in the Negev, but it helps,” he added.

Sde-Boker Winery, established in 1999, is the first winery in the region since the Nabatean-Roman era ended more than 1,500 years ago. It might seem like madness to grow grapes in a harsh desert climate, 500 meters above sea level, but Remak quickly explained how it actually works in favor of quality wine production.

“In summer, our temperatures shoot up to between 32 to 34 degrees Celsius with about 30-percent humidity,” he said. “At night, it drops to as low as 16 degrees, while the humidity shoots up to 90 percent. It chills the grapes, and a variation in temperatures means a variation in the flavors of the grapes. And because it is dry here, we have less problems with mildew.”

The 44-year-old Remak, who immigrated to Israel in 1980, first thought of the idea nine years ago when the kibbutz management announced it would scrap its fruit orchards and grow grapes instead. Since the kibbutz does not use hired labor, it had decided to make the switch as growing grapes was far less labor-intensive than growing fruit.

“When I heard that, something just clicked,” explained Remak who already had a degree in agronomy and had been working in the orchards. “I knew then that I wanted to be a winemaker. It’s agriculture, it’s science, it’s art and you’re creating something.”

He then headed back to California for a year with his four daughters and his wife, Janet, mainly to spend time reconnecting with his American family, but also to sign up for a course in winemaking at Napa College.

On his return, the toughest part was convincing his fellow kibbutzniks to allow him to make wine from the grapes. “At first, I didn’t get permission but I didn’t give up,” he said. “It’s hard to convince people about anything which is new and different.”

Kibbutz Sde-Boker has not yet bowed to the growing phenomenon of privatization among kibbutzim and moshavim, whereby members are receiving salaries and managing their own budgets, and so on. Asked if it was the image of yuppies sipping Cabernet on the hallowed ground of socialist endeavor that made the kibbutz reluctant to give him the go-ahead, Remak replied, “Oh no, not at all. Here, we have all sorts of people running small businesses, such as making jewelry and even a dog-kennel. They were just concerned about whether they stood to lose money given we had to invest in equipment. It wasn’t just good enough to make good wine, they wanted to know if I could really sell it.”

“Israel has changed. Look, if I said 20 years ago, `let’s set up a winery’, I would have been laughed at,” Remak said. “Israelis now appreciate fine wine and good food. Look at how many cooking shows there are on TV. More and more Israelis are traveling overseas and tasting good wine. People now realize that you drink wine with a meal and not Coke.”

In 1999, Remak produced some 1,600 bottles of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. This year, he is expecting to produce some 3,500 bottles from his 2002 harvest. There is no budget for advertising so he is depending on the Internet and word of mouth, while working to convince a number of shops in Be’er Sheva to stock his wines.

Meanwhile, Remak is still working in the kibbutz factory. “The factory pays the bills, but it’s the winery that gives me enormous personal and professional satisfaction. I would obviously love to be doing this full-time.” The other kibbutzniks have now swung behind him. “Everybody wants me to succeed. I have the responsibility and when you are putting yourself on the line, there is a lot at stake.”

So what would have the country’s first prime minister thought of the idea? “David Ben-Gurion wanted people to move to Israel, to move to the Negev and to develop industry, agriculture and tourism in the region,” said Remak. “And I’m simply doing all those things that he wanted.”

(Based on reports in Globes and Ha’aretz)