$50,000 investment, the NY Times transformed Golan Heights into a wine juggernaut

Find out how a $50,000 investment and an article in the New York Times transformed Israel’s Golan Heights into a global wine powerhouse.
Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visits newly built Golan Heights Winery Visitors Center in 1987

In the aftermath of both the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Golan Heights was littered with hundreds of burned out Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi tanks, which had been destroyed in various battles with Israeli forces. Although some of the agricultural fields on which these tanks had fought pitched battles were scorched by the military engagements, a group of determined pioneers set out to form kibbutzim and moshavim across the newly liberated, fertile Golan Heights in order to build various agricultural enterprises.

“Before the war, the Arab farmers planted very simple crops and the soil was in poor shape. I was asked by the kibbutz farmers a year after the war to create something new so they could produce a variety of crops,” recalled Shimshon Welner, an agricultural entrepreneur. "They came to me for advice in developing [an] industry in the region. I suggested that they use fertilizers, build water reservoirs and plant wheat fields and apple orchards.”

Some of the pioneers had also started to think about planting grape vineyards.

Two thousand years ago, the lush Golan Heights ridges and valleys produced luscious grapes for wine production. The grapes were not only used for Kiddush by local Jewish families and ceremonial rituals in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, but also quite popular among the Roman legions, as well as being exported to other countries such as Egypt. The Muslim conquest of Israel from the Romans in the post-Temple era virtually ended viticulture throughout the Holy Land.

As the apple orchards in the 1970s started to yield sufficient amounts of apples to be sold in the Israeli marketplace, a local packing house was established that became known as Peirot Golan (Golan Fruits). “We went from producing and packing one ton of apples 43 years ago to over 20,000 tons of apples today,” Welner proudly proclaimed.

The leaders of the local agricultural villages, some of whom who were quite aware of the region’s illustrious wine history, then started the process of building a quality winery.

“The elevation, climate and soil on the Golan Heights, which is rich in volcanic minerals, hadn’t changed after 2,000 years. Still, I thought that creating a winery from scratch and then trying to sell the wines abroad was a really crazy idea,” Welner claimed.

However, both the terroir and timing were ripe for such a bold undertaking.

“The Israeli wine industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s was in really terrible shape because the wines had a bad reputation for being low-quality,” recalled Shalom Blayer, who served as CEO of the Golan Heights Winery from 1998 to 2008. “Vineyards had already been planted by some of the fledgling kibbutzim and moshavim on the Golan Heights a few years after the Six Day War, so getting grapes for the winery wasn’t the problem. In fact, they were willing to give the winery the grapes for free!”

The kibbutzim and moshavim provided a minuscule $50,000 budget to start the winery. To actually craft a decent vintage, the winery needed professional viticulturists, a quality winemaker, bottling equipment, Israeli chutzpah and lots of luck.

As early as 1976, visiting professors of agriculture and viticulture from California had told the heads of the local kibbutzim and moshavim that the elevation, climate and mineral-rich soils would be perfect for planting vineyards using Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. “This essentially was an experimental pilot program to see if these grapes, which had never been grown before in Israel, could produce a good wine,” said Blayer. “In 1982, Peter Stern, a winemaking consultant from the University of California-Davis, got involved. He ended up spending many hours flying back and forth between the USA and Israel to develop the winery and train other winemakers for the Golan.

By luring two more wine-making pros to Israel and securing wine-making equipment in Italy as well as a bottling line in Israel, the Golan Heights Winery was able to produce the first Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc under their new Yarden label in 1983.

After coaxing an American wine importer to distribute these new vintages, an unforeseen miracle occurred. ”One of my contacts told me that he had a friend who wanted to speak with me and visit the winery, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times,” Welner recalled. “I took him to Peirot Golan, had him taste the wine and he was impressed, so impressed that he wrote an unbelievable article.”

On May 22, 1985, under the headline, “Battlefield Becomes a Vineyard”, Friedman lionized both the wines and the kibbutzim engaged in creating a new image for the Golan Heights region.

Friedman wrote, “As more and more kibbutzim on the Golan planted successful vines, they started talking in 1981 about producing wine. Mr. Welner, who at the time barely knew the difference between Chateau Lafite and grape juice, was tapped to head the project because of his touch with raising apples. Grapes, apples, they all thought, what's the difference?... Bordeaux it is not. Indeed, it is amazing that the stuff is drinkable. But not only is it drinkable, some wine critics are also hailing the 1983 Yarden Sauvignon Blanc as one of the few top-quality Israeli kosher wines ever to hit the market.”

That article changed the course of Israeli wines sold in America and put the Golan Heights Winery on the map. The wine store owners made copies of the story and put it in their windows.

Within two years, the neophyte Golan Heights Winery was winning medals at renowned wine competitions across Europe, including England and France, the capital of the global wine industry.

While Peter Stern and his California apprentices sparked the initial revolution of quality Israeli winemaking, it was Victor Schoenfeld, another University of California-Davis graduate, who used his knowledge to push the Golan Heights Winery to new levels of agricultural and winemaking innovation. As soon as Schoenfeld assumed the mantle of Chief Winemaker in 1991, he worked with the moshavim and kibbutzim to plant new grape varietals using a number of advanced agricultural techniques that yielded much higher quality harvests, unlike anything that had ever been seen before in the local wine industry.

“Peter’s brilliance put the Golan Heights Winery on the global stage, but it was Victor who just kept raising the quality and standard of the vineyards and wines to international acclaim, which continues to this day,” Blayer proudly proclaimed.

Anat Levi, the CEO of the Golan Heights Winery, added, “With over 70 international gold medal wine awards, the Golan Heights Winery continues to place Israel on the international wine map and earn the Israeli wine industry the respect and appreciation it deserves. These awards validate the great efforts of our people, both the winegrowers and Victor Schoenfeld and his talented staff alike.”

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