By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Yaakov Berg tells a story about the Baron Edmund de Rothschild. Rothschild invested massively in wine production in Europe and also in Ottoman Palestine in the 19th century. His wineries produced top quality product. But when asked which wine was the best, his answer always returned to a time when he was seventeen and sitting with a woman. “Wine is connected to the experience,” says Berg who established the winery with his wife Na’ama in 2003.
If experience is one of the major components of a good wine tasting, Psagot has pulled out all the stops. Perched on the windswept hills of the Binyamin region north of Jerusalem in the West Bank at 550 meters; the visitors center overlooks the rocky hills that pour out towards the Dead Sea. When we arrived on Friday a large Bat Mitzvah event was taking place so we were ushered into a small movie theatre that shows a 25 minute short film about the winery. Surprisingly the film, perhaps in line with Berg’s own view that wine is about the “experience”, was not about the wine itself but about the people and land behind it.
A city-slicker who is about to move to London from Tel Aviv must take over his father’s winery when the elder falls ill. The movie shows how he struggles through an old girlfriend and working the land, all the while having visions of Jewish history. “Every stone has a story; every hill a view,” his old love tells him. Wine is a theme throughout, at one point he sneaks in a bottle and a schwarma for his dad in the hospital. Later he finds an urn from 3,000 years ago near Shilo; drawing parellels with Jewish settlement today and in the biblical period. There is something poetic in this, the urn is supposed to symbolize how the winery owner has rebuilt his own life.
As the film ends we are ushered into a plush tasting room that seem suspended between a darkened hall full of barrels and another hall with vats of wine. This is the essential element of any wine tour; getting close to the product. Barg bring around a delicious cake and coffee for everyone. A representative from Kedem with his wife is also at the tasting.
We begin with a 2011 Cabernet Franc. This is a grape variety that is widely planted in France but is usually blended with Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Berg is proud of his Franc, and he should be; it is robust and spicy. “I could speak for days about wine; you can study to be a wine maker and so it is a whole world, not just a drink.” Berg is big on talking about the differences between old and new world winemaking. He contrasts his experiences in California and in France. California is modern, whereas in France each lot of land has been farmed for centuries, he asserts. We drink through several more bottles; a delicious and well-rounded 2011 Shiraz and Merlot. The 2012 Edom, which is a benchmark blend for the winery (75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot) harvested from vineyards in Jerusalem Hills is a Gold Medal Winner in the 2008 Terravino competition and silver Medal Winner in the 2009 Vinalies competition, but honestly did not seem as good as the others. One of the winners of the series is their 2011 single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. At 220 NIS a bottle it is the most expensive as well; the other wines are prices around 100 NIS a bottle.
One of the issues facing Psagot is not the difficulty of making a quality wine. Producing some 200,000 bottles a year, they are well regarded in the industry and produce an excellent product. The hurdle before them is the political situation. Berg notes that the main opposition to wine produced over the Green Line comes from Israeli customers, primarily in Tel Aviv. “Restaurants in Tel Aviv won’t buy our wine and also wine writers don’t cover it.” But Berg is passionate about combatting this problem, and bringing the wine to the palette of Israelis. Outside Israel he notes that around 99 percent of Israeli wine is still stuck being sold primarily to Jewish customers. In a sense one gets the feeling these Israeli wines, whatever their quality, are not escaping the Jewish ghetto, despite their potential. He notes that 20 years ago Israeli wine was not of a high quality.
“We try to sell to people that have a heart for Israel.” Is it a pricing issue abroad, with Israeli wines retailing for $50 a bottle or more, their American, Australian or South American competitors are less. Berg doesn’t think it is a major hurdle although he acknowledges that as a producer he must pay more for labor, land and also water.
As the tasting wraps up, he puts on another video that describes the history of Jewish settlement and winemaking in Benyamin. One wonders if all the attempts to convince visitors of the Jewish attachment to the land and the importance Psagot puts on heritage and history, are necessary. The wine speaks for itself. It is understandable some will ask about politics, or some want to feel the story of Jews reconnecting to their wine-drinking biblical roots. For others; it is just about love of the vino.