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Postwar, Full Steam Ahead: Bottles Spared the Harshest Reality

September 7, 2006
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Even with rocket damage and resulting fires, the wine harvest is strong. Photos courtesy of Barkan Winery
War and wine -- even that pairing has a story these days.

"It seems like we survived a real threat that may have ruined our harvest," declared Sasson Ben-Aharon, chief winemaker for Binyamina wineries.

Their vineyards are located in Binyamina, between Haifa and Hadera on Israel's western coast, cities that were under attack by some of the 3,000 rockets discharged by Hezbollah during the recent war. Some of the vineyards were declared closed military zones and proved inaccessible for weeks in a row.

"We were expecting a bumper crop," continued Ben-Aharon, "since the weather had been gratifying, and the grapes looked bountiful."

Winery CEO Ilan Hasson was telephoned during the Israeli-Hezbollah war by Royal Wine's vice president of marketing, Jay Buchsbaum, with a request to arrange a shipment immediately.

When Buchsbaum realized that Hasson was in such a hurry, he asked, "Why the rush?"

Hasson's reply stunned him.

Apparently, he was a longtime medic, and he'd just been called up to Lebanon. He was trying to stop by Ramat Gan to say goodbye to his wife and family before leaving for the front.

When Buchsbaum told him to forget the business request, Hasson merely shrugged it off and said, "Here, the war is a part of our lives. I will take care of it, just like it was any other day."

Ed Salzburg is the winemaker for Barkan, one of Israel's principle players in the increasingly prominent role that Israeli wines are enjoying on the world-wine stage. He took a memorable tour two weeks ago, surveying the vineyards all over and specifically evaluating any damage.

And he uttered a prayer at each vineyard -- especially Dishon and Dovev, located at the northern border with Lebanon -- with tears in his eyes.

"But they were tears of relief," admitted Salzberg.

"There was actually little visible damage," he acknowledged. "But only after we harvest this month will we know if there was infiltration by smoke or the like."

In Jerusalem -- which was far removed from the hostilities, and basically operated under normal circumstances -- a related story was unfolding as Arnon Geva, part-owner and son-in-law of Eli Ben Zaken, owner and winemaker, called a special meeting of the staff and workers.

"We may be spared this time," Geva told the congregate workers. "But have our sales force recommend to all of our distributors to demonstrate support, and order wines from our competitors in the Galilee up north. We are, after all, one big family."

Kill Business, Not People

Yoav Levy is the guy in charge of the reputable Batzelet Hagolan winery. Facing Syria on the Golan Heights, Levy was relieved at the relative quiet.

"Only 90 Katyushas fell on the heights," he said with a sigh of mixed relief. "Only 90. I guess the Syrians are protecting land they are hoping to recover."

He went on to list the collateral damage -- defined by the conspicuous absence of tourists.

Wineries are dependent on visitors who tour and purchase products. "It was dead, not a soul," lamented Levy. "But fortunately, we sustained no loss of life, and that's what's important. They can kill the business, as long as human life is spared."

Although Carmel, Israel's oldest winery, has its headquarters in Rishon le Tzion in the central plain, it has a number of vineyards up north. Winemaker Lior Laxor is also postponing judgment until the harvest is in. It has just now begun to be collected; the Ben Zimra area got many hits from rockets, which pelted the north day after day in July and early August.

"Often, there were fires that needed to be extinguished," explained Laxor.

"And during the fighting, we also missed the leafing and spraying rituals that pre-empts the harvest," he further bemoaned. "But the crop looks healthy and abundant. We are hopeful."

Hamasrek -- like Castel -- was protected in the Judean Hills, but the call came to chief winemaker Nahum Greengrass that he was needed on the front lines. Before answering the call, he recruited his brother to come in and mind the store -- the vineyard, that is.

"After all," he reminded his sibling, "isn't that what brothers are for?"

 

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