Nevo Hazan created this winery by himself but is thankful for “intervention from above” in his words that has helped create Nevo Winery, A tiny yet beautiful 7K bottles a year winery in the Village of Mata, Judean Hills.

The story of how this winery was started is certainly out of the ordinary. We meet passionate and hardworking wine makers all the time but in this case the story is a bit different. It all began 15 years ago. Nevo who was finishing the building of his house was moving out of the wooden cabin that was next door, had found out that his aunt has fallen ill. The aunt who was living in the north, had been scheduled to start treatments at the Haddassa Ein Karem Hospital, and he invited her to live in his now vacant cabin a short distance away from the hospital. At the time, the land the house was on was re-measured and the Hazan family found out that an old bomb shelter that was no longer in use was now a part of their property as well. This shelter would later become a wine cellar.

According to Nevo, his aunt is no ordinary lady either. In the process of Chemotherapy and Radiation treatments this lady had the energy to climb the trees near the house and pick olives to make olive oil from, fruit to make Jams etc. When Harvest time came around, Nevo’s aunt had asked him to get some wine grapes so they can make wine together. The wines were terrific. Nevo’s aunt got better and after about a year she headed back home. Nevo told her before she left that he would continue making wine from that point onwards. He then started building a tasting room outside the family’s house. According to Nevo, no architect or engineers were involved and the tasting room has been built by him alone. This in my honest opinion is one of the most beautiful winery tasting rooms I have ever been to. Outside the tasting room, Nevo also built a brick oven to bake bread and roast lamb for a long period of time, yet another trick he learned from his favorite aunt.

Nevo attended the 2 year program at the Soreq wine making school in the Judean Hills and is now producing wines from grapes in Mata, some of which are from his own vineyards. Last year as a pilot Nevo produced a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon Rose which has been a great success and will be produced on a larger scale this year. In addition, Nevo winery produces a crisp, non oaked Viognier as well as red varieties of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon which have been aged 18 months in French Oak. One final blend is of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. The wines are lovely and so are Nevo and Ifat who will welcome you at the winery.

When I was climbing the 800 meter slope of Manara to an altitude of 460 m above sea level It was like visiting a foreign European country, the view of the Hachula valley, the Golan Heights, and the white mountain top of the Hermon seem like a view one would see in Switzerland. The high ground dark soil and rocks are covered today with large fruit plantations and beautiful vineyards.

In full disclosure, Itzhak Cohen, owner and wine maker of Ramot Naftaly and my Father have known each other for over 40 years. Cohen’s family arrived to the Upper Galilee village Ramot Naftaly when he was 14 years old. The Cohen family has been involved in agriculture since then, mostly dealing with fruit and vineyard plantings. The old vineyards were able to sustain for such a long time since this village is adjacent to the Kedesh valley of the Galilee, where some of the best vineyards in Israel are located. The ideal Terroir rich Tera Rosa soil and high temperature differences between nights and days along with low precipitation combine for an ideal growing area that many wineries in Israel compete for. It was a lifelong dream of Itzhak Cohen to open his own winery. This dream took shape in 2002 when he attended Wine Master classes in Northern Israel. He was no stranger to the wine industry before then, in 1989 Cohen was the CEO of an “unknown” winery by the name of “Golan Heights Winery”. In the following year after finishing his wine studies in Israel and in Italy, Cohen already had a 1000 bottle batch of Merlot and Cabernet of his own creation.

Today Ramot Naftaly has a large state of the art winery with a beautiful visitor center. The winery was designed to receive 70 tons of grapes a year producing over fifty thousand bottles a year, but similarly to the Somek Winery, Ramot Naftaly decided to stick to quality as opposed to quantity and produce only 10K bottles a year. In a smart business move, they are providing logistical assistance to other boutique wineries in the area and by doing so using the large facilities, machinery and storage area they had built.

Multi winery bottling line at Ramot Naftaly

What makes Ramot Naftaly wine special? This is an easy question to answer, first of all the Barbera wine this winery is producing has not only received high critical acclaim and prizes in Israel, almost the entire annual production is exported to Italy. This is a big deal, Barbera is an Italian variety and the fact that the Italians are buying this wine from Israel speaks louder than words. If you are still curious, I will tell you that” Wine & Gourmet Magazine” in Israel called the 2009 Ramot Naftaly Barbera “ Unique and Impressive” and gave the wine a score of 90 in a blind tasting.

The Ramot Naftaly Duet, (blend of Cabarnet and Merlot) has won best value two years in a row at the Sommelier competition in Israel. In these times, this is certainly a category a winery can pride itself on wining. This is a terrific wine by a superb winery.

A good friend recently told me that in life, we are all constantly making plans and the all mighty G*d above us is laughing as we do it. I honestly think that it is no stroke of luck that has brought Lori and Shaike Lender to open Zafririm Winery in the area that they did. The Lender couple who combine a vast knowledge in Archeology and Art History, have chosen the Judean Hills, a region wealthy in ancient ruins both above and below the ground, to open up their small family winery. Even the wines they produce are named after ruins that are in close proximity to Zafririm Winery.

Lori and Carey talking wine

What stands out to me, even though this is a family winery, is the fact that the whole family joins forces during peak periods such as harvest time and goes grape picking together. Lori had recently told me about a very special small plot of Petite Sirah that she has access to. She has a small luxury that few wine makers enjoy; she can assemble the men in her life [her husband Shaike, and 4 sons] and go out to pick the grapes that they want on the very same day that she feels that they are at their best. Other wineries in Israel have to wait for the cavalry to show up and help along.

Zafririm Winery has been making Old World wine since 2002, and currently produces 4,000 bottles a year. Although I realize that the wine is not getting enough attention, Lori has been dealing with a good problem to have. The wine is selling out, twisting her arm to decide on a date to release the younger vintages. All the wines currently released into the market are 2009 and 2010, anything older is sold out.

From the current selection that is available for sale, my favorite is the 2010 Lavnin. A blend of 40% Syrah, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon and 27% Petite Sirah, aged 15 months in American and French oak barrels. This is a wine that is soft and elegant, a terrific effort in my humble opinion.

Saturday night of Hol H’Moed Sukkoth I was challenged for a Kosher Winery Tour for 8 VIP in three days (Tuesday the fifth day of Hol H’Moed.)
Considering myself professional, I called 3 great wineries and booked a very special visit. At one winery I booked the VIP room and asked to have it set up for us including plates of cheeses, bread and olive oil. At the second winery I set up a privet appointment with the wine maker and asked him to lead the tour in the winery. I also called a kosher restaurant, made sure it has a Sukka and made reservation for a Kosher lunch.
On Tuesday morning I meet the minibus driver at the King David Hotel lobby and together we waited for the guests to show up. A bit later then agreed the group showed up. The gentleman who called me for the challenge approached me and asked “are the wineries we are going too all have a Sukka?” I froze, “no” I answered. I didn’t know that in order to visit a winery and just taste its wine we will need a Sukka, I answered. I knew from previous Kosher wine tours during Sukkot that the Sukka is necessary just for the actual meal! “Forget it then“, said my client. “Find us a good kosher winery that has a Sukka.” As everyone started to clime the minibus I was going over my contact book to stand up for the new challenge and fine that “good winery with a Sukka”… lucky enough I got it! I called Psagot Winery and got a hold of Ms. Naama Berg, owner and wife of Yaakov Berg the winemaker. Naama was super understanding and eager to help me. Alon, she said “although we have about 250 people visiting the winery today, Yaakov will accept you for a VIP tour! Thank God I thought and instructed Gady the driver to head toward the Psagot Settlement. I had forty minutes (the length of the drive to Psagot) to talk about the history of winemaking in Israel and the counties excellent Terroir (growing conditions especially for grapevine.)
The boutique and Kosher Winery of Psagot is located at a height of 900 meter above sea level at the Psagot Settlement some twenty five kilometer north of Jerusalem. The meaning of the word Psagot is “Tops of mountains”. The Berg family started the winery in the year 2003 with a production of 2000 bottles. The original idea was to produce wine for personal consumption; however the demand for their wines was so strong that the winery doubled its production every year. This year Psagot winery will produce some 80,000 bottles. The winery produces 6 different dry red wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Edom Blend and Shiraz.) One dry white (Viognier) and a Port style. All of the wineries’ grapes grow at the Jerusalem Mountains on a lime stone, Terra Rosa soil at heights of 650 to 960 meter.
We got to the winery Parking lot and found Yaakov waiting for us. Instead of taking the regular pass to the entrance of the winery’s visitor center Yaakov opened the door that he uses to bring the grapes in to the winery and he led us to the production area. Yaakov took the time and explained us the wine making process from the minute the grapes arrive to the winery up to the packing the bottles. We were very lucky to be the only visitors allowed to enter the production area! We even got to taste two tank samples (one of them was Merlot from BRAHA Mountain.) Next we crossed to the huge cellar that contains more than 300 oak barrels. The beautiful and aromatic cellar has a see-through ceiling which is the floor of the winery’s visitor center. At the cellar we got two barrel tastings from two different wines. Following the touring part of the winery we made our way up to the beautiful and big! Sukka for some real wine tasting! The group had a six different wines guided tasting with Yaakov. We started with the “Viognier 09” which was very nice refreshing wine and was just what you can dream of in the very hot day that we had. Next was the Cabernet Franc which had an amazing vanilla finish. “Edom” a very well balanced blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. We then tasted the Shiraz 08, the Cabernet Sauvignon single vineyard 07 and the Prat (a port style wine). We ended our tasting with some good coffee and cakes.
The group bought several cases of wine before heading back happily to the hotel.

Ya'akov at his Psagot Winery