In 2008 Alon was the General Manager of Agur Winery in the Judean Hills. The part he enjoyed best was showing people around and telling them about the Judean Hills region. Alon is now a certified tour guide. The Judean Hills is significantly a more well-known wine region than it was just a short 9 years ago.

In just under ten years, we have grown and we now lead more wine tours in Israel than anyone else. The first connection between a guest who loves wine and a winemaker is special and we get to witness it time after time.

Funny things that did occur to us along the trail:
1. A 19 year old Culinary student insisting on shaking the wine [like a Tequila shooter] because he had been taught this would give the wine the effect of an additional year or two worth of aging.

2. When a couple sat in front of a well known Israeli wine Consultant and insisted that a $70 magnet from BrookStone would age the wine in a matter of 30 minutes only to hear back from the consultant that they are “better off microwaving the wine”

So here we are, we are finding out about new wineries that we have not been to all the time [just under 300 active wineries throughout Israel]. We still tour the Judean Hills more often than the Carmel and the Golan. We enjoy it. We send out wine a few times a year and are always happy to tour with return guests and show them yet another great wine region in Israel. L’chaim!

Alon [right] and Barak out on the trail

The Judean Hills Wine Festival , One of our favorite festivals of the year is taking place in 10 days .This is a good opportunity to talk a bit about the 2015 harvest which is winding down in Israel.

Things started out well. We had a cold winter, with three cases of snow in Jerusalem and five in the Golan Heights. Even the writer of this blog was enjoying 2 meters of snow on Mount Hermon by December. This was followed by a long spring and June & July that were uncharacteristically comfortable.


Mid July and beginning of August,Tzora and Tzuba Wineries in the Judean Hills were early to harvest their whites and happy with the fruit that was coming in. When we started experiencing a 3 week long heatwave in August, news of early ripening of Merlot in the Golan was coming in. With at least one boutique winery harvesting Merlot ahead of its Viognier!

Photo Credit : Ortal Winery

Ortal Vineyard ahead of Harvest . Photo : Ortal Winery

What will certainly be remembered the most from this 2015 harvest year will be the dust storm. We had a 5 day period in which everything was covered in a thick yellowish layer of dust. Speaking to the wine makers in retrospect is quite interesting.

Shuki Yashuv of Agur winery stresses the point that Israel and the Judean Hills are well known for the Diurnal Temperature Variation in the course of a single day. Allowing the grapes to rejuvenate themselves in the evening regardless of how hot the day has been.

Now that the grape leaves were covered with a thick dust, a similar effect to a brick oven was taking place. The heat was being bottled in the plant allowing the sugar levels in some cases to sky rocket in a couple days, and in some cases it lead the vine to understand it was inn deeper stress than it could handle, and for it to shut down sugar maturation all together.

Wineries handled the dust storm quite differently from one another. In the Golan, we saw wineries spraying the grapes and leaves with high pressure water to reduce the dust and cool off the berries. In Psagot, we saw Cabernet Sauvignon that was left on the vine and has only been harvested in the 2nd half of October on behalf of Amphorae, a boutique in the Carmel.

Paul Dubb, winemaker and GM of Tzuba Winery says that half of a specific plot at Tzuba was harvested the day before the dust storm and the other half was harvested immediately after, the difference in flavors between the two was quite large.

Shuki summarizes by saying the 2015 harvest is one of the most challenging harvests he has experienced, luckily for him he had 16 previous harvests to get him ready for this one. “Everyone is reallly interested about: “how was the harvest this year?” But the MOST IMPORTANT of it all is the following: never ever judge the quality of wine by how challenging the harvest was. Wine has its own ways and will always reveal itself a few months AFTER the actual harvest. A good winery should produce good wine in any given harvest. Given that most of Agur’s wine is tasted before it is bought, so if it is good and the price right- go ahead and buy it. In winter when the experienced tasters will get a chance to taste the “en premiere” or “future wine”- rush to buy, because what you can say for sure in this harvest that the quantities will be smaller than usual”

We will revisit the wines of 2015 in two years’ time and it will be interesting to see what attributes the wine will posses.

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.