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.

We all root for the underdog at one point or another. I find myself doing that every time I visit Somek Estate Winery in Zichron Ya’akov as part of our Carmel Region Wine tour. The owner, Barak Dahan is a 5th generation vintner. His great – great grandfather arrived in Zichron Yaakov in 1882. Barak, along with his wife Hila, who studied wine making in Adelaide Australia, have opened a small “Old World” style winery. Somek winery uses a traditional basket press along with buckets and no pumps in an effort to preserve as much color and flavor as possible from the grapes. This effort which has been going on for 10 years now is paying off. Somek produces some of the best wines in Israel.

I am certainly not alone in making this rather large claim. Chef Alon Gonen [Head Chef of the Crown Plaza Hotel Group] recently conducted a blind tasting of Carignan wine. He claims that the Somek 2006 Carignan is the best to have ever been produced in Israel. This is the same Carignan our guests taste when visiting Somek. Other chefs agree with Chef Gonen, Meir Adoni [Head Chef of Katit & Mizlala- both prominent Tel Aviv restaurants] Have been buying wines directly from the winery for over a year.

Only a couple other restaurants in Israel carry Somek’s wine (Tapeo and Unami, again, best of breed restaurants in the Tel Aviv area).The reason so few carry Somek’s wine, is there is simply not enough of it to go around. It would be unjust not to mention in this post that in our opinion, Somek produces one of the best Chardonnays in Israel [currently sold out and only about 800 bottles coming out in the next batch]. Somek only produces 10K bottles a year and is not looking to grow. That is certainly rare for the Israeli wine industry.

The only reason I view this winery as an underdog is its neighboring wineries. Both Carmel and Tishbi, are within a 5 minute drive from Somek. Carmel produces 20 Million bottles a year and both buy grapes from the Dahan Vineyards on an annual basis. The sheer magnitude in which Carmel operates is intimidating to most wineries in Israel. This is not the case with Somek. Barak once told me that he wakes up at 4 O’clock in the morning each day. With a work ethic such as his and the level of wines he and his wife produce, there is no other way but to root for them.

Dr. Harold Caballeros is the Rector of Universidad San Pablo Guatemala and his daughter Andrea studies at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Hertzelia. After spending few days on a business conference in Tel-Aviv, Harold decided to stay in Israel two more days and spend some time with his daughter. A fantastic way to do that is by touring the country and tasting some of the great wines it has to offer.

We left Tel Aviv in the morning and drove north about an hour toward Kiryat-Tiv’on. While driving we talked about Israeli boutique wineries – a recent phenomenon that has grown immensely in recent years. The two admired the changing view as we left the Coastal Region and entered the region of Lower Galilee. Our first stop was at the Tulip Winery one of the most interesting and award winning wineries in Israel.
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