Schoenfeld tends grapes in his vineyard
Winemaker and UC Davis alum Victor Schoenfeld

UC Davis seminar examines success of Israeli wines

At a recent seminar at the UC Davis enology department, Golan Heights-based winemaker Victor Schoenfeld asked how many of the students in attendance had never tasted an Israeli wine.

Only a few raised their hands, but Schoenfeld would have preferred the number had been zero.

a green lawn and the main entrance to the winery
The Golan Heights Winery in Katzrin, Israel

“Very disappointing,” said Schoenfled, who holds a degree in winemaking from UC Davis and is now a proud booster of Israeli wines. “I am a little bit surprised, but if I had asked the same question five years ago, there would have been a lot more hands up.”

Indeed, sales of Israeli wine are on the rise worldwide in the last few years, more than doubling from 2009 to 2016 — and nearly tripling in North America during that same time period.

Israeli winemakers at the Davis seminar said the continually improving quality of their wine is the biggest reason for the rise in exports, as well as a growing market for kosher wine.

“For someone looking at the Israeli industry from a long distance, in some ways it seems like the industry is going through a similar renaissance to California [winemaking] in the 1970s,” said David Block, chair of the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis and host of the mid-February seminar on Israeli wines.

About 40 undergrads and 20 master’s students graduate from the UC Davis wine program each year. The seminar with Israeli winemakers was one of many wine-related events held at the campus’ Mondavi Center.

UC Davis has played a crucial role in development of the Israeli wine industry. It was a Davis professor, Cornelius Ough, who in the 1970s argued that Israel’s climate and most of its soils were not ideal for growing wine grapes and suggested planting vineyards at higher elevations, such as the Golan Heights in northern Israel.

Schoenfeld, head winemaker of Golan Heights Winery since 1992, said three of the six winemakers at his winery were trained at UC Davis. Ough was one of Schoenfeld’s professors.

“It could be argued that our winery started because of UC Davis,” said Schoenfeld, a native of Southern California who worked at wineries in France, Napa and Sonoma before moving to the Golan Heights. “At the beginning we basically planted everything everywhere because we didn’t know what was going to work.”

For someone looking at the Israeli industry from a long distance, in some ways it seems like the industry is going through a similar renaissance to California [winemaking] in the 1970s.

Winemaking is an ancient art in Israel. The oldest wine press found there is believed to be 6,500 years old, according to Schoenfeld. Modern Israeli winemaking began in 1882 when Baron Edmond de Rothschild subsidized the planting of vineyards as a way of creating jobs for Zionist settlers.

Thanks in part to UC Davis, Israeli winemakers in the last few decades have focused on improving the quality of their wines to make them ready for export. And that hasn’t always been easy in a country that’s mostly desert.

“It’s quite challenging to grow in our climate,” Yatir Winery head winemaker Eran Goldwasser told the students. “All the high-quality wines being made in Israel are in higher elevations. All of these locations are cooler. It makes it similar to the climate in southern Europe.”

Yatir is located in the Negev desert, though its vineyards are in the cooler Yatir Forest nearby in the Judean Hills.

“It’s a semi-arid region with 12 inches of rain annually,” Goldwasser said. “It’s very difficult to establish vineyards, but dry climate and elevation lead to very interesting results. I’m trying to let the region leave a mark on the wine. I feel that wines from our region are a bit earthier.”

The Israel Export Institute says sales of Israeli wine increased worldwide from $19 million in 2009 to $42.3 million in 2016, a rise of 122 percent. In North America, sales went from $9.4 million in 2009 to $27.5 million in 2016, an increase of 192 percent.

“I would have to say the basic reason [for increased exports] is quality, and with that comes more exposure,” Schoenfeld said. “We’re a small wine-producing country, so a little bit of success internationally is good for the industry.”

The next challenge for Israeli winemakers is getting their fellow citizens to drink more. Schoenfeld said the steady increase in high-salaried workers in high-tech and other growing Israeli industries should lead to such a change.

“We have one of the lowest consumption rates for wine in the Western world,” he said. “Now there are more and better restaurants, and more wine shops. We’re waiting for an increase in consumption. We think it’s inevitable that it will go up.”

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Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.