April 2, 2009
A Vineyard Blooms in the Negev
“It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested,” David Ben-Gurion said more than 50 years ago.
Israel’s first prime minister expected others to follow after he moved into Israel’s southern desert in 1954, when he was still in office. He would live there for nearly two decades, but few would move to join him.
In recent years, Israel’s government has taken up the cause and been encouraging people to leave increasingly congested cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to move to Be’er Sheva and Sde Boker. But even today the prospect holds as much appeal for most Israelis as moving to Bakersfield would for many Angelenos.
Moshe and Hilda Zohar, however, are among the Negev pioneers. The couple came to the desert more than 10 years ago with a dream — to grow wine grapes on the desert’s ancient terraces.
“What you see here is the result of one family and our decision to come here with our three kids. Everything you see here we built ourselves. We created something from nothing,” Moshe Zohar said.
What you’ll find at the Nahal Boker Vineyard Farm, located off Route 40 near Sde Boker and Ein Avdat National Park, is a vineyard on about 25 acres that’s set back against the area’s yellowish-gray loess hills. There’s also a restaurant, The Wine House, along with a wine-tasting bar, cabins for a new bed and breakfast, and horses for desert excursions. Nearby activities include jeep and hiking tours, archery, mountain biking, thermal baths and camel riding.
In recent years, the Zohars have also begun partnering with Ben-Gurion University to expand the farm’s offerings — including olives, lemons and pomegranates — all of which are grown organically. While life in the Negev isn’t easy, Moshe Zohar said, the lack of moisture and humidity has the added benefit of making the area inhospitable for most pests and diseases.
“After 10 years of growing grapevines, I realize that this location has certain added advantages,” he said. “Even in places that do organic growing, when they have a problem they end up using some kind of pesticide or some kind of organic system that’s more supportive to the environment. But I’m blessed with this gift of my location. I really haven’t had that issue and haven’t had to confront it.”
Zohar, 48, has the quintessential look and laid-back attitude of a California surfer — tanned skin, long hair and few days’ scruffiness. Born in the southern costal city of Eilat, he spent most of his 20s and 30s working at kibbutzim and moshavim, growing produce like tomatoes and melons.
When he settled in the Negev with his wife and three children in 1999, Zohar said he did so with no outside funding. Instead, the family worked hard and slowly added to the farm’s offerings each year.
“We’ve added a bed and breakfast, and the wine has come into its own,” he said. “We can breathe deeply.”
In 2003, the couple built the restaurant, which serves Italian and French fare and such entrées as beef bourguignon and coq au vin. Using the curve of two Quonset huts, the restaurant’s interior is designed to look like a split wine barrel. Wooden tables and handmade ceramic light fixtures compliment the restaurant’s wood-lined walls and ceiling, and an ornate window overlooking the desert contributes to the intimate ambiance.
In addition to its own wines — made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, which are bottled at Barkan Winery in central Israel with a label that reads “From the grapevines of the Negev” — Nahal Boker also sells locally produced olive oil, olives and cheeses.
Accommodations, which were added to the farm in 2007, include three family lodges, a cabin for couples that runs about $165 for a weekend and a tent for groups or families of up to 20 people.
Since water is scarce in the Negev, any used in the lodge or cabin bathrooms is diverted to irrigate nearby herbs and flowers.
Water scarcity continues to be the biggest issue facing the farm. The water available during the April to August growing season tends to be brackish, which isn’t good for most crops.
“One of our problems is we don’t have enough water to expand. Also, the soil tends to be salty, but that we can deal with that and the water issue,” Zohar said.
Fresh water from flash floods irrigate the vineyards in the winter, but Ben-Gurion University biotechnology professor Zeev Weisman is looking at methods to help dilute the water’s salinity, and also suggests planting crops that can thrive in brackish water, like olives and pomegranates.
Weisman said these crops will likely ripen earlier in the Negev, which will enable the Zohars to get organic pomegranates to the European market before the regular season starts, thus ensuring less competition and better income potential.
“They are the real pioneers of this area,” Weisman said. “Agriculture will move from the center, a little bit to the north and most of it to the south. This is the future. [David] Ben-Gurion said it from his dreams 50 years ago. We can see that he was much smarter than we thought in those days. This is the only remaining piece of land that can be used.”