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Meet that little old winemaker, Ben-Zaken

by Meredith Price

April 10, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Winemaker Eli Ben-Zaken, center, with his sons Ariel, left, and Eytan, who also are involved in family operation in Judean Hills

Winemaker Eli Ben-Zaken, center, with his sons Ariel, left, and Eytan, who also are involved in family operation in Judean Hills

A narrow, winding road through the verdant Judean valley leads up to the Domaine du Castel winery. Just a few kilometers away from Jerusalem and nestled atop a small peak in the residential Ramat Raziel Moshav, the vineyard overlooks a natural landscape of gentle, rolling hills. In the distance, the deep azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea line the horizon.

Yet, although today there are over 15 hectares of vineyards planted at Domaine du Castel, owner Eli Ben-Zaken originally bought this plot of land in 1971 for the view, not for growing grapes. He had no intention of ever planting a vineyard and says he didn't even like kosher wine when he was younger because it used to, as he puts it, "burn all the way down."

Wearing a forest-green sweater and a pair of dark sunglasses, Ben-Zaken puffs the remnants of a morning cigar and strokes his beard as he emerges from his office in the new, peach-colored building where the Castel cellar is housed. He looks like a man who takes chances, and as we walk to the edge of the Cabernet grapevines, he explains why it was a gamble to plant here.

"When I planted grapes on this land in 1988, I was the first one to do it in this area," he says, pitching the end of his cigar among the narrow rows of vines. "No one thought the land was right for it." Of course, it was also a gamble to plant high-density vines -- three times more than other Israeli winemakers. But when the wines he produced started to attract international attention (the renowned wine critic Robert Parker recently awarded the Blanc du Castel Chardonnay a score of 91 and the Grand Vin Cabernet blend a 92) Ben-Zaken knew the risks were paying off. "It makes sense that this would be good land for wine-making. This is where the Jews made wine in Biblical times."

The reputation for kosher wines made in Israel was traditionally poor quality and sickeningly sweet. Today, thanks in great part to small wineries like Domaine du Castel, that reputation is rapidly changing. Ben-Zaken credits the Carmel Winery with starting the shift when they produced a fantastic Cabernet in 1976, and he says that the Golan Heights and Barkan wineries are great examples of bigger Israeli winemakers producing good quality wines on a larger scale. For Ben-Zaken, winemaking is as an appropriate agricultural export for Israel, because so little water is required to grow grapes compared to oranges and other foods, but it is also an important way to connect Israel to the rest of the Western world. "Wine-making is something we share. It's visceral, and it's a bridge to other Western countries."

When the Domaine du Castel winery was planted 15 years ago, there were only 12 vineyards in all of Israel and none in the Judean Hills. Today, several other wineries have been planted in the area, and more than 200 now exist in the country.

So far, however, no one else has copied Ben-Zaken's high-density planting. "From the beginning we believed that this is the answer to high-quality wines, but so far no other wine producers here have copied us, probably because of the expense involved in buying the grapes and the narrow tractors to fit between the rows," says Ben-Zaken. He scoffs at the label ‘boutique' and explains that in France the term for wineries that produce less than 3,000 bottles a year is ‘garagiste'; being a small winery in France, however, isn't necessarily equated with being a new winery. "Many of the garagistes have been making wine for generations," he points out.

Ben-Zaken doesn't like to describe his wines or compare them to others, preferring to leave this to the critics, but he will say that they are Old World and have been compared to Medoc or Red Bank wines in the past. A native speaker of French who is a completely self-taught winemaker, he keeps many of the French winemaking traditions, such as aging the wine in solid oak barrels and painting the barrels with red wine. "This is Bordeaux style. You paint them with wine in order to keep the stains from showing," he says as we walk down a long corridor where neat rows of barrels are lined up in impressive rows. The cool cellar is permeated with the smell of the rich oak, and Ben-Zaken says that they never use air conditioning. The underground cellar keeps the wines at 14 degrees Celsius in the winter and 20 degrees in the summer.

"There are good reds all over the world, so it was not unusual that our grapes yielded such a high-quality wine," he says. What did come as a complete surprise, however, was the excellent white wine -- especially in a country as hot as Israel.

"I cater to my own tastes," he says, opening a bottle of chilled Blanc du Castel and putting out a plate of fresh, savory cheeses from local farmers. "I'm just lucky that other people like the same thing."

The Blanc du Castel "C" Chardonnay won first prize as the best white wine served in First Class by international airlines by Business Traveler magazine in cooperation with the international edition of Wine & Spirits magazine. El Al came out ahead of 23 leading carriers, including Singapore Airlines, British Airways and Lufthansa. Who would've thought that the best glass of wine you can enjoy in the air is on the Israeli airline?

Locally, you can find Domaine du Castel at Kosher Club, Wally's Wine & Spirits and Robert Burns Fine Wines and Spirits.

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