Grapes on the Golan: Israel's Wine Industry

A thin coil of barbed wire separates Uri Hetz's babies from the enemy. The 39-year-old Israeli winemaker runs a hand over a row of young vines he recently planted in his Golan Heights vineyard, and then throws a glance toward a hazy valley just over the nearby fenceline. "This is Syria in front of us," he says, before returning quickly to his prized stalks. Hetz says he planted the cuttings—originally from the Rhone Valley in France—as an experiment to see how the white Roussanne grapes would take to the Golan's volcanic loam. Everything was going perfectly—until last month, when Israel and Syria issued a joint statement declaring that they had begun peace talks that could ultimately return the occupied territory to Syria. The winemaker says he picked up the newspaper and thought: "Oh, no—my Roussanne!" He smiles to himself and sighs. "It's just a silly French variety, but it's my life."

There's really nothing silly about Israel's modern-day wine industry, which produces 36 million bottles and brings in $140 million a year. For years, Israeli wines had been disdained as syrupy and harsh. Yet "in the last decade or so, there's been a revolution," says Mark Squires, an influential American wine critic. Particularly in the past couple of years, small, family-owned wineries have proliferated—many on the Golan plateau, where the altitude is better suited than most of arid Israel for quality grape-growing. In 1998 nine boutique wineries operated in Israel, according to Daniel Rogov, the Jewish state's best-known wine critic. Today there are more than 150. Late last year the powerful American critic Robert Parker's Wine Advocate gave 14 Israeli wines its coveted "outstanding" classification.

The Golan's lush vineyards are frequently cited by Israeli hawks as one more reason to hold onto the 460-square-mile stretch of land that was conquered during the Six Day War in 1967. Among Israeli gourmands, "the Golan Heights has an importance that's almost semimythical," says Squires. The irony is that, among Golan vintners themselves—an open-minded, somewhat artistic bunch—there's greater willingness to cut a deal. "The vast majority are willing to give back the Golan on the chance for peace," says Rogov.

Would Israel's fledgling wine industry ultimately survive a peace deal? There's every indication it would. Of the 14 wines given top scores by Parker, only three came from the Golan. In many cases, smaller, boutique wineries, like Odem Mountain in the northern Golan, actually buy their grapes from vineyards outside the territory. The biggest blow to the Israeli wine world would be the loss of the massive Golan Heights Winery, which was founded in 1983 and singlehandedly established the region's reputation for high quality. Its respected winemaker, Victor Schoenfeld, an American-born vintner educated at the University of California, Davis, says he's "in favor of establishing a Palestinian country. It's been too long in coming." While the winemaker insists that he doesn't believe a similar deal is in the offing with Syria, his winery has already poured $6 million into a subsidiary down the hill, in the solidly Israeli Galilee. And much of the original Golan winery's buildings are modular units that could be unscrewed, loaded onto trucks and driven into Israel in the event of a deal, according to Rogov.

At Chateau Golan, in the southern Golan Heights, winemaker Hetz says he's not quite ready to give up on his Roussanne just yet. After eight years of operation, the boutique winery is now producing a healthy 70,000 bottles a year, and its owners have plowed several million dollars into capital investments. Still, Hetz sounds resigned to the possibility that a peace deal could leave him looking for another job. "There's nothing particularly good about the Golan [for grapes]," he says. "People make too much of it." Hetz, like many of the Golan's winemakers, says he would classify his politics as leftist, and says he once turned down a job in the West Bank on moral grounds. He views the sparsely populated Golan differently, he says, but also considers himself pragmatic when it comes to international diplomacy. "I'm not all that sentimental," he says. "I'm not sentimental about my wine." He glances up at his young vineyards and seems, just for a moment, to be trying to convince himself when he says: "I'm not sentimental about any of this."