By Alanna Bermam
The first Biblical mention of wine in Israel is Genesis 9:20, where, following the flood, “ Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard.” And though Israel, with its cosmopolitan cities and fast-paced lifestyle has come a long way since biblical times, the wine industry there is still up and coming. But thanks to Israelis like Ari Erle, whose passion for wine has developed into a lifestyle and business ventures, that industry may come into its own sooner than anyone thought.
“There are a lot of people [in Israel] who are really interested in wine, really passionate about wine and winemaking,” says Erle, vintner and Israel-based international wine consultant. “They either grow grapes or know someone who grows really great grapes, and they’re trying to develop a vineyard or a winery.”
Erle, a California wine country native who made aliyah at 18, represents close to 30 of Israel’s growing number of boutique wineries (now estimated to more than 100) through his “Israel Wine Club,” offering quarterly subscriptions to members who receive a few bottles of Israeli wine at a time. He says the history of the wine industry in Israel is as important as the latest techniques Israeli winemakers are using to develop internationally acclaimed wines.
“Baron [Edmond James de] Rothschild planted vineyards and built a winery here in the 1880s,” he says, alluding to the founding of the first modern winery in Israel, located in Zichron Yaakov at the southern end of Carmel’s wine country. Originally called Rothschild Winery, Israel’s Carmel Winery is home to some of the oldest vines in Israel, which still produce high quality red and white grapes.
“[Today], very excellent wines are coming out of Israel, on the same level as those coming out of California now, but it takes a lot of time to develop a market. Although there are some excellent wineries here, not many people know about them.”
Erle’s wine club is just one way he is working to bring Israeli wines to people throughout North America.
Born near Vacaville, Calif., Erle spent most of his formative years in Alaska, where his family took part in an Orthodox minyan once a week. Though he says his family always identified as Conservative, this was an important part of his early Jewish education.
The eldest in a family of five children, Erle moved to Israel following high school graduation to participate in Nativ, the Conservative movement’s leadership program for first-year college students, where he found himself on a religious kibbutz in the Negev. There he tended to the kibbutz’s fields, farming and working on an irrigation project where he says his love of agriculture was realized.
“[After the program was over], I went back to college at the University of Seattle in Washington, and I decided I couldn’t stay there,” he says. “I really felt a responsibility to the Army, and I went back to Israel and made aliyah and joined.”
He completed his Army service in a paratrooper combat unit before finishing his degree at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He spent time with Jewish National Fund “mostly planting trees and that type of thing,” he says, fueling his passion for farming, but not for long.
“I always loved wine,” he says. “I loved drinking wine and I was always interested in wine. I had a dream of always having a farm — of moving to Israel to live in the Golan and becoming a farmer. And I really loved the idea of creating a product from the ground. So, I kind of put it all together.”
He then worked on engagement missions in Europe at the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee after graduation, but two weeks after his wedding, Erle quit his job with the JDC and moved with his wife Keren to California’s wine country so he could study viticulture and enology at Napa Valley College, an extension of programming through the University of California at Davis.
While studying, Erle’s resume grew to include positions at some of the best-known wineries in the region, including Colgin Cellars, Clos Du Val Wine Company, Hemisphere Wine Company and famed O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery, where he served as assistant winemaker. At each winery, Erle held positions along every stage in the production process, overseeing cellar and vineyard operations, grape sampling and tasting, lab analysis and quality control.
“Winemaking is really 40 percent studies and 60 percent experience,” Erle says. “Not only was [Napa] a place where I could study the overall theory behind winemaking, but [the college] was a working winery and I learned together with my classmates how to make wine, and that was really important.”
Six years later, Erle brought his Napa Valley training back to Israel, where he immediately began working on development of his own winery.
Erle Family Wines
On the same land that once was home to the first settlements in Israel nearly 200 years ago, Erle began working on an Israeli wine blend, using the planting and harvesting styles learned during his time in Napa. Working with his father-in-law, a second-generation vintner for Rothschild’s Winery (now Carmel Winery) with 30- and 40-year-old vines on his own land there, Erle Family Wines had found its home in Israel.
“The whole idea is to reinstate what Rothschild started and to reinvigorate the area where the first vines grew,” Erle says. “It’s about going back to working with the land, and Israel is a great place to do that.”
Under his own label, Erle has produced a variety of wines using several different grape varietals: merlot, carignane, sauvignon blanc, rosette and argaman. The special microclimate conditions of the area around Moashav Givat Nili, where the vineyard is located, provide a quality that makes Israeli wine unique, he says.
“These vines have adapted really well to Israel’s unique climate,” he says, noting that the limited available growing space and dry, hot temperatures can be tasted in most Israeli wines.
“Managing and planting new vineyards according to the Napa style, with less space between the roots, trying to find the right home to root stock and pairing the right soil to the right space [is challenging]. We are growing and producing very limited yields and really paying close attention to everything in the environment, trying to get the highest quality we can out of each plant and, eventually, the wine.”
Though the Israel Wine Club and Erle Family Wines keep Erle fairly busy, he continues to consult for other wineries in Israel, supporting the growing industry one grape at a time. One such winery is located in Bat Shlomo, an original settlement from the 1800s, where Erle consults and works with the winery owner (a friend he met though Nativ) on all aspects of production.
“The week before I finally moved back to Israel, [he and his friend] started working on our wine project, which resulted in the making a very special sauvignon blanc in Israel,” Erle recalls. “During the second year, we also made a 2010 and 2011 sauvignon blanc, which is the perfect for Israel’s climate. It’s crisp and clean and the vines grow really well here, plus it’s nice to have a cold glass on a hot day by the pool.”
Erle and his partner at Bat Shlomo hope to begin work on a cabernet blend next year, though for now he’s happy to maintain the business’s small nature, in which they sell bottles directly to customers from the wineries and to a few local restaurants.
“It’s very exciting,” he says. “We are a relatively new country, though we are a very ancient country for winemaking, having been doing so since Bible times and now making it in modern times. [We have had some] really exceptional wines come out of Israel.”
Another consulting client, whose vineyards are located on Conservative Kibbutz Haf Ton, has asked Erle to help establish the winery’s production process. Once the process is complete, a special Israeli blend consisting of carignane, argaman and syrah grapes is planned.
“All of [these varietals] grow really well in Israel, and actually argaman is the first Israeli varietal, a hybrid of carignane and souzão grapes that really has adapted to Israel’s unique climate,” he says, “Syrah is a Spanish varietal, now the most prolific varietal in Israel. The abundance of old carignane vines, which make really, really exciting wines, are making it the Israeli varietal.”
The next generation
With a growing wine label and consulting business underway and the development of new wine varietals and blends in Israel on the horizon, Erle is looking toward the next generation of vintners from around the world to bring Israel’s wine business to an international market.
“A lot of people [here] are working together to export these great wines to the States so that more people know about them,” he says,
“but the next step is to launch the first degree program in Israel for winemaking.”
Whereas Israeli students would have previously had to travel internationally to gain training and education related to winemaking, Ohano College in Israel will soon bring that training to them, with Erle as one of its first teachers. Through the program they’ll be able to earn the equivalent of an associate’s degree after studying in the Golan Heights for two years. Students may then choose to complete a final year in France to receive the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in winemaking. But students need not want to be vintners to learn the tricks of the trade from the master himself.
“I’m actually working on developing a program for people who are interested in wine,” Erle says. “They’ll come to the Golan Heights, where they can learn how to make wine and visit some wineries and do tastings.”
Though that project is still in the works, Erle says he hopes to combine it with a culinary program based in Eilat, so that participants can learn about food and wine pairing simultaneously.
For now, Erle is focused on bringing Israeli wine to consumers worldwide, fostering the same techniques used by ancient peoples in the historical land of the Bible to produce fantastic results.
“It’s really exciting to have a new-world wine industry based on old-world techniques,” he says. “Today, as Israel continues to flourish, the proliferation of boutique wineries throughout Israel is a testament to the success of the country, the entrepreneurial nature of its people and the wonder of the land itself.”
To learn more about Ari Erle and his Israel Wine Club, visit www.israelwineclub.com.
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