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How Has War Impacted Israel’s Wine Harvest? A Time of Fear and Pain

When members of Hamas crossed the border of Gaza and launched attacks against Israelis on the morning of Oct. 7, winemaker Victor Schoenfeld quickly learned that a number of his employees at Golan Heights Winery were being called back to military service immediately. That included his son, Shai, who is currently serving his mandatory military service at an Air Force base but had been home for a weekend visit. “He’s been working 16-hour shifts every day since he returned to the base,” said Schoenfeld. “This will be remembered as the harvest of the war.”

Across Israel, many wineries were mid-harvest when Hamas’s attacks and Israel’s counterstrikes began. Red grapes were hanging on the vine and the most labor-intensive cellar work was unfinished. Now there are not enough employees to do it. Many wineries employ both Israelis and Palestinians and are worried for their staff on both sides of the conflict.

Additionally, many winemakers are feeling the pain of losing someone they knew in the attacks. Some know hostages being held by Hamas. And while the country remains both at war and in mourning, restaurants are shuttered and no one is celebrating with wine.

Winery Workers Called to War

Ido Lewinsohn, head winemaker at the country’s largest winery, Barkan, had finished with harvest work, but lost all of the employees to military service at his own eponymous winery, which had just begun its first harvest in its new cellars. “We are wine producers, which seems so insignificant right now.”

Many winemakers had completed harvest before the war began but are grappling with constant anxiety and fears of attack, as rockets continue to be launched into Israel. And the collective heartbreak for the dead and for the hostages has been crippling.

“Everyone is in grief in Israel. There is so much shock and sadness—wine seems very minor right now,” said Eran Pick of Tzora winery in the Judean Hills. Pick spoke to Wine Spectator 30 minutes after he emerged from a shelter underneath his winery—incoming missiles had been landing nearby and Tzora is just 25 miles from the border with Gaza. Domaine du Castel, another leading winery in the region, had a rocket land in one of its vineyards.

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While established regions of Upper Galilee and Golan Heights are located farther north, they are close to the border of Lebanon, where Hezbollah has significant forces. Many people there have been evacuated due to rising tensions. At Recanati Winery in the Hefer Valley in Upper Galilee, owner Lenny Recanati reported that five of his production staff have been called back to military service, while three others have been instructed to leave their homes due to proximity to the Lebanese border.

Sorrow and fear are compounded by despair over an uncertain future. At Tzora, a quarter of Pick’s harvest staff this year were from Gaza—just a 40 minute drive away. “I was so proud of our diverse team—Arabs, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Gazans, Ukranians—all working together. I worry about our business, our country, our future as a community. When will we all be able to work together like that again? Will we be able to rebuild the confidence and security that we shared?”

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In a country as small as Israel, the October 7th attacks and the war have hit every industry and network directly. Daniel Lifshitz, a leading fine wine importer with his company, Bourgogne Crown, is the grandson of Hamas hostages Yocheved and Oded Lifshitz. His grandmother was one of the few hostages released, but his grandfather remains in captivity.

Another Israeli wine importer, Shai Wenkart, is waiting for news of his son, who was abducted by Hamas at the Tribe of Nova music festival. Mika Ran Mandel, owner and winemaker of Mika Winery in the Golan Heights, lost her brother in the attack.

Trying to Help Others

Volunteering and “agricultural solidarity” has been a balm for many wine producers. Winery teams who finished harvest have traveled to help those who still had grapes on the vine and juice to ferment. “Terrorists destroyed large parts of the settlements close to the border with Gaza, and there are many farms there that need support—I went to help with the cherry tomato harvest,” explained Golan Flam, who owns Flam winery in the Judean Hills with his brother Gilad.

Others, like Lewinsohn, have been volunteering in the many civilian organizations helping at the front lines, as well as providing support for the families who have lost family members or homes. “There are more than 200,000 people who have been evacuated from their communities and volunteering to help gives us some momentary relief from news,” he said.

[article-img-container][src=2023-11/ns_israel-recanati-110123_1600.jpg] [credit= (Sivan Askayo)] [alt= Lenny Recanati in his cellar in Israel’s Upper Galilee.][end: article-img-container]

It’s not the first time Israel’s wine community has had to contend with making wine in war time. But this is different, said Flam, the grandson of Holocaust survivors. “Gilad and I are in our 50s, we were born in Israel, we went through the Yom Kippur War as children, two wars with Lebanon and two intifadas, but we have never experienced an event like this event. We are in one of the most difficult times we are experiencing, as human beings, as Israeli citizens, as business owners in Israel, and winemakers and winegrowers.”

“It’s hard to concentrate on the cellar work,” Flam admitted. His wines have finished fermenting, all safely in tanks, and he is gearing up to muster the focus and strength to make the blends for the 2023 vintage for his wines—which looks to be a very strong vintage, according to most Israeli wineries contacted for this story.

Struggling Sales

Meanwhile, wine consumption has understandably plummeted in Israel. “Naturally the mood in Israel is not one of celebration,” said Soroka. “Families are staying at home glued to the news, watching their own cities or neighboring cities under rocket attack, and praying for news of hostages being released—people are not going out to eat or drink much wine.” Most restaurants remain closed, as well as winery tasting rooms, and according to the Israeli Wine Producers Association (IWPA) sales are down over 60 percent within Israel—where most producers sell the majority of their wine.

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“Tel Aviv, which usually is a bustling city with so many restaurants, is seeing sharp sales decline, and obviously we have no visitors to the winery,” said Flam. “On the other hand we are seeing increased orders for Israeli wines abroad, in Europe and particularly in the U.S. in solidarity.”

The IWPA launched a “Sip in Solidarity” campaign to fuel this support and raise money: 10 percent of proceeds from every case of wine shipped in November and December will be donated toward Israeli relief efforts, explained Joshua Greenstein, the association’s vice president. “The most incredible way to keep Israel’s economy thriving through this is to support the Israeli wineries and buy Israeli goods whenever possible right now.”

Hoping for the Future

At Golan Heights Winery, Schoenfeld sees some solace in the routine of filling barrels, pressing wines and cleaning tanks. “I think many people are thankful to come to work and keep busy. Even as we learned of the horrific details of our country’s darkest moment, we rose every morning—and evening, for those on night shift—to fulfill our responsibilities. The general consensus at the winery is that what we do is important.”

He looks forward to the day when his team can “raise a glass from this vintage” to celebrate the future and honor those who have been lost. “At these times, growing and making wine may feel trivial,” Schoenfeld told his team. “But it continues to be our responsibility to make great Israeli wine and bring a bit of culture, joy and light into the world. Culture is our shield against darkness.”

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