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L’Chaim: exploring Israel’s burgeoning wine culture

February 22, 2019

A young boy, yarmulke on head and Kiddush cup in hand, tentatively sips Manischewitz wine on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. It’s his first taste of wine. He’s relieved to find its saccharine taste familiar, not too different from grape juice. This cautious first sip sets a low bar for a lifetime of Kosher-wine-drinking, a bar that winemaker Paul Dubb is determined to raise.

We—a group of American, French and Israeli Hebrew University students—drove through Jerusalem, leaving the sweeping limestone buildings, the surly honks of cars and the brisk strides of French Hill commuters. We traveled westward toward the Judean Hills, where Kibbutz Tzuba’s Vineyard is nestled in wide stretches of greenery and expanses of open air, excited to sample Israeli wine.

Here we met the acclaimed Paul Dubb, a South African-born Israeli who came to Kibbutz Tzuba to learn Hebrew but ended up staying to become both the winemaker and CEO of the Tzuba Winery.

Kibbutz Tzuba started in the early 20th century along with many other Kibbutzim, all founded when romantic socialist and Zionist ideals were faced with agricultural necessities. At these early Kibbutzim, all work, produce and property were shared communally.

While most Kibbutzim have since been privatized, Kibbutz Tzuba remains traditional. In addition to running a vineyard, Kibbutzniks communally operate a hotel, offer Hebrew classes and, for their primary source of revenue, produce bulletproof glass.

Dubb spoke to us about a dearth of Israeli wine production and consumption. Despite fertile Mediterranean soil that should lend itself toward robust wine culture, Israelis drink an average of 6.5 liters per capita annually, compared to American’s 10.25 liters, the French’s 42.5 liters and the remarkable 54.26 liters in the Vatican City. There’s a growing community of Israeli-born winemakers, but much of Israeli wine production is spearheaded by non-natives and funded by European or American Jews.

He pointed to religious and cultural trends to explain these phenomena.

First, there are the rules of Kashrut to consider. Kosher wine must be handled only by religious Jews, specifically those who observe Shabbat. Additionally, the Torah stipulates a three-year waiting period for new vines, no cross-breeding with other fruits and a mandated land sabbatical. While these rules present logistical challenges, there’s no reason that quality should suffer.

The Kosher label can be a boon—Kibbutz Tzuba exports 40 percent of its wine globally, and Israel is the top producer of Kosher wine internationally—but some high-quality wines are limited by their Kosher label, confined to the Kosher aisle, out of the sight of potential non-observant buyers.  “It’s Kosher, but you can’t tell” seems to be the best review a successful Kosher wine can receive.

Next, there’s what Dubb refers to as an illogical disaster. Despite Israel’s desert climate, 85 percent of wine consumed is red and only 15 percent is white. He wishes the market would shift toward wine meant to be enjoyed in the middle of a sweltering Israeli summer. He speculates that this tendency toward red wine stems from the fact that red wine is central to many Jewish ceremonies, so young Jews are exposed to red wine first.

Lastly, Dubb suggests that Israeli’s fast-paced day-to-day life doesn’t lend itself to leisurely wine drinking culture. I was unconvinced by this theory until I tried to order falafel during a lunch time rush—a task that requires pushing aggressively to maintain a spot in line, yelling an order forcefully in clear Hebrew and practically catching a flying prepared pita. All of this proved impossible, but did confirm Dubb’s notion that daily Israeli life rewards the loud, the pushy and the efficient, not the leisurely wine-sippers.

Dubb was quick to reassure us that it’s not that Israelis don’t imbibe or indulge. He jabbed lovingly, “Don’t worry, they are drinking. They just have no culture.”

So let’s return to the sunny day in the Judean Hills, where five students tried their hands at the art of wine criticism. I offer no pretense of an experienced wine critic but instead aim to celebrate Israeli wine, while capturing the reactions of the motley, international crew of college-aged wine tasters, more excited at the prospect of free wine (our visit was included in our program’s tuition) than that of good wine. We raised our glasses and echoed Dubb’s “L’Chaim” or “To life,” the familiar salute that marks the start of all Jewish and Israeli festivities.

Sauvignon 2017

Dubb instructed us to engage with this white wine with all of our senses. He told us to notice the visual delicacy of it—it’s easier to identify faults in a white wine. We heeded the fresh, citrusy smell that joined forces with its light quality. Some objected to the bitterness, but Tel Aviv-born Chen says it reminds her of “terraces and picnics with cheese. And flowers.”

Red Sera 2017

Dubb recommends his Red Sera as table wine—meant to be enjoyed during a family meal, corked and then enjoyed again the next day. It’s an easy, light drinking wine. It’s full bodied and dry, but not up to snuff, according to Parisian Judith. “It has no depth. It’s like that friend who has no personality,” she said with a raised eyebrow, a cocked head and a heavy French accent.

Bordeaux 2016

This red wine is 80 percent Cabernet, 15 percent Merlot and 5 percent Sera grapes, and Dubb insists that it’s not any everyday wine. “Dominance” is the first word that comes to Ben’s mind when he takes a sip. “A little like a fox. Or a wife that secretly wants a divorce.”  It’s a classic Bordeaux-style blend, and it reminds Texas-born Rebecca of “a long dress, red lipstick and a fire in the woods.” Unclear whether the forest is on fire or the wine just recalls wintry, fireside memories.


This dessert wine, though encased in a smaller bottle, requires an exorbitant amount of grapes. A normal bottle requires 1.2 kilos of grapes per bottle, but this one uses 3-4 kilos of grapes. Dubb says to serve it with a few ice cubes on a hot day. It’s meant for small, slow sipping, perhaps while reclining, belly full of food, after a hearty meal. Judith pairs it with “something acidic, so there’s a contrast. Apple pie with green apples and a thin crust. And cheesecake. Not sweet. With dairy sauce.” “Dairy sauce” must have gotten lost in translation. This last one received raves across the board.


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