LEARNING ABOUT THE WINE COUNTRY RICHNESS OF ITS HERITAGE IS ONLY PART OF THE BEAUTY OF THIS ANCIENT VINEYARD.
By Dr. Shmuel Katz and Eli Sales
A mere 20 minutes north of Jerusalem, just beyond the Visitors Center of Nachalat Binyamin in the Binyamin region of Israel, sits the magnificent and bucolic Psagot Winery. Few Israelis and visitors from abroad would expect to see such splendor and breathtaking beauty of this Biblical site, on the road directly below Migron, where, only a few months ago several Israeli families were expelled from their homes.
The Psagot Winery, opened by in 2002, and greatly enhanced by a family of U.S. investors, is a mixture of beauty, history, archeology, spirituality, friendship and fine wine. The settlement of Psagot was originally established in 1981. During the next few years, at the very inception of the yishuv, Meir Berg, an engineer and mathematician by training, and father of Yaacov, moved there with his family. Setting aside his academic pursuits for a natural love of the land, Meir planted table grapes and subsequently added cherry and nectarine orchards. In 1998, he planted his first wine vineyard to much acclaim.
Yaakov’s original plans did not include joining his father in the wine business. After serving in the Israeli army, he went on the shle’chut as a representative to Melbourne, Australia, where he established a successful Kollel. Upon his return, he completed his studies in law and began practicing as a lawyer. Soon, however, he became interested in winemaking and all of its intricacies. His wife, Naama, who held a PH.D in zoology, joined her husband in his passion for wine.
It wasn’t long before their fledgling winery had reached production capacity and had been restricted from building or adding on to the existing site. Around this time, Pinchas Wallerstein, then Yesha Council Director, offered the winery the opportunity to join the municipality of Mateh Binyamin and become partner and anchor on a proposed new site – the site of Psagot Winery’s present location. The timing was perfect. U.S. President George W. Bush would soon be traveling to Israel to sign an agreement which would curtail the construction of new projects in the entire area.
With only 15 minutes to spare before President Bush’s arrival, the Psagot team had secured all of the legal documentation necessary to move forward and build their new home.
In 2002, Yaacov and Naama, who currently live on the land in a converted train car, established the modern day Psagot Winery. They had created what Adam Montefiore of Carmel Winery recently described as the “most technically advanced of all Israeli winery visitors centers for those who want to understand the Biblical roots of Israeli winemaking”. Psagot Winery owes at least some of its success to its unparalleled geographic location. Situated 900 meters above sea level, Psagot and the entire Binyamin region are ideal for producing high quality wine grapes. Evidence revealing that the area was a major source of winemaking over 2,000 years ago adds to the aura of the region and explains, in part, the slow but steady climb Israeli wines are making in the global marketplace. The archeological discovery that Psagot is indeed situated in Biblical wine territory happened by pure accident. One day, while landscaping and excavating near the vineyard, workers found an opening in the bedrock, which turned out to be the entrance to a magnificent cave. This was part of an ancient network dating back to the period of the Second Temple that archeologists now believe belonged to one of the Biblical cities captured by Yehoshua bin Nun. Excavations inside this cave uncovered period coins and the remnants of an ancient olive press and wine press from the Second Temple period. Today, a replica of one of those coins is prominently displayed on the premium bottles of Psagot wine.
Throughout Jewish history, in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora, religious ceremonies have involved the use of wine: the Kiddush, the Havdalah, the four cups during the Seder, and in Beit Hamikdash rituals in Jerusalem. Many Israelis understand the strategic and Biblical significance of this part of Israel and the role it has played in the production of wine. Therefore, they recognize the importance of settling and maintaining this land, and that is why they appreciate Yaacov’s vision for the Psagot Winery.
The beautifully designed stone structure erected on the site of the winery is a testament to Yaacov’s commitment to create a building illustrating that Psagot is serious about the wine business and plans on remaining in the area. The winery has converted a storage room into a 55-seat auditorium and offers audio-visual presentations, both in the tasting room overlooking the barrel room and on the balcony where visitors can learn about the historical and strategic significance of the region.
Avi Ro’eh, the current Regional Council Director for the area, realized the site’s potential and invested more than $1 million in the Visitors Center, which opened in 2007. Many people, even locals, had never been to this part of Israel until recently. One of the most common questions they ask upon seeing this majestic place for the first time is: “What side of Green Line is it situated in?”
Recently Psagot Winery was included by Peace Now as one of the four products targeted by their boycott of Israeli goods. For Yaakov, every obstacle that is put in his path is a cause for further determination to get the message out.
He believes the land is blessed and recites the following from the Haftorah of Parshat Acharei Mos, Amos 9:14-15: “I will return the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild desolate cities and settle them; they will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will cultivate gardens and eat their fruits. I will plant them upon their land and they will never again be uprooted from their land that I have given them, said Hashem, your G-d”.
In 2003, Psagot produced 4.500 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and a Port-style dessert wine that was listed by Globes to be the #1 rated Port-style wine produced in Israel. In 2004, Josh Hexter, who studied and trained professionally in the complexities of winemaking at University of California-Davis School of Enology, joined the winery. Together with others, the team has consistently produced outstanding award-winning Merlot, Edom, a full-bodied red blend, and Cabernet Sauvignon. (Psagot has won Gold and Silver medals for Cabernet Sauvignon Single Vineyard and Edom, respectively, from the noted Vinalies Internationales competition in Paris, France.)
Psagot staffers encourage guests to visit the winery and learn about the richness of its heritage. Located less than 20 minutes from the center of Jerusalem and the Biblical city of Shiloh, Psagot Winery offer tours and bookings for a variety of private functions, including weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs.