A taste of hutzpah

Even though wine has been produced in the Land of Israel since Biblical times, Bouquet, Blend, Terroir and Grand Cru, were terms that Israelis little once cared for. The finesse of wine culture was reserved for the likes of continental Europe, South America and California. Israelis were content with one brand of sweet Kiddush wine exclusively used to welcome the Sabbath. 

In the 1990’s a change came that elevated Israel into one of the top wine producers in the world.

And it did so by an extraordinary chain of events.

Everything in the life of Eli Ben-Zaken seems extraordinary. And nothing was planned and predictable. Nothing about him indicated that it would be he who would change the world of wine. 

As a child, Ben-Zaken and his parents left their native and increasingly hostile Egypt. As the years passed, he became the restless, archetype “Wandering Jew.” He traversed across Europe, working in Switzerland, Italy and England. After many years he came to realize that the only place he would feel at home, was Israel. And in the1970’s, Eli Ben-Zaken came home.

One day, he offered a hitch-hiking soldier a ride in his car. Eli had a dog with him. The soldier made friends with the pup and told its master about a dog trainer who lived in Moshav Ramat Raziel, in the heart of the Judaean Mountains. Eli went straight there to look for the dog trainer. Instead of finding him, he found a house. He called his wife to inform her that right there and then, he had bought them a little country house with a small plot of land and an old chicken coup.

In their new home, the loved to entertain friends. One evening, over a plate of pasta, one of their friends was so impressed with the food that he promised Eli a small business investment to start a restaurant. A natural innovator, Eli skipped all formal training and just got down to business. And metaphorically, he turned the plate of pasta into of one of the most successful restaurants in the Jerusalem region. 

In between running his business he also planted a few vines in his backyard and in a small plot of land awarded to him by the moshav. For a winery, he converted an old stable. He taught himself viticulture simply by reading books. When it was time for harvest, he made do with only a couple of barrels and enlisted his children to trample the grapes, Biblical-style, bare foot. Most of that first harvest, a mere 600 bottles, were given to friends and acquaintances, all of whom raved about the quality of the wine. 

After a few years of entertaining, working in his restaurant and producing wine for his friends, things took a turn when Eli received a surprise letter from Dalia Penn Lerner. On her own initiative, the Israeli journalist and actress had sent a bottle of Eli’s wine to Serena Sutcliffe, the Master of Wine at the prestigious auction house Sotheby’s in London. In her thank-you note to Penn Lerner, Mrs. Sutcliffe’s praised Eli’s wine. When the journalist forwarded Eli the letter, it not only brought tears to his eyes, it gave him all  he confidence he needed to turn his hobby into a professional winery. But not just any old professional winery. Domaine du Castel, (named after a crusader fortress situated in the hills where Eli lives) became the flagship boutique winery of Israel, producing thousands of bottles a year and inspiring others to also set up their own wineries. Competition was vast. Eli’s hutzpah of doing things his own way, and not following the rules, lead to the swooping success of his own winery and also put Israel on the wine map. With now hundreds of boutique wineries and winners of international competitions, thanks to Eli, Israel is up there with the best in the culture of wine.