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Truth in Wine: The Politics of Wine in Israel

March 14th 2017

Golan Heights

On Sunday, March 26, I will have the honor of leading a seminar discussion and wine tasting at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. The seminar is called “The Politics of Wine in Israel.” I will be joined by Israeli winemakers Yaacov Berg (Psagot Winery) and Nir Pelter (Pelter/Matar Winery). Also with us will be wine importer Jay Buchsbaum, from Royal Wines, the largest importer of Israeli wine in the U.S.

In a recent blog, I wrote about Israel’s wine renaissance. It truly is a rekindling of a distant time when Israeli wine was considered to be among the best in the world, circa 2,500 years ago! Our own California winery, Covenant, has invested in Israel since 2013, when we began making wine there as well.

The current crop of modern-day Israeli wineries is a testament to Jewish winemaking heritage and tradition. In the last 20 years, we have seen a rise in wine quality as well as the number of Israeli wineries, which number well over 300 today. Yet Israel’s wine culture remains besieged by a foreign amalgam of meddlers.

Most notable is the European Union (EU), which has the chutzpah to pronounce that only Israel’s pre-1967 borders are acceptable to them in determining which wine-growing regions are fully and legitimately Israeli. Their politics deny or demean the existence of two very important wine growing regions—the Golan Heights and the Shomron (located in Judea and Samaria, aka West Bank). Wines made in these regions are excluded from the Israel Free Trade Agreement currently in effect for Israeli wines grown in other areas. As a result, special labeling is required for these wines. “Product of Israel” is not allowed. Instead, labeling for the EU requires an indication such as “Product from the Golan Heights (Israeli settlement).” Apparently, the European Union thinks it knows what is best for the Jews, the Israeli wine industry and consumers throughout the world. Europe’s past history—known to all—would not indicate as much.

The U.S. is not quite so insidious in its labeling mandates. It does not apply similar restrictions on wines from Israel. But it is interesting to note that Israeli wineries cannot label wines made from grapes grown in the Golan Heights and destined for export to the U.S. We are obliged to label these wines “Upper Galilee” or, more generically, “Israel.” The Golan Heights is simply not a U.S.-recognized viticultural region. Hopefully, this will change soon.

Covenant Israel SyrahThe European Union, through its wine labeling guidelines, has implemented a lopsided attempt to cast blame on the Jews for the fruits of its own time-honored anti-Semitic policies, customs and history. Let’s be frank. Because of their own horrific past acts toward the Jews and the Arabs, Europeans should not have the right to judge. It is the height of hypocrisy and denial.

But it’s not all bad news, folks. Wine has the ability to bring people of many different beliefs and persuasions together. It encourages dialogue at the dinner table—assuming you drink wine—and also inspires collaboration. For example, in the Golan Heights, both Druze and Jews are now working together planting and maintaining vineyards. It’s a good partnership. In Jaffa, a new tasting room has opened that pours kosher wines made in a Palestinian-owned winery. There is potential here on many fronts.

Back to those Europeans; they do know how to appreciate a glass of good wine. I suggest that they keep their European noses in their wine glasses—and not in the business of where Israelis should or should not plant grapes. If we’re lucky, the EU might even extend this policy to its general politics. The politics of wine can make the world a better place for us all.

Should you be attending the upcoming AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C., come hear more at our seminar/discussion on Sunday, March 26, from 4 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. We’ll also be tasting wines made in Israel!

Vintner Jeff Morgan is the co-owner of Covenant Winery, in California and Israel. He’s also the author of nine books on food and wine and a former


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