Saturday, September 19, 2020

With Chanukah coming, I thought that telling the story of the legendary Israeli winery, Domaine du Castel, would be appropriate. We often talk about the renaissance of a wine industry in Israel, which began in the 19th century. Philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild, perhaps the most illustrious member of the famous French-British banking family, donated and invested considerable resources to the Jewish establishment in Eretz Yisrael in order to help rebuild the Holy Land’s infrastructures and agriculture more than 2,000 years after the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash. Baron Rothschild was the most well-known pioneer of what would eventually become a blossoming and successful wine industry.

Fast forward to the 1980s. Eli Ben Zaken was an Egyptian-born Jew who grew up and was educated in Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom prior to making aliyah, and owned and ran Mama Mia, a popular Italian restaurant in Yerushalayim. Having developed a refined palate through his exposure to various cuisines, Eli found himself naturally attracted to the complex flavors, nuances and aromas present in European wines, particularly those of France’s Burgundy and Bordeaux.


Back in those days, there were only a handful of quality Israeli wines, most of them modeled after the wines of California. The Ben Zaken family lives to this day in Ramat Raziel, a charming and picturesque village located in the Judean Hills 10 minutes outside of Yerushalayim.

In 1988, Eli decided to experiment: he would plant a small vineyard next to his house, with the hope of producing a small batch of wine once the vines sufficiently matured to yield good grapes. Eli learned winemaking and vine-growing techniques by reading books written by the late Professor Emile Peynaud, considered by many to be the father of modern enology. For his first harvest of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in 1992,  Ben Zaken produced his first wine, which he called Castel Grand Vin, Jérusalem, Haute-Judée, as a tribute to the wines of Bordeaux he liked so much. With only a few hundred bottles at hand, Eli served it mostly to his patrons at the restaurant and shared it with his family and friends.

In 1995, Eli and his wife received a surprise fax from Dalia Penn Lerner, an Israeli actress who had decided on her own to send a bottle of the Castel Grand Vin 1992 to Serena Sutcliffe, MW (Master of Wine, the highest distinction and diploma in the wine industry). Mrs. Sutcliffe, then the head of the wine department for the prestigious auction house Sotheby’s, had raved about Eli’s wine in her thank note back to Mrs. Penn Lerner. Her letter motivated Eli to turn his small, hobbyist wine production into a professional winery, which he named Domaine du Castel.

And this is how a bit over a century after Baron Rothschild, Eli Ben Zaken became one of the pioneers of the boutique wineries revolution in Israel, with dozens of new wineries driven by the same passion and search for uniqueness and excellence following Castel’s path. Like the small jar of pure olive oil that was barely enough to maintain the Beis Hamikdash’s menorah for a day, yet miraculously held up for eight days until the Maccabim could source and produce more, Eli Ben Zaken’s little barrel of wine became the flagship boutique winery of Israel, today producing about 25,000 cases annually.

Over the years, Ben Zaken was joined by his 3 children, Ilana, Ariel and Eitan, each of them playing an instrumental role in the winery: Ilana is the export manager, Ariel runs the day-to-day operations and administers the winery together with CEO Elad Katz, while Eitan, who was trained in Burgundy, is the winemaker together with Eli. The Ben Zakens have expanded production over the years, first producing the winery’s second wine, Petit Castel, then a Burgundy-styled Chardonnay called ‘C’ Blanc du Castel, and in 2009, Rosé du Castel, the first high-end Israeli rosé. In 2015, the winery was moved to a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility in Yad Hashmona, which led to the production of 3 new wines: La Vie Rouge, La Vie Blanc and a Muscat varietal semi-sweet wine.

Domaine du Castel’s wines keep receiving the highest accolades from the world’s top wine critics and writers, with 90+ scores for almost every vintage. Recently, the Castel Grand Vin 2016 was included in the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines for 2019.

The Ben Zakens keep reinventing themselves, which is is one of the key elements of their success. In 2017, they started a new winery out of their original facility in Ramat Raziel. There, they produce Mediterranean-style wines under the name “Raziel”. We are very much looking forward to seeing their new wines in the USA soon. L’chaim, and Chanukah sameach!

Gabriel Geller is a wine consultant for Royal Wines.