They call it the Village of Hope. Kfar Tikva is a tiny hamlet in Israel where the point has been proven that people with special needs can earn a living — and integrate with society instead of being hidden away in isolation. And the source of their interaction is particularly joyous, perpetuating Israel’s burgeoning reputation as a producer of fine wine.
Tulip, one of Israel’s largest boutique wineries, has a social mission written into its fabric. One of the rising stars on Israel’s wine scene, it represents the realisation of a dream for CEO Roy Yitzhaki. Ten years ago the young entrepreneur fulfilled his vision to turn his love of good wine into a business while also making a contribution to the community he grew up with.
“Kfar Tikva has been an integral part of my village, Kiryat Tivon, ever since I can remember,” says Yitzhaki of the community of 200 adults with emotional and developmental disabilities. “I have worked with the people ever since I was in the army and volunteered there with other soldiers.
“When I proposed starting a winery in the village to the director, though, I thought he might throw me down the stairs. There was no history of running a business there, and I felt he might think the idea a bit weird.
“But instead of hitting me he gave me a big hug, and gave me a small house on the property to rent. We produced our first 7,000 bottles there with the help of five members of the community who were there for every stage from the sorting of the grapes to the fermentation to cleaning the barrels. It was just the start.”
The kibbutz-like enclave overlooking the Jezreel Valley in the Lower Galilee was established in 1964 by Dr Siegfried Hirsch. The German agronomist who made aliyah in 1930 was dissatisfied with the lack of options available for his step-daughter, who had learning difficulties.
Hirsch’s big idea — the subject of envy because it is still rarely realised elsewhere — was to create an environment where such adults could lead active, productive lives in a spirit of camaraderie.
Today Kfar Tikva residents also operate a petting zoo, a boarding kennel and a factory making Shabbat candles, but the winery is the highest-profile enterprise.
Now, in addition to five permanent winery workers, 30 further members of the community are employed for eight months of the year making packaging materials. Others work in the visitor centre which receives 20,000 members of the public every Friday and Saturday, offering residents a valuable opportunity to interact with the public at large, while others make ceramic pomegranates and other decorations which Yitzhaki packages into corporate gifts of wine ordered for Rosh Hashanah.
“And we also organise social activities like an annual running race and a label-drawing competition for our flagship wine,” he adds.
Yitzhaki’s commitment to his Kfar Tikva workers is so great that it took him four years to attain kosher status: “I met with almost 50 rabbis. All of them insisted that I would have to fire the members of the community who work in the winery, as they are not religious.
“But that was unthinkable to me, even though it was impossible to grow the winery from the 100,000 bottles a year limit we had reached without becoming kosher. We needed to be able to sell to Israeli hotels, which are all kosher, and to the export market, but it could not be at the expense of my reason for establishing Tulip at Kfar Tikvah.
“Eventually I met one more rabbi who was so emotionally affected by his visit to the community he had tears in his eyes. ‘We’ll have to find a way,’ he told me, and with a bit of compromise on my part and from the kashrut authority who finally accepted us, we got our kosher status. The workers can still do 80 per cent of the jobs they did before, and we have employed a supervisor to make sure there are no mistakes.”
Production has increased to 220,000 bottles and the wine sells as far afield as Singapore and China — “where they are buying it purely on the basis of its high quality alone, as they don’t have a kosher market” — as well as in the USA, Canada and Europe.
The story reads like a fairytale — and if it were, all the wines in the range would be fabulous. In truth, there is some variation: Just Merlot and Syrah Reserve are both delicious, but the Mostly Cabernet Franc only so-so; the Cabernet Sauvignon is only for those who like their reds inky to the point of bitterness.
White Tulip though is a fresh, fragrant and fruity mix of 70 per cent Gewurtztraminer and 30 per cent Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a lovely aperitif as well as being dry enough to make a decent partner for fish, chicken and creamy pasta dishes.
And all the tastier for the knowledge that every bottle bought represents a mini-mitzvah.