He never studied wine-making, he broke all the rules about where to plant his grapes and he never had any ambition to make more than a few hundred bottles for friends and family. Yet against all the odds, Eli ben Zaken has become Israel’s most acclaimed wine-maker, with fans ranging from heads of state to our own television taster, Oz Clarke.
Ben Zaken was not here last year to see Oz practically fainting with pleasure over his Blanc de Castel. “It’s the kind of wonderful old-fashioned chardonnay they don’t make in Burgundy any more,” he raved to me at the annual tasting of kosher wines at London’s Sheraton Park Lane Hotel.
So this year, the shy, sixtysomething winemaker thought he had better make a personal appearance, especially with the world’s most famous wine guru, Robert Parker, having just declared Domaine du Castel one of Israel’s two best wineries. Whether the Brits know or care is another question. “We still have very limited distribution in Britain,” ben Zaken explains. “But on the other hand, we sell out of our stocks every year.”
Ben Zaken’s part in raising Israel’s prestige as a premium wine-maker cannot be underestimated. Sure, the Golan Heights Winery, considered by Parker the other big contender, initiated the move upmarket. But it was ben Zaken who proved you could plant cabernet, merlot, chardonnay and other noble grape varieties outside the traditional winemaking areas of northern Israel, in the unpromising Judean Hills.
“They said it was too hilly, that the plots were too small, that you’d never get machinery up there,” says the Egyptian-born and European-educated ben Zaken. “But the fact is, wine was produced in that region 2000 years ago — we found the gat, or press, to prove it.”
And besides, that was where the wannabe wine-maker was living, farming chickens as a new immigrant at his home, 10 miles outside Jerusalem, and later opening a pasta restaurant, Mamma Mia, in the city.
“They were good years in which we were able to travel, and I got to appreciate the fine wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy,” he explains. “In 1988 I planted a row of cabernet and merlot, just for fun, and four years later we crushed the grapes in one of the empty stables where we used to keep horses, and aged the wine for two years in French oak.”
In 1995 the claret-style blend which was to become Castel’s Grand Vin — a swaggering name ben Zaken puts down to “typical Israeli chutzpah” — was bottled, taking the name of a nearby Crusader fortress.
It was a British expert, Serena Sutcliffe, master of wine and head of Sotheby’s wine department, who gave the first accolade to this hobby wine. “I tried that fantastic 1992 made by Mr ben Zaken with my husband, David Peppercorn, also a MW, and we both thought it absolutely terrific,” she wrote to the friend who had delivered it from Israel. “This wine is a tour de force… please give him our congratulations.”
After ascertaining his sons’ interest in going into the wine business, ben Zaken decided to ditch the chickens and pasta and get serious. He now produces 200,000 bottles a year, but still no more than three different wines. There is a slightly more affordable (£27-ish against £37-ish per bottle) companion to the Grand Vin, le Petit Castel, also a Bordeaux blend, and the Blanc de Castel, which helped El Al win the international Cellars in the Sky competition, beating vintages served by other world airlines to the title of Best First Class White Wine.
Now Castel is conquering hearts and minds in Germany, of all places. “Ehud Olmert served my Grand Vin to world leaders at the recent talks over Gaza, and Angela Merkel ordered 200 bottles for state entertaining,” says ben Zaken with glee.
“That to me is something really historic and momentous — to see an Israeli wine entering the German Chancellery.” What is also historic is that despite being kosher, ben Zaken’s wine is also selling like hot cakes to non-Jewish connoisseurs… the Japanese are among his greatest fans.