Let's Eat

A whole lot of bottle

The Dalton family has made a success story of turning around a loss-making Israeli winery - upping production 30-fold


It may have been an unknown, struggling winery 30 years ago, but all that mattered to London philanthropist Mat Haruni is that Dalton was in the Galilee. "He was only interested in finding and promoting a business in this area, and in particular close to Israel's northern borders," says Haruni's son, Alex.

Now CEO, Haruni junior, who made aliyah with the rest of his family in 1995, has propelled Dalton, with the help of his father's funds, from a 30,000-bottle boutique winery to a million-bottle operation that is the very future of Israel's wine industry. For like competitors Tabor, Dalton has reached the crucial point where top quality meets the affordability which comes from large-scale production, an equation which has taken the country's young premium wine industry some 30 years to achieve.

Yet the Harunis, who were in the diamond business, are not wine-makers, and could easily have invested in a hotel. "My father's vision was very much to create an enterprise anchored to tourism in this region," explains Alex from Merom Hagalil, north of Safed and only a mile south of Lebanon. "Even when he was still in London fundraising, he made a point of bringing people over to the Galilee because he felt it was of such strategic importance."

Dalton became the family focus when they were introduced to the then-owners. "It was a small winery losing money," adds Haruni, who has spent the past 20 years nurturing the growth of the business, which is now one of Israel's 10 largest wine producers.

There has been no let-up on quality with growth; awards are many, and Dalton, though kosher, is one of the few names known in the wider world of international wines. Fans include top wine critic Tim Atkins and Selfridges wine buyer Dawn Davies, who says: "I'm a fan of this winery; their wines have great balance and good complexity."

The store stocks not only a fine cabernet sauvignon, the varietal Israel traditionally does best, but a fume blanc, a grape Dalton is unique in introducing to Israel. Not to be confused with Pouilly-Fumé, this is a toasty dry white fermented in barrels and lent much elegance by ageing in oak. Davies loves it for its exotic guava and peach notes and a fullness not typical of Israeli sauvignon blanc: "There has been controversy over whether sauv blanc should even be grown in Israel," says Haruni.

Other Dalton triumphs few competitors have even dabbled in include a zinfandel, a Petite Sirah and a lusciously jammy blend of shiraz, grenache and mourvedre, a popular combo of grapes everywhere from the Languedoc to Chile. There are reasons Dalton is not being widely emulated with these innovations: "Petite Sirah is difficult to grow, and ours wouldn't be so good without the great co-operation we enjoy with the grower - we have planted many vineyards but still buy in 30 per cent of our grapes," explains Haruni.

As for the lack of SGM - as the blend of shiraz, grenache and mourvedre is known in the wine business - he explains: "Shiraz is relatively new in Israel, grenache has never been taken seriously here, and as for mourvedre, there's a belief that consumers won't buy wines whose names they can't pronounce.

Add to that the fact that Jewish wine-drinkers are conservative - it's hard to get them beyond cabernet sauvignon - but once they try the SGM, they love it."

Both the SGM and Petite Sirah have attracted fabulous rankings of more than 90 points from the acclaimed international Wine Enthusiast publication, which also rates the fumé blanc in the high 80s. Another one to look out for in the UK is a beautiful white blend of semillon, chardonnay and viognier, which has a bit more tang and freshness than the fumé blanc. A new white varietal which will arrive in the UK in time for summer drinking is a new, clean and fruity pinot gris.

Although they are shipping wine as far afield as China, Japan, Mexico and South America, as well as throughout Europe, the USA and Canada, Dalton is standing on the brink of a crossroads. "We're in flux in almost every way," admits Haruni, who lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, Billy. "We are changing MDs, and with some 40 labels in the range, also thinking about consolidation."

But most crucially risky is the change of wine-maker - all the gorgeous Dalton vintages of the past decade have been down to Naama Sorkin, who joined the winery in 2002 but is now retiring from her post as head winemaker. "She's going to manage our vineyards in the Golan Heights rather than make wine for anyone else," explains Haruni.

Taking over from Sorkin as of this month is Guy Eshel, a Sabra who has just returned to Israel after completing his studies in viticulture and oenology at the prestigious University of California, Davis. No novice, Eshel has already worked in the Napa Valley, France's southern Rhone and Australia, but as head winemaker at Dalton he is stepping into awfully big shoes.

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