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Meeting the wine man

Why Ya'acov Oryah is one of Israel's most sought after winemakers


One of Israel’s most respected winemakers grew up in a Charedi family and, until his mid-30s, worked as a civil engineer. 
 Fifteen years on, Ya'acov Oryah is revered among the Israeli wine community and by Israeli wine-lovers worldwide. “He’s very well regarded as one of the best winemakers in Israel and he’s behind some of the best wines” says Guy Haran, author of Wine Journey — Israeli Adventure.

His story is as interesting as his wine. His family made aliyah from New York when he was five. Unlike the community he was raised in, he chose not to live a completely traditional life, feeling it was too closed off from the outside world. He attended Yeshiva Hakotel, which allowed participants to combine military duty with their talmudic studies.

After that he studied civil engineering, and for some years worked in the building industry. “I really didn’t enjoy it. I loved creating buildings, but I didn’t like the difficult energies that go around construction.”

Wine was a passion, but he hadn’t considered it as a career as he was by now a father of five. However, that changed when he enrolled on a practical wine course at Soreq Winery. “I discovered wine making was something you could learn and I fell in love with it.”

He graduated, in 2004, with 25 litres of wine he’d made himself and a thirst for more. With no other formal wine education, he taught himself the rest of what he needed to know: “I was lacking a lot of background knowledge, so anything I wanted to understand or figure out I would just experiment with.”

He leased a vineyard and set about making a barrel of wine — 225 litres. In 2006, he abandoned construction to open Asif Winery in Arad, blending bought-in wines. A year on, he and his business partner moved to producing their own wines to achieve greater consistency.

Unlike many of his contemporaries he focused on white wines. “Most wineries were making 85 per cent reds and 15 per cent white wines — which were generally over oaked, overripe and heavy. My palate was developed on European wines and I had a very different approach. I was making 85 per cent white wines which were fresher and more floral.”

The reviews were good, but he discovered that making wine, selling it and running a business were three different things and in 2011, Asif closed. He spent a year at Midbar Winery then did some consultancy, before eventually moving to much larger winery, Psagot, in 2014, where his wines won awards on the world stage.

After six years, when he felt Psagot was no longer the right fit, he decided to move on, and he is currently working on Pinto’s new winery in the Negev. A region that offers exciting new winemaking territory.

“It’s a big professional challenge. I first worked with Negev grapes when I had Asif, but felt I hadn’t completed that work. Ripening conditions are challenging. It’s hot, with a lot of sun radiation with even more reflected from the white sands, and it’s closer to the equator. The extreme day and night temperatures accelerate ripening, which makes things tricky.”

Oryah’s open mindedness and willingness to experiment has been a constant thread. He started making his personal wines in 2013 — producing 4,000 bottles from grapes that had been commissioned for the by then defunct Asif.

“I was experimenting before that but then I had to make a product that I could sell to cover the cost of the grapes I’d had to buy.”

He now makes around 20,000 bottles a year: “I have 24 labels — five or six that are wines I sell into restaurants and export. The reds include labels, Eye of the Storm and The Duke Pontiff.” One of his whites, called Soulmate, was blended especially for his wife, Patricia.

He will spend years getting something right. “I’d been working on Pinot Noir for over ten years. Finally I got one barrel I’m happy with so I bottled it, but it’s only 300 bottles — there’s not much you can do with that commercially.”

Oryah was also the first to produce ‘orange’ wine in Israel. He wasn’t aware that others were making it elsewhere in the world, but was curious what would happen to a white wine if you left the skin and seeds in when it macerated — instead of discarding them as normal. “So I left them in to see how the wine turned out. Now there’s a world trend of orange wines — I started to make mine in 2007.”

After three years of experimenting he was happy to market it, but he prefers not to use the term ‘orange’ wine. He feels it is too linked to the trend towards so-called natural wines which are made without sulphites.

“However appealing that is, the fact is that in hot climates, if you do not use sulphites, it’s like not vaccinating your children. Vines are prone to sickness and if you don’t treat them they’ll just be ‘off’.” So he calls his series of skin-macerated white wines Alpha Omega “which is a fancy way of saying from ‘A’ to ‘Zee’ — meaning the whole grape is included.”

Some of his wines are exported, but only in small quantities, and they tend to be snapped up by Israeli restaurants and wine collectors, so the best way to try them is to seek them out in Israel.

Oryah is sought after as a mentor to countless small winemakers and wineries. He is broad-minded enough to be able to help others create their own wines and not his version of how they should be.

“I allow them to be winemakers of their own wine. When someone comes to me, I try to understand what he thinks is good wine. I’m not in a position to tell someone what is or isn’t good wine — it’s subjective. And from that place I try to help them.”


Find out more about Ya'acov and  his wine on his Facebook page.

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