However long this war continues, Israel is going to need our support for a long time. With barely time to recover from Covid closures, the conflict brings more economic catastrophe.
“It’s feeling pretty bleak at the moment,” admits Alex Haruni, the British-born owner of Dalton Winery, whom I last met on a tour of his vineyards pre-pandemic. “These are the worst days I have ever experienced in the 30 years that I have lived in Israel.”
Israeli wine writer Adam Montefiore spells out the ways in which the country’s wine industry has been affected. “Visitor centres are not operating and there are no tourists anyway. The white grape harvest was finished, but the war has interrupted the completion of the red wine harvest. Many agricultural workers have been called up. But, by hook or by crook, the wineries will get the harvest in. Nature does not wait for war.”
Montefiore explains that the main region under attack, the western Negev desert and southern coastal plain, was “the same Negev desert wowing the world with how Israelis made the desert bloom with vineyards”.
And the Upper Galilee and Golan Heights — Israel’s main wine-growing area in the north — is also suffering due to its proximity to the border with Lebanon. “There are daily skirmishes with rockets fired. In many cases workers can’t get to their vineyards."
Dalton winery is operating on a skeleton staff since war broke out
Dalton Winery is one of them, sitting less than 4km from the Lebanese border. Although Haruni had completed his harvest, he now has to oversee fermentation — a process complicated by not knowing how long he’d be able stay at his winery each day.
“We work until the booms get closer, then we leg it,” he tells me, explaining that every evening when he finishes work, he wonders when and if he’ll be able to return, so he and his remaining staff have to seal the tanks full of fermenting wine as if closing for a while.
The vineyard is operating with a skeleton staff — “We are normally 30 but now maybe ten or 12, I haven’t been counting. Those of my staff who are miluim (IDF reserves) are now serving; others have been evacuated or must now look after their children — the wife of one of my employees is a nurse working full-time so he is at home now with their six kids. Some are too afraid to come to work.”
This year was meant to be a boom one. Haruni needed a bumper crop (and sales) to repair the financial impact of two years of coronavirus followed by last year’s shmittah year, which (put simply) meant that he and other kosher winemakers were unable to sell their 2022 vintage overseas.
“I’d bought extra grapes, bottles and labels. We’ve had a good harvest and we’ll be making brand new wine — somebody needs to drink it.” That won’t be the domestic market as right now Israeli consumers aren’t buying wine. “Sales have ground to a halt,” confirms Montefiore.
No surprise given the worrying circumstances that affect every Israeli. Haruni’s nephews have been called up and his son (aged 11) is so scared that he wanted to sleep in their bomb shelter every night for the first week.
“It’s an absurdity that we even need bomb shelters. It’s the huge psychological damage that Hamas has done to the people of Israel — they’re holding us all hostages.”
The situation didn’t stop him from hosting a wedding for two soldiers who were unable to get married in Haifa as planned last Sunday, but were called up days before the wedding. They needed somewhere closer to their bases, so Haruni was delighted to host them while the wedding breakfast was provided by local well-wishers.
Dalton Winery saved an IDF couple's wedding plans Photo: Alex Haruni
With the country still reeling from the attacks, Haruni is sensitive that it may be early to be thinking about the economy. However, he and other winemakers are concerned for their country’s financial future. So Haruni decided to try and further the cause of Israeli wine abroad. “At the end of the day businesses will have to keep running somehow.
“The economy here will be in tatters immediately afterwards. They’re talking about a war of months — how is the country going to survive? I don’t think many businesses have bank accounts large enough to sustain outgoings without sales for three or four months and pay their employees.”
He is asking us to buy Israeli wine and food whenever we can. “It’s a very easy way for people to support us. I know that there’s been a huge outpouring of support and that people have been donating money and equipment and paying for flights home for kids.
“It’s amazing but at some point, people are going to get a little fatigued with that. So if you’re going to drink a bottle of wine this Shabbat, make it Israeli. If you’re going to sit down to eat, put a couple of Israeli items on your table. That’s how you can help us. I hope, please God, that we’ll be able move goods out, should there be the demand and that we’re not locked down under the missiles of Hezbollah but until that happens there are plenty of stocks in England and abroad and it’s good stuff.”
Montefiore adds: “Wine really represents the person and the place — every wine has a person behind it who made it and the place associated with it and it has been Israel’s best ambassador.”
Let’s drink a l’chaim to that.
Stockist information here.