“Shall we taste some wine?” asks Jonatan Koren, co-founder of Lotem Winery.
I’m on a pilgrimage to explore the wild, wild west and upper Galilee region of Israel and its bounty. It’s now Sunday, my third day on the road, and he’s opened up shop just for me, so l’chaim!
Strangely, most of the wineries here close on Sunday as opposed to Saturday, when businesses often shut for Shabbat. There are no wine tastings paired with heaping plates of grilled fish wrapped in grape leaves as is the case every other day of the week — and, especially, on the Sabbath, which is more celebration than contemplation in these parts. But while the festivities may be over, the music still plays. In fact, there’s always music on at Lotem, Israel’s largest organic winemaker.
“My partner and I are not kosher, but quite spiritual people,” says Koren, referring to co-founder Yaniv Kimchi, whom he met during his army service, “so we have speakers that play music from the moment the grapes come in, to the fermentation, and the aging. It makes the wine better.”
Buena Vista Social Club is playing when I pop in to visit the oak barrels after trying all nine varietals — from a light and fruity shiraz to a lip-smacking orange wine dubbed “Old Shnorkel” after Kimchi’s 19-year-old mutt.
“It’s more of a hipster wine,” admits Koren, 38.
There were plenty of those up at Assaf Winery in the Golan Heights, which I had visited the day before.
I pulled onto the property around 11:30 a.m. and next thing I knew it was almost 4 — which is precisely what Oren Kedem, CEO and winemaker of the estate his parents founded, aims for: a place to retreat and let time elapse.
“Tel Avivians come and sit for six hours,” says Kedem, who spent time working at vineyards in Sonoma before returning to his birthplace in the Golan. “We never give them the feeling that someone is waiting for a table. There is plenty of room to enjoy, relax, drink, open a book.”
Or, if they’re lucky (and have a spare $440), sleep, rinse and repeat. The 3.5-acre estate not only has three cabins — hand-built by his brother Shahar and stylishly decorated by Kedem’s Brazil-born wife, Karen — but will soon have a yoga studio, spa and pool.
“We look at it like you’re coming to our house,” says Kedem, who lives on the property with Karen and their two young daughters. “You’re in my living room and we’re all sitting together.”
The tapas-style dishes that his sister Adi, who studied at the French Culinary Institute, whips up at Adika Cafe are worth the trek no matter how long you stay. Start out with labneh sprinkled with za’atar, followed by homemade challah slathered in spicy tomato jam and make sure to leave room for brisket-topped baba ganoush.
There’s plenty of wine to wash it all down with, of course, whether it’s a citrusy sauvignon blanc or, my favorite, the “Four Seasons” blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, cabernet franc and merlot. Assaf produces about 55,000 bottles a year and while Kedem hopes to increase that amount, he’s not aiming for global reach.
“The vision is to keep it local,” Kedem, 37, says. “We just want to do the food we love next to wine we love.”
About 15 minutes farther up Route 91, inside Kibbutz Ein Zivan, lies Pelter Winery, a much bigger operation run by brothers Tal and Nir Pelter. With vineyards near the production facility, which also acts a public tasting room, as well as in Jerusalem Hills and further south in Mitzpe Ramon, Pelter produces upward of 500,000 kosher and non-kosher bottles a year — from a sparkling blanc-de-blanc to pinot noir and unoaked chardonnay.
I’d lazed the day away at Assaf so I didn’t have time to sample all the varietals — not to mention any of their spirits. (Since 2013, the brothers have been distilling arak, brandy and gin.) But they did bring me over some goat cheese, made by Tal’s wife, Inbar, which was a welcome snack.
It would be a little over an hour’s drive back to Amirim, a small vegetarian community where I’d booked an Airbnb — not because I don’t eat meat but because it was well situated for the places I’d be visiting. Also, it looked peaceful.
My so-called “Solitary Cabin,” however, ended up being a bit too remote — despite the presence of countless ants, mosquitoes, cats and, I learned after two sleepless nights, a wild pig. So the following day I high-tailed it back to the coast and checked into the lovely Shtarkman Erna Hotel in the resort town of Nahariya. Run by two generations of women, the 30-room guesthouse is yet another example of keeping it all in the family, complete with heirlooms and sepia-toned portraits hung as decor.
It’s a good thing I filled my plate (twice!) at the extensive breakfast buffet because my first stop of the day was back inland at Malka Brewery in Tefen.
Forget Goldstar, the Budweiser of the Holy Land. Malka, which means “queen” in Hebrew, offers those with discerning tastes something a bit more, well, royal to guzzle — and two different spots from which to do so: Queen’s Court, overlooking Yehiam Valley and Haifa Bay, hosts live music in an outdoor courtyard setting; while Queen’s Salon, which I visit, has a second-floor taproom overlooking the production warehouse, where tasting flights feature an Irish stout, Belgian blond and more.
It only takes a pint to make my stomach rumble again. And what’s the next best thing to an ice-cold beer on a hot day? Ice cream, of course. Or, as it’s known in Hebrew, glida. Which is precisely why the founders of Buza Ice Cream, which has six locations throughout the country, decided to call their brand Buza: ice cream in Arabic.
“It’s better than just saying ice cream in Hebrew,” says 33-year-old Adam Ziv, who founded the company with 36-year-old Alaa Sweitat, a chef from Tarshiha. “It gives a little bit of mystery to the Jews and a bit of respect and familiarity to the Arabs.”
The pair believes uniting the two cultures is just as important as making flavorful spoonfuls of salted toffee and mascarpone cherry.
“We can use business as a bridge to connect,” says Ziv, who is Jewish, while Sweitat is Muslim. “We can compromise and learn from each other.”
At the parlor and production facility on Kibbutz Sasa, a uniformed Israeli soldier tucks into a cup of strawberry sorbet while a family of four samples seemingly every flavor.
“I think we understand two things when other [businesses] only understand one,” says Ziv. “First, we are precise and we have knowledge; and the second is we are creative and we care about raw materials. We see the whole picture.”
As I attempt to keep my two-scoop cinnamon cardamom cone from dribbling down my arm, I recall that expansive view back at Lotem. By immersing themselves in such a rich land and focusing on both quality and community, these Israelis really are making masterpieces.
Where to stay
Route 91, about a mile north of Archery Junction
This multigeneration estate in the Golan offers a variety of wine experiences to day-trippers and those seeking a longer respite thanks to cozy cabins, a gastronomic cafe and more. Rooms from about $440, including wine tastings and meals.
Jabotinski St. 29, Nahariya
With 60 years under their belt, the Shtarkmans treat guests like family and their boutique hotel feels both contemporary and nostalgic at the same time with ancestor portraits hung above plush velvet sofas. Rooms from about $195, including breakfast.
Where to eat
Kibbutz Ein Zivan, Route 91
This well-known family winery offers visitors to its production facility a degustation with places to sit and imbibe both inside among steel tanks full of fermenting wine and outdoors where used oak barrels act as tables. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Wine and spirit tastings about $14 per person.
Come for the variety of organic wines and seasonal small plates, but stay for the incredible valley view at this kibbutz-based winery where music plays on speakers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help “make the wine better,” according to winemaker Jonatan Koren. Open by appointment only Sunday through Wednesday; open 7 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and open 11 a.m. Saturday. Closing times vary. Starting price per person for five-wine tasting is about $14.
Find tastings and free tours that show the beer-making process at the production facility of this craft brewery, founded in 2006 by former Tel Aviv bartender Assaf Lavi. There’s also a taproom with a horseshoe-shaped bar and communal tables where customers can eat cafe-style fare. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Friday. Tours offered between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Friday only. Tastings about $8 per person, tours free.
The kibbutz location of this artisanal ice cream brand, whose goal it is to bridge cultures through a love of raw ingredients, acts as both a public parlor and a visitor center that hosts production tours and children’s workshops. Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. Production tours and children’s workshops about $17, ice cream about $3.50.