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  • Guest contributor
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  • Guest contributor
28 Feb 2017

Number 32 in our series of published entries to our wine writing competition comes from Edan Barulfan, whose bio reveals the following: 

Male, aged 54, Canadian-born, residing in Israel. Israeli wine writer and journalist, wine judge and instructor. A lawyer by profession. Content Editor (Hebrew and English) and Member of editorial board at Grape Man, leading Israeli wine and alcohol web portal and wine education institution. Commissioner and legal advisor of TERRAVINO – Israel's Wine and Spirits Challenge. Author of Zone Defense: On Wine Regions and Regional Classification Worldwide with Practical Recommendations towards Regional Legislation in Israel (published in Hebrew, 2014). My formal wine education includes WSET London. 

Photo credit: grape-man.com

Will Israeli wine law catch up with the Israeli wine industry?

The mid 1980s were a turning point for the Israeli wine industry. More than 130 years had passed since the rebirth of winemaking in the Holy Land. Still, the reviving industry, much dominated at the time by the Carmel Oriental Winery (known now as 'Carmel'), which was established a century earlier by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, was mainly involved in producing Kiddush along with mediocre dry and semi-sweet wines.

The first sign of changing times came with the establishment of the Golan Heights winery, with modern equipment and American winemaking know-how. Almost instantaneously, boutique wineries started to appear in the Galilee and Jerusalem Mountains regions, and small commercial family wineries were soon to follow. Thus began what in Israel is referred to as the 'Quality Revolution'.

As much as the Israeli wine scene has changed, its wine laws have remained unchanged. Today, Israeli wine legislation remains an eclectic assortment of ordinances, comprised of several unfocused legislative levels. Contrary to most wine-producing countries, Israel has no comprehensive wine law, except for the Israeli Wine Standards (standards being the lowest law ranking), a technically oriented do-and-do-not wine-producing manual. There are, however, quite a few provisions of law relating to wine's different aspects, eg health, taxation, packaging, etc.

Also contrary to the situation in most wine-producing countries, Israel has no existing wine governing body, such as the INAO in France, the TTB in the USA, or the AWBC of Australia. Thus, there is no credible data basis with regards to the origin of the grapes used by the wineries for production of their different wines.

Wine classification is one of the issues that have not yet been effectively tackled by the Israeli legislators. There is virtually no quality classification system and hardly any regional classification. Even worse, supervision with regard to regional wines is woefully lacking.

Haim Gan is the owner of the wine culture and education institution Grape Man. He is frequently enlisted by Israeli governmental authorities to serve as an ambassador for Israeli wine worldwide. 'We are relatively small, and a developing wine industry', Haim says. 'Thus, it is clear that we can compete only in the aspect of quality wines. If we do want to play in the big kids playground, we must convey a clear message. We need to exhibit an arrayed wine system, based on guidelines familiar to the rest of the world, but on the other hand, portray our unique identity. In international consciousness, regional wines are quality wines. So a credible and authentic demarcation system is a must for us, a system based on recognised foundations, but true to our native characteristics: demarcation but not duplication.'

The sole provision of law relevant to regional classification, appearing in the Israeli Wine Standards, states that 'wine produced from grapes originated in one of the regions stated in the regulations published by the authorised authority, may be marked by the name of the region (or sub-region), if at least 85% of the grapes are originated from such region (or sub-region); verification shall be carried out by administrative means.' Israeli Wine Standards are currently being updated but, based on information released by the updating committee, there seems to be no real change on the way in relation to demarcation, if any.

The above-mentioned provision of law arouses quite a few difficulties, one of them being the absence of any present administrative means and/or governing body able to administer such means. But this is not the sole problem. The regulations which have generated the formal Israeli wine regions were legislated in 1977, almost a decade before the Quality Revolution. Yet the regional wine map drawn up for the purpose of those regulations has never been updated, although the spreading of vineyards in Israel has since dramatically changed, with a few present-day quality producing wine regions unmentioned on the map, whereas some regions mentioned on it are no longer wine-producing areas!

A meticulous attempt to redefine the wine zones was carried out in 2006 by appointed representatives of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, resulting in a proposal for a new and up-to-date wine zone map. This remained only on paper, not adopted by the relevant authorities due to internal disputes. This proposal suggested a vertical division more suitable to the topography of Israel than that of the previous horizontal division.

Golan_Heights_with_snowy_Mt_Hermon_in_th

Golan Heights, with a snowy Mt Hermon to the right of the background.

Adam S Montefiore is former Wine Development Director of Carmel Winery and wine correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. With 35 years in the wine trade, 25 of them in Israel, Montefiore is an outspoken proponent for regulating Israeli wine regions, emphasising the importance of classification for marketing purposes. He believes that the 2006 proposal, while imperfect, should have been adopted, arguing the difficulties of marketing regional wines on the basis of an outdated map. 'The regions do not match Israel's topography nor are they up to date with the development of Israeli wine in the last 30 years', he says. 'There is confusion when Biblical names and current names do not coincide geographically.'

The existing law includes no provisions concerning the updating of the map or a system regarding recognition of new wine regions. It remains unclear which is the body qualified to recognise new regions or cancel outdated regions and on what grounds. Furthermore, the 1977 regulations were meant by definition to govern wine regions for export purposes only, leaving it questionable if there exists a valid law governing demarcation within Israeli borders.

There is much to be done concerning Israeli wine legislation, and regional classification in particular. On the way to appropriate legislation, objects and objections need to be tackled. There is the Israeli wine industry, largely dominated by four large wineries, which jointly produce over 70% of the volume of Israeli wine. Israel's wine industry is accustomed to a relatively unregulated atmosphere negating motivation to self-regulate in regards to the matter of regional classification.

The danger in this approach could lead to grave consequences. People still remember the Austrian wine scandal of 1985 and the Italian Brunello scandal of 2008. Members of the industry fear that due to a lack of genuine regulation and supervision, something similar could conceivably occur in Israel, shredding to pieces all the years of building a quality-driven industry. 

'The Israeli industry has worked long and hard overcoming many obstacles from within and without, in order to reach this point, in which it is producing quality wines on a regular basis, and exporting close to 20% of its produce', says Haim Gan, 'all of which could be torn down by a whiff of negligence or wrong-doing. A developing wine industry aspiring to grow and to expand must take extra caution, surely not take chances.'

Another argument with regards to regional legislation in Israel refers to the political issue. It is clearly no secret that Israel and especially the so-called Occupied Territories, are in the midst of a constant political debate. Considering the facts that some of Israel's quality grape-growing areas are within or near Occupied Territories, producers' concerns are understandable.

There are multiple solutions and answers to this argument: first, the Israeli wine market is mostly internal, with less than 20% of total production being exported (according to data supplied by the Israeli Export & International Cooperation Institute), with wine from the Occupied Territories representing a very small portion of the Israeli wine industry. There is no justification for exporters' concerns to serve as a barrier against much-needed internal regulation.

Secondly, a quick glance at labels of Israeli-exported wines, or at wine data supplied by the wineries to international wine competitions or exhibitions, displays that the producers themselves are not really making an effort to conceal or minimise the winery or the wine grapes' origins. It really is a question of the intended market. Solutions can be reached within the definition and naming of the wine areas, with marketing choices concerning the wine area specified on the bottle (eg St-Émilion producers are entitled to label their wine simply as AC Bordeaux, should they wish to use this less prestigious moniker).

In addition to opposition from within the industry, wine is not an Israeli legislative priority. Even if it were, there is the question of the appropriate governing authority, the matter of finance and the question of whether Israel would choose an Old or New World approach to wine classification?

It is this author's opinion that Israel should choose an intermediate approach, closer to the New World system (ie no restrictions or definitions concerning grape varieties or wine styles) but more terroir-orientated than systems in Australia or the US. Unlike many New World wine-producing countries, Israel is a small and centralised country, undivided into states or provinces. When outlining the wine regions of Israel (which I propose to name 'Israeli Designated Wine Areas' or IDWA), it would be practical to use guidelines relating to the specificity of place, ie geography, geology and climate - including altitude, microclimate, terrain, soil qualities and water availability.

A proper governing regulatory body, along with a system able to ensure continuous data flow from the growers and wineries as to the origin of the grapes used for production of wines, could be a plausible task. For this purpose a system similar to the one applied by the wine laws of Serbia should be adopted, establishing both Official Vineyards and Winery Registers.

The quality of Israeli wines has by far surpassed the quality of Israeli wine laws, but there is much to be done in order to fill the gap. Much has been said and discussed in Israel on the matter of regional classification, at wine boards and conventions and across the wine media, with committees appointed to research and report upon it, though little has been decided. 

Work on this task should be completed without a moment's delay. It is often said that perfect is the enemy of good, but it is also clear that good, even if imperfect, is much better than bad. With this in mind, two actions must be taken. The 2006 proposal of updated wine regions should be adopted and implemented; and legislation should be applied to the new map with respect also to marketing within Israel.

Israeli law makers and the Israeli wine industry should cooperate in this awakening, an opinion shared by many of my fellow Israeli wine lovers, colleagues involved in wine education and writing. I sincerely hope that our collective voice will soon be heard and that much-needed change shall indeed arrive, hopefully sooner rather than later.