By Tami Benmayer

As children, we all learned the story of the Chanukah miracle. How the tiny amount of olive oil that the Maccabees found was enough to light the Menorah in the Temple for eight days. Each year, we celebrate this miracle by lighting our menorahs, eating crispy latkes, and sampling many a doughnut. More often than not (and like any Jewish celebration!), the festivities also include a glass or two of wine.

Olive oil and wine. Two intrinsically special and historically significant products which were both first recorded as being found in Israel in the story of Noach. When the flood abates, Noach receives the first sign of land when the dove he dispatches brings back an olive branch. Likewise Noach is recorded as having planted a vineyard following resettling on dry land. Both are included in the seven species listed in Devarim as being special to the land of Israel and they both continue to remain vital national assets today, economically and culturally.

The Olive Tree:

A Symbol Of Beauty

Olives are the traditional crop of the Mediterranean basin and they have been cultivated in Israel since biblical times. The dozens of ancient olive presses that have been discovered over the years bear witness to the many olive groves that existed and the part that the industry played in the lives of people long ago. Olive oil was used for food, light, heat, medicinal treatments, and cosmetics, as well as cleaning and hygiene. It also played an important role in religious rituals, used for anointing priests and kings. Oil was so crucial to daily life that the entire season of the olive harvest signified a time of festivities–and Israelis today still mark this tradition in the fall, with music events, olive-pressing workshops, visits to olive groves, and other educational and gastronomic family events.

Modern olive cultivation became a part of Israel’s agricultural sector only after the establishment of the State in 1948, and today northern Israel is home to a booming olive-oil industry with picturesque olive groves dotting the landscape. Although as popular and as necessary to Israeli life as it once was, one aspect that has certainly (and thankfully!) changed over the years is the method of production. Once made by crushing olives through rolling an elliptic stone back and forth or, better yet, by treading on the olives while wearing wooden shoes, top-quality 21st-century Israeli olive oil production takes full advantage of modern technology.

The Eretz Gshur olive farm located in the heart of the Golan Heights, for example, uses a mechanical harvester which was originally created for grape harvesting and was then adapted to harvest olives. The harvester needs only three workers to operate it, and is able to speedily harvest massive quantities of olives across vast cultivation areas. Not only this, but because every stage of the process is thoroughly controlled–from preparing the plantlets, trimming the trees meticulously, and the careful harvesting process, to the gentle extraction of the oil, stringent taste tests, and extensive laboratory analysis–it means that only the best of the best olive oil is produced.

As the methods of production and quality of oil continue to improve and the quantities of produce continue to expand, so too does the range of olive oils available on the market continue to grow. Benzi Elisha, CEO of Zeta Olive Oil, which produces 1,500 tons of olive oil per year and makes exports to the U.S. and China, explains why Israeli olive oil is so special. “Israel is based in the Mediterranean basin, which provides optimal growing conditions for many varieties of olives. In addition, since there is a long history of olive cultivation that goes back centuries, the land has acclimatized and is well-prepared for this growth.”

While Zeta Olive Oil produces outstanding blends of olive oil, combining many varieties of olives such as barnea, picholine, Cortina, and picual, Eretz Gshur has been experimenting with an altogether different idea. “Our company is unique in Israel because we produce high-quality varietal olive oil,” comments director of marketing Ehud Soriano. “We planted ten different varieties of olives separately, each with its own unique conditions and its own unique growing system. Similar to wine varietals that are made from just one variety of grape, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, the oil that we produce is made from just one variety of olive, each with its own distinct taste and aroma. The arbequina, for example, is mild with floral fragrances reminiscent of nuts and green tomatoes, while the Cortina varietal is bitter and pungent but rich in green olive fruitiness and hints of spices.

Noach The Winemaker: Setting A Precedent

Like olives, wine has also been produced in Israel since Biblical times and Noach is the first recorded viticulturist; after the Flood, he “planted a vineyard.” Ancient wine presses and winemaking equipment are frequently found in archaeological digs, from the Golan Heights in the North of the country all the way to the Negev desert in the South. Just as crushing olives by trampling them by foot produced the olive oil of bygone days, so too was wine produced by similar methods. Unlike oil, which was crushed by shoed feet, the preferred method of crushing wine was with bare clean feet, to avoid crushing the seeds. The grapes were treaded in wine presses, the ruins of which can be found on archaeological sites dotted around Israel. Wine presses are often found close to where olive presses are found, highlighting the link between the two industries and the people who were engaged in them.

Grapes and vines were also frequent motifs on coins and jars. The ancient coin used as the logo for the Golan Heights Winery’s collection of Gamla wines features a cluster of grapes, indicative of the fact that winemaking was indeed a vital component of the town of Gamla’s activities. For many years both oil and wine were produced in the many presses uncovered at Gamla, which was considered the ancient capital of northern Israel.

However, unlike olives, which were continually produced in Israel throughout the centuries, the cultivation of grapes experienced an unfortunate and rocky path. When invading Muslim tribes from the Arabian Peninsula chased the Byzantine Christians out of Jerusalem and most of Israel in 636 CE, they summarily destroyed the vineyards in Israel, as the Koran had labeled the consumption of alcoholic beverages as haram (forbidden). The wine industry thus lay dormant for 2,000 years until it was revived by Baron Edmond James de Rothschild in the late 19th century.

Today, Israel has a flourishing and prosperous wine industry which is, in large part, due to the Golan Heights Winery, which took advantage of the incredible wine-growing potential of the Golan Heights region. The first wine created by the winery took home a gold medal at the world-renowned International Wine and Spirit Competition in London in 1987, setting a new standard for Israeli wines on the global sphere. In addition to their basic premise of creating excellent wines, the winery has also made great scientific breakthroughs that have allowed for the improvement of both yields and quality. For example, the winery has worked with top plant physiologist Dr. Michael Kopyt in using weather stations to create a unique model which can predict how blocks of vines will react to future weather conditions. Eventually, blocks of vines will be designed needing little or no irrigation!

Today, the available choices of Israeli wines, both in Israel and abroad, is outstanding. Blends, varietals, single vineyards, reds, whites, and rosés–whatever a person desires can be easily found. Recent prize-winning wines in Israel include the Galil Yiron 2008, which won a gold medal at the prestigious Challenge International du Vin 2012, and the Yarden Chardonnay Odem and Yarden HeightsWine, both from 2008, both award winners at the Vinitaly 2011 competition. Most importantly, just this November, the Golan Heights Winery was the first Israeli winery to win the coveted Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star award.

From being trodden upon by foot to today’s utilization of the latest technology, the transformation of olives and grapes in this ancient land is a true jewel in Israel’s agricultural crown. Once again, we are able to toast Israel’s success this Chanukah with two of her most prized products, oil and wine.

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