Eli Ben Zaken Castel Head Winemaker

By Gabriel Geller
Royal Wine/Kedem

With Chanukah coming upon us, I thought the story of the legendary Israeli winery Domaine du Castel would be appropriate. We often talk about the renaissance of a wine industry in Israel, which began in the 19th century. Philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild, perhaps the most illustrious member of the famous French-British banking family, donated to and invested considerable resources in the Jewish establishment in Eretz Yisrael to rebuild the Holy Land’s infrastructure and agriculture more than 2,000 years after the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash. Baron Rothschild is the most famous pioneer of what would eventually become a blossoming and successful wine industry.

Fast-forward to the 1980s. Eli Ben Zaken is an Egyptian-born Jew who grew up and was educated in Italy, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom prior to making aliyah, and in the 1980s owned and ran Mama Mia, a popular Italian restaurant in Yerushalayim. Having developed a refined palate over his life through his exposure to various cuisines, Eli found himself naturally attracted to the complex flavors, nuances, and aromas present in European wines, particularly those of France’s Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Castel Wine Map

Back in those days, there were only a handful of quality Israeli wines, most of them modeled after the wines of California. The Ben Zaken family lives to this day in Ramat Raziel, a charming and picturesque village located in the Judean Hills ten minutes outside of Yerushalayim.

In 1988, Eli decided to experiment; he planted a small vineyard next to his house, with the hope of producing a small batch of wine once the vines would have sufficiently matured to yield good grapes. Eli learned winemaking and vine-growing techniques by himself by reading books written by the late Professor Emile Peynaud, considered by many as the father of modern enology.

For his first harvest of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in 1992, Eli Ben Zaken made his first wine which he called Castel Grand Vin, Jérusalem, Haute-Judée, as a tribute to the wines of Bordeaux he liked so much. With only a few hundred bottles at hand, Eli served it mostly to his patrons at the restaurant and shared it with his family and friends.

In 1995, Eli and his wife received a surprise fax from Dalia Penn Lerner, an Israeli actress who had decided on her own to send a bottle of the Castel Grand Vin 1992 to Serena Sutcliffe, MW (Master of Wine, the highest distinction and diploma in the wine industry). Mrs. Sutcliffe, then the head of the wine department for the prestigious auction house Sotheby’s, was raving about Eli’s wine in her thank-you note to Mrs. Penn Lerner. Mrs. Sutcliffe’s letter motivated Eli to turn his small hobbyist wine production into a professional winery, which he named Domaine du Castel.

This is how a bit over a century after Baron Rothschild, Eli Ben Zaken became one of the pioneers of the boutique wineries revolution in Israel, with dozens of new wineries driven by the same passion and search for uniqueness and excellence that followed in Castel’s path. Like the small jar of pure olive oil that was barely enough to maintain the Beis HaMikdash’s menorah light for one day, yet miraculously held up for eight days until the Maccabim could source and produce more, Eli Ben Zaken’s little barrel of wine became the flagship boutique winery of Israel, producing nowadays about 25,000 cases annually.

Over the years, Eli Ben Zaken was joined by his three children in the winery. Ilana is the export manager, Ariel runs the day-to-day operations and administrates the winery together with CEO Elad Katz, while Eitan, who was trained in Burgundy, is the winemaker together with Eli. The Ben Zakens have expanded production over the years, first producing the winery’s second wine, Petit Castel, then a Burgundy-styled Chardonnay called ‘C’ Blanc du Castel, and then in 2009 the first Rosé du Castel, the first high-end Israeli rosé. In 2015, the winery was moved to a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility in Yad Hashmona, which led to the production of three new wines: La Vie Rouge, La Vie Blanc, as well as a Muscat varietal semi-sweet wine.

Domaine du Castel’s wines keep receiving the highest accolades from the world’s top wine critics and writers, with 90+ scores almost every vintage. Recently, the Castel Grand Vin 2016 was included in the Wine Spectator’s “Top 100 Wines for 2019.”

The Ben Zakens keep reinventing themselves; it is one of the key elements of their success. In 2017, they started a new winery out of their original facility in Ramat Raziel. There, they will produce Mediterranean-style wines under the name “Raziel.” We are very much looking forward to seeing their new wines in the U.S. soon.

L’chaim, and Chanukah Sameach!


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