To understand Israel’s Tishbi Winery, it helps to know the history of winemaking in Napa and Sonoma. California’s wineries were started in the last quarter of the 19th century by visionary European immigrants, hard-working farmers. They grew grapes they were familiar with in the “old country” and prospered slowly; enduring droughts, market disruptions (prohibition), changing tastes and a flood of imported wine.
The strongest, like Mondavi, Sebastiani and Seghesio, have thrived, becoming billion dollar brands. They ship millions of cases, have hundreds of thousands of visitors traipsing through their beautiful architectural-statement wineries and have added restaurants and additional income generators like olive oil and catering.
Tishbi’s history parallels some of the above. Founded in the 1880’s by Lithuanian immigrants, and backed by Baron Edmund de Rothschild, they cultivated unused land in northern Israel, near the cooling Mediterranean Sea. Think Pacific Ocean breezes. The business has metamorphosed as time has passed. Initially all of the grapes were sold into a cooperative. When Jonathan, the current patriarch, took over, he decided the future was in quality, so he ripped out the Alicante and started to grow Cabernet and Chardonnay. It turned out that the soil was perfect for growing a wide variety of high quality grapes and the original 62 acres now produce award-winning wines. His vision was prescient because in 1984, the coop went bankrupt.
Success has created expansion and there are now four other vineyard locations, including one in the Negev desert. There, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are grown using innovative irrigation techniques that are literally making the desert bloom. In the more traditional Israeli grape-growing regions of the Galilee, as well as the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem, eight other varietals including Viognier, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir are cultivated. Roughly 85,000 cases are made, a third of which are exported to everywhere from the U.S. to Brazil and Hong Kong.
There are 18 Tishbi wines made in 4 groupings, each indicative of a quality. They also make “Domecq Trophy” brandy as well as two desert wines, olive oil, honey, and jellies and preserves. Artisinal bread is baked on the premises and served with lunch.
Like many California wineries, this one is multi-generational. The patriarch today is Jonathan. His grandparents started the winery. Today his wife Nili manages the visitor center and retail shop and his son Golan is his “right hand” as well as the wine and bread maker. Another son Michael is in the field as cultivator, while a daughter Oshra is marketing manager as well as managing the café and making a line of fine foods.
Care for the land is utmost in the Tishbis’ minds. They are passionate about not harming the soil and so do not use pesticides, fungicides or herbicides in the growing of their grapes. “I believe the soil has enough power to make wine without fertilizers, and I don’t need quantity, just quality,” Jonathan told us. Dry irrigation methods which use 20% as much water as regular methods, severely restrict yields and produce intense concentrations of flavor as well as leaving room for the sun to find its way onto the grape clusters eliminating the need for fungicides. “In Golan they do it by the book. If it’s Friday, it must be pesticide day. At Tishbi, we’re low-tech. The grapes tell us what to do, not a computer.”
Israel is not in the E.U., so organic certification is a difficult matter. It’s questionable as to whether it would be worth the effort to become certified as neither the U.S. nor the E.U would recognize it. Talking to Jonathan, it was clear that his family’s land practices were part of a very deep commitment and not something he needed to advertise.
There are other organic wineries in Israel and we learned that it is fast becoming the way to go amongst a new generation of wine makers. If they are all as successful as Tishbi, Israeli wine has a bright future ahead of it.
Tishbi Estate, Pinot Noir, 2006.
Very unique. Not your grandfather’s pinot, an acquired taste. Highly acidic. Not a lot of fruit. Tishbi says, “mocha and coffee bean, thyme, delicate and elegant.” Our tasting notes weren’t the same, so we leave it to you.
Tishbi Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006.
Just what you want. Great balance. Lush, rich, full with fruit. Chocolate. 1 year in oak. Delicious. Tishbi says, “plum, raspberry, cassis, vanilla. Velvety texture, slightly sweet.” We agree.
Jonathan Tishbi Special Reserve, 2004.
Smoky. The leather is so prominent that even a wine novice can detect it. Deep, flavorful. A desert grant cru. It deserves the name ‘special.’ 2 years in oak. Tishbi nailed it by saying, “complex, rich and full body, purple hues with stone fruits, violets, herbs, nuances of dark chocolate.” Even Gary Vaynerchuk raves about this beauty, ranking it #4 in the world. Multi-award winner.