A vineyard in Israel. (Photo/Courtesy Jeff Morgan)
A vineyard in Israel. (Photo/Courtesy Jeff Morgan)

Documentary on Israeli wine turns sour on kosher issue

If you want to see a fabulous exposé on modern-day winemaking in Israel, you need go no further than “Holy Wine,” which will be streaming in this year’s virtual Sonoma International Film Festival from March 24 to 28.

The 98-minute documentary, mostly in English, tells the story like no other film I have seen. Filmmaker Snow R. Shai has interviewed the crème de la crème of Israel’s winemakers and let them tell us, in their words, what it is that makes Israel such a distinctive wine region. Shai also features a number of Israel’s most erudite wine writers, sommeliers, merchants and educators revealing their professional perspectives, as well.

These contemporary Israeli wine stars include Eli Ben Zaken (Domaine du Castel), Eran Pick MW (Tzora Vineyards), Yair and Asaf Margalit, Oded Shoham, Roni Saslove, Guy Eshel (Dalton Winery), Victor Schoenfeld (Yarden), Gaby Sadan (Shvo Vineyard), Assaf Paz (Vitkin Winery), Tal Pelter, Golan and Gilad Flam, Yair Haidu and Itay Gleitman. It’s a who’s who of contemporary Israeli wine.

From the ancient wine presses carved in stone to the vineyard-studded landscapes that grace much of Israel, the images in this film are a feast for the eyes. If you don’t think of Israel as a serious wine region, you will after watching this.

That is, until the film gets bogged down in a convoluted and dispirited analysis of kosher winemaking that casts a pall over the entire Israeli wine industry. (Full disclosure: I make kosher wine in Israel and in California.)

Shai has taken his cue from a coterie of well-intentioned wine professionals who share their candid feelings with him about what it’s like to make and sell wine — both kosher and nonkosher — in Israel. Clearly, there is an identity crisis that reflects the divide between religious and secular. It permeates Israeli society and, not surprisingly, extends to the nation’s wine community.

Shai, 46, had an opportunity, here to shine a light on life in Israel through the prism of wine. Instead, the filmmaker (making his feature-length film directorial debut) presents his often incorrect and simplistic impressions regarding Israeli winemaking and foments a prejudiced screed against kosher wine.

He then leaves us with the impression that some of Israel’s most outstanding winemakers feel pressure to make kosher wine because if they don’t, someone else will.

The film’s agenda appears to be as follows: to discredit kosher winemaking by portraying it as a mere commercial endeavor. To make things worse, we are told that kosher winemaking hurts wine quality by physically separating a (secular) winemaker from his craft. (Kosher wine can be handled only by Sabbath observant Jews.) That’s a powerful — and woefully misleading — message.

Almost half the movie is focused on this cultural divide. What could have been an interesting revelation regarding an important facet of the Jewish community worldwide becomes a repetitive and tedious exercise in self-flagellation here.

It’s true that conforming to kosher dietary rules (never fully or accurately spelled out in the film) can be a challenge. But the filmmaker twists his subjects’ commentary to leave the viewer with only one impression: that kosher wine is a bad thing.

Consider what winemaker Yair Margalit says. (Margalit is one of the fathers of modern-day Israeli winemaking. His winery is not kosher.) He encourages the viewer not to drink kosher wine at all, because he finds it outrageous that he — a  Sabra — is not “Jewish” enough to touch a kosher wine. This is “hurtful” and obviously insulting to him.

If you don’t think of Israel as a serious wine region, you will after watching this.

The truth is that no one is forcing anyone into making kosher wine. Margalit and Shvo wineries, for example, make terrific nonkosher wines in Israel.

So what’s the problem here?

Do we need to listen to the filmmaker use Shvo’s and Margalit’s commentary to bash anyone who might be so inclined to keep their wine kosher? As Israeli wine writer Itay Gleitman astutely says toward the end of the film: “Maybe it’s better to talk less about the kosher issue and just let people taste for themselves and decide if it’s an issue for them.”

It is also shocking that only secular Jewish winemakers and professionals are featured in “Holy Wine.” Not one religious winemaker, wine merchant or restaurateur is interviewed.

We do, however, hear plenty of disparaging opinions about religious cellar workers (mashgiachs), represented as anomalies in the cellar. But what do religious Israeli winemakers like Amichai Lourie (Shiloh Winery), Pierre Miodovnick (Netofa Winery) or Yaakov Oriah have to say about all this? Do they make kosher wine simply for the money? Is there some relationship between spirituality and kosher winemaking? Is there anything good about kosher wine at all?

We don’t know. Anyone who might be able to answer such questions has been ignored in “Holy Wine.”

Instead of highlighting what is exceptional about Israeli wine — regardless of whether it’s kosher or not — Shai perpetuates myths regarding kosher winemaking and stokes the flames that divide secular and religious Jews.

Israel may have a wine identity crisis. But instead of revealing it through thoughtful discussion and content, Shai browbeats us with his myopic, prejudiced perspective.

The real wine pros in this film attempt to explain the issues, but they are never really given the chance. As a result, “Holy Wine” finishes as a hatchet job. If Shai’s assertion is correct, that 90 percent of Israeli wine is kosher, he has somehow managed to marginalize the lion’s share of all wine made in Israel. As such, the filmmaker perpetuates biased notions that erroneously paint Jewish winemakers the world over in a bad light.

Was there something exciting about Israeli wine back in the early part of this movie? I think so, but I forget.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Jeff Morgan
Jeff Morgan

Jeff Morgan is a winemaker and co-owner of Covenant Winery in Berkeley and Covenant Israel Wines in Tel Aviv and the Galilee.