Oregon Star Winemaker: I made wine among the landmines

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Picture: One of Golan Heights Winery’s vineyards (credit: Israel 21c)

My wine-drinking buddy Isaac Baker of Terriorist recently published very positive reviews of an Oregon producer called Zena Crown Vineyard. Isaac is pretty conservative with his points and when I saw how many he gave to Zena Crown I knew I had to look into them. In doing so I learned that their wine maker, Shane Moore, spent time previously working at Israel’s Golan Heights Winery, and I had the thought that those are two very different places to make wine. I’ve lived and worked in Israel, having drank my way from the north to the south, and have written about wine’s history in that part of the world in depth. Israel’s wine industry is a star on the rise recently acknowledged by a cover story in Wine Enthusiast and one of the most interesting to visit and explore. As I thought about the wine I’ve enjoyed from Oregon and Israel, I began to wonder if making wine in Israel helped Shane make wine in Oregon, and so I decided to ask.

In sending an email requesting an interview with Shane I remembered a brief correspondence I had last year with Jeff Morgan, the winemaker and owner of Covenant Wine, which makes wine in both California and Israel, and so I asked him if he’d be open to talking about the same topic. The conversations with each were so great – and sufficiently different – that I’m going to break them up into two Good Vitis posts. For now I’m going to focus on Shane, and readers can look for the post on Jeff Morgan and Covenant Wines in the coming weeks.

My call with Shane started with the great story of how Shane landed at Golan Heights. He was working at a winery in Australia and found himself having brunch one day at the famously wild Ying Chow Chinese restaurant in Adelaide with some friends. Conversation drifted to the topic of the craziest places to make wine and the Golan Heights in Israel came up for debate. The Golan Heights was taken over by Israel in 1967 in a war with several Arab states and formally annexed by Israel in 1981. It constitutes the most northern part of Israel. Syria, it’s former owner, still lays claim to the land which remains checker boarded with fenced-in fields of landmines from wars past. It also happens to be beautifully mountainous and in the minds of many, mine included, Israel’s best area for wine grape growing.

Shane had never thought about making wine in the Golan but it peaked his interest because he “wanted a unique experience.” His friend Tom Stransky gave him the name of an Australian winemaker who was part of the team at Golan Heights Winery, one of the founding wineries of Israel’s wine industry and a world-leader in terms of technical advancement, who Shane called. Two months later Shane was in the Golan starting harvest…in July. Shane stayed through the end of the year leaving just after Christmas.

When he left for Israel Shane had it in his mind that he’d do a quick harvest in Israel and then hop to Europe and finish the harvest there. However, Israel is a country of many and significantly different microclimates and therefore for big wineries like Golan Heights that source from several of them, its harvests can be long. In 2010 the harvest began in July and went through November. This happened to be the warmest harvest on record up to that point. Shane never made it to Europe that year.

Shane had strong praise for his experience at Golan Heights. He called it one of, if not the most, modern wineries he’s worked at. The list includes Kendall-Jackson, considered one of the most advanced in California. One of the winery’s advancements that Shane says fellow winemakers don’t believe when he tells them is the large digital tank board at Golan Heights that he’s never seen elsewhere. What really blew Shane away, though, is how management ran the winery. The winemakers assemble at 5am every day to taste the wine and write up work orders for the winery workers who arrive at 7am and are handed their day’s tasks. Shane remarked that this management was reflective of the fact that everyone working at Golan Heights had gone through mandatory military service and has more self-discipline than the average winery professional. Because it improved efficiency and minimized mistakes, Shane now follows the same schedule and management style at Zena Crown as well as at Le Crema’s project in Oregon he is also running. Winemaking is logistical in nature, and of the eleven wineries where Shane has worked he says he learned the most at Golan Heights because of how meticulously it is run.

Golan Heights is a kosher winery, which means Shane, as a non-Jew, was limited in what he was able to do. In order to maintain a kosher certification, only Shabbat-observant Jews can be hands-on from the time the grapes are picked to when the bottles are sealed. Shane wasn’t able to touch the hoses or tanks, so he was given control over the in-house experimental winery that produced wine that wasn’t sold and therefore didn’t need kosher certification. He also served as their vintage winemaker, wrote work orders, kept things organized and spent a lot of time in the vineyards working with harvest parameters, though he didn’t call pick dates; so long as the grapes remained on the vine he could be as hands-on as needed. Over the six months that Shane was there he says his hands were never idle.

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Lake Ram, with Mount Hermon in the background, in the northeastern part of the Golan Heights (credit: “R. Ertov uploaded by his friend Asaf” on Wikipedia)

The Golan reminded him of growing fruit and producing wine in Washington State (which he has also done) because the climate and challenges are similar. Winemaking, as he pointed out, is pretty universal in terms of what a winemaker needs to do to produce a red or white wine, though “the devil is in the details.” As in Washington, water is relatively scarce in the Golan and that presented irrigation and vineyard difficulties. Likewise, both offer lots of long days of sunlight and moderate heat with significant cooling overnight. The difference, though, is that in October, when they’ve harvested in Washington, there’s still sunlight and photosynthesis going on in the Golan. He also made the humorous reference to the many acres of landmines that needed to be avoided (they’re fenced and well-marked, but still…) as an easily overcome “challenge.”

Challenges are aplenty in Israel, however, just like other parts of the world. Leaf roll has become a very real problem that threatens significant acreage. Because of the significant danger leaf roll presents – it’s fatal to vineyards where it really takes off – Golan Heights winery has its own nursery where it can work to mitigate the risks. Another challenge (which Jeff Morgan of Convenant Wines echoed) is finding high quality labor. Golan Heights makes a huge range of wine that retails from $10 on the low end to $300 on the high end, and to make wine commanding three figures hand picking and sorting is required, and in Israel it’s hard to find people who have the kind of experience needed to do that well just as California is reportedly on the precipice of its own labor shortage.

It is often observed, and in many different manifestations, that Israelis have their own way of doing things. One of the most critical to the wine industry is irrigation as Israel invented drip irrigation which is now agriculture’s – including the wine industry – standard around the world. While Shane didn’t point to any significant and unique similarities or differences between growing grapes and making wine in Oregon and Israel, it is significant that his time at Golan Heights has shaped how he runs his wineries today.

Shane was pretty animated over the phone as he told stories and answered my questions, and even though I’ve spent afternoons at countless Israeli wineries he invigorated my appetite for the occasional Israeli wine. For those who haven’t tried their wines, or have had one or two and weren’t blown away, I strong encourage you to seek a few out. My article from last summer, “Thirteen Israeli Wines That Will Change Your Worldview,” goes into depth on the history of winemaking in Israel and includes both a suggested wine route and reviews of thirteen wines that are relatively easily sourced in the United States. For the adventurous or bored wine drinker, Israel offers some very cool stuff. And after talking to Shane I’ll be looking for some Zena Crown as well.

 

 

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