Inspired by a Tuscan mentality, Midbar winery masters the art of simplicity.
Words by Meryl Fontek
Photos by Dor Kedmi
In 2012, Itzhik and Shelley Wolf did the unexpected. They veered away from the verdant Judean Hills, the lush Galilee, and the Golan Heights, regions which are known for wine making in Israel. The husband and wife duo took to the south of the country and made the unlikely decision to make wine in the Negev desert.
What made you decide on the Negev?
Itzhik Wolf: There are so many wineries in the Golan Heights region. We wanted to do something different. Despite not being from the desert or living there, we chose to have our vineyards there. We could’ve picked anywhere, even Tuscany! We spend some of our time living there. Making wine is more than just a business, especially when you choose to do it somewhere that looks like the end of the world, the middle of the Negev desert. We connected to the location and felt like we should try to make wine there.
In 2016, we proved we were right. Midbar was the first Israeli winery to win a gold medal for a white wine at Decanter World Wine Awards London. The moment we won, I understood that we’d chosen well. That what seems right, actually is right.
Where do people typically choose to make wine?
IW: There are two geographical wine-making bands in both hemispheres, the northern and the southern one. For example, wine wasn’t traditionally made in England. But, because of global warming, it has become viable. In Israel, we are at the southernmost edge of the northern band. Where we get our grapes, Mitzpe Ramon, is actually slightly outside the band. The terroir is extreme. Many people told us it’s impossible to make wine in the desert. Then they conceded and said that maybe it is possible. But, it wouldn’t be of good quality. This is what we wanted to prove wrong. Everyone should remember what Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion said. He told everyone that the Negev is the place to be. The Negev makes up half of the country, maybe even more.
What made you decide to open a winery to begin with?
IW: It’s something Shelley and I dreamed of doing for many years. In 2009, my heart stopped functioning. We left Israel for the United States for a heart transplant and stayed there for two years. When we came back in 2011, we decided it was time to do what we had always wanted to do.
We have spent a lot of time in Tuscany at our second home there. Our closest friends and neighbors are winemakers or butchers. Spending significant time in Italy instilled in us that good wine and food are among the main things that matter there.
Do you find there’s a big difference between wine produced in the Golan vs in the Negev?
IW: Absolutely. In general, I think wine is made by the sun. The real winemaker is the sun. We believe that the terroir is more significant than the winemaking itself. Terroir refers to the ground and the weather. If we taste chardonnay from the Negev, it will always be different from the chardonnay from the Golan Heights. It doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. They’re just different.
You can really only learn about wine by drinking it. Everyone prefers something different. Of course there are winemakers and wineries that believe that the winemaker is what makes the wine good and where the grapes come from doesn’t matter.
How many bottles does a typical winery produce?
IW: We produce 60,000 bottles a year. Up to 10,000 bottles is called a garage winery. Up to 100,000 bottles is a boutique winery. There are about 300 wineries in Israel.
If you’re not drinking Midbar, what do you drink?
IW: We mostly drink Midbar. Shelley and I drink a bottle of wine a day, at lunch and dinner. She drinks most of it though, not me. But, we taste wine by other wineries as often as we can.
Tell me about the wine making.
IW: The water we use in the vineyards is desalinated water from the Mediterranean Sea, mixed with local water. This gives us everything required to make wine in the desert. The sun, water, and the land. Having to irrigate our vines has its benefits. We don’t have to pray for rain or just the right amount of it. All we have to do is open the tap. I think it’ll take us 50 years to learn how to open the tap just the right amount and how much water we need and when. The amount of water and the timing of its supply to the vineyards has a great influence on the grapes.
We try to make our wines as simple and pure as possible. There are about 200 additives that are allowed to be added to wine for color, aroma, and things of that sort. The only additives we use are to prevent the wine from oxidizing. Aside from that, we add nothing. We approach everything personally. All of the grapes are picked by hand and we hand select the best ones to use.
If I could afford it, I would make a different wine from each row of vines. Each row would yield a different wine based on how the sun hits, the wind, and the flow of water. What we are able to do is to blend our early harvest rows with our late harvest rows to make the optimal blend of a single varietal from a single vineyard. We found that white grapes grow best in the desert.
How do you decide when to harvest the grapes?
IW: Trial and error. This is how the process works and it takes time. We have one harvest a year, between July and September. If we make a mistake, we need to wait until the following year and then it takes another year to make the wine. By the time we see the results, it’s already time for the next harvest.
What do you think makes desert wine special?
IW: In order to understand our wines, you need to first understand the desert itself. The main thing is how dry it is. The aridity is all encompassing and total. If you don’t bring water from somewhere else, nothing will grow on its own. Ten days a year, the desert gets a very small amount of rain. 20 millimeters would be considered a good year. The sand itself is so fine and tightly packed that water doesn’t seep into the ground. Normally, in conditions like that, almost nothing could grow, from bacteria to living organisms. In the Bible, the desert was considered a clean place. Throughout biblical history, people would go to the desert to cleanse themselves. The minimalist terrain is something I relate to a lot.
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