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Roots Run Deep for Wine Family in Galilee

At work in one of the Dalton Winery vineyards

Hailing from Britain, the Haruni family launched the Dalton Winery in the Galilee in 1995 as their best hope of making a meaningful impact on providing industrial jobs and tourism in the region. Located near Ramat Dalton and surrounded by nearby vineyards, theirs was the first commercial winery to locate to the Galilee and they were pioneers in recognizing the terroir of the Galilee as being ideal for growing grapes.

Since their inception, the Galilee has become the most prolific region in Israel for grapes (with over 40 % of all Israeli grapes grown there) and a much higher ratio of quality grapes compared to almost anywhere in Israel except for the Golan Heights (which is considered a sub-region of the Galilee anyway).

The Dalton brand is recognized in Israel and internationally for providing good value wines as well as a wide range of higher-end interesting single varietal wines and blends for more demanding wine connoisseurs. The winery produces about 1 million bottles a year depending on the vintage. Its wines are certified kosher but like most Israeli kosher wines, the first focus is on quality, and no one could tell that the wine was kosher by just tasting. Their good wines that happen to be kosher, which has important marketing advantages for an Israeli winery, have scored very highly in international magazines and competitions against international wines.

I had an opportunity to talk to Alex Haruni, the CEO, about Dalton's history and impact and recent changes at the winery.

Alex, you're in the process of changing winemakers at Dalton. That's a major event at a winery, especially for one of your size. Tell us a little about the journey you went on with winemaker, Naama Sorkin, who's leaving, and the legacy she leaves behind.

Naama joined us fresh out of school at a time when there was very little domestic talent in Israel. It was an opportune meeting and Naama showed her talents early on and fitted well into our operation. Whilst it is always a risk to take on a novice winemaker we were assisted by consultant winemaker John Worontschak who has shepherded the winery for the past 20 years. During her tenure Naama found her true calling in the vineyards, realizing that the secret to successful wines begins and ends in the vineyards. In fact Naama was instrumental in the planting of our new vineyards around the Galilee and choosing the varietals that will take us forward to the next decade.

Who is your new winemaker? Why did you choose him over other candidates and what changes can we expect to taste?

Once again I went for a relatively new winemaker and Israeli native, Guy Eshel. Guy studied Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis. Prior to joining us he worked in California's Napa Valley, the Northern Rhône, France and Australia's Canberra cool climate wine region. Guy was a pretty easy choice - he is charming and unspoiled, and his initial efforts in the winery have been very positive. I like the idea of bringing an unknown winemaker to Dalton - it will give us an opportunity to take the winery in new stylistic directions and tinker with some of our wines. The winery celebrates twenty years this year and I think it's time to shake things up a bit.

How has the wine business evolved in Israel since 1995?

In 1995 there were about 20 wineries in Israel - today there are close to 250. Back then people asked for sweet wines and now they are asking for wines by variety and vintage. Then you could sell almost anything at any price, now the customer is very discerning with both price and quality. The only thing that hasn't really changed is the level of consumption - we think that we are drinking more wine in Israel today but it isn't really borne out by the numbers. Unfortunately, production levels have outstripped consumption, and prices are beginning to reflect that fact.

On a more positive note the quality of Israeli wines has improved dramatically over the past decade with more professionally trained Israeli-born winemakers than ever before.

In addition there has been a proliferation in the varieties planted in Israel. When we began in 1995 all we had were Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. That is all there was planted in Kerem ben Zimra at the time, but we went on to plant the rest of the varieties that the winery produces today. There is no doubt that Cabernet Sauvignon is the most significant grape for the winery. However, I believe that Shiraz is probably one of the best suited grapes for the Israeli climate. I have tasted many Israeli Shiraz's and they are always qualitatively superior to most other varieties in Israel.

I think that our exploration into the varieties of Southern France and Spain - Shiraz, Grenache Mourvedre and Viognier have led to really interesting and world-class wines and these are avenues that I want to continue to explore.

In recent years, how much headway have Israeli wines made overseas in shaking the bad rap of Israeli wines from before the quality revolution of the last 30 years?

Israeli winemaking has come on in leaps and bounds since the 1980s. The quality of today's wines is incomparably better than what it was and can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with most wines from around the world. Unfortunately the Israeli winemaking community hasn't got that message out to the world at large and Israeli wines languish in the doldrums of the world wine markets, appealing only to a very enthusiastic local market and Jewish communities abroad. I would like to think that social media can help us out of this rut but I feel that there needs to be a deeper change in the way Israel is perceived by the foreign media and a more concerted approach by the Israeli wine industry as a whole before there will be any appreciable change.

What are your aspirations for Dalton, the Galilee region and the Israeli wine industry as a whole?

Dalton has gone through a lot of changes in the past couple of years, all for the best. I hope that the new personalities will help us enter the next phase of Dalton that I am planning. In the domestic market our new distribution agreement with Hakerem will give us added strength, taking us into avenues previously neglected by our former distributor. I am also excited about making some different wines and experimenting with new winemaking styles. I also believe that our investment in new vineyards will take us to the zenith of the Israeli winemaking scene.

I foresee the Galilee becoming part of the rich tapestry of grape-growing areas in Israel

The Galilee is an important region for Israeli winemakers but it is just one of quite a few regions around Israel where quality grapes are grown. I foresee that the Galilee will become part of the rich tapestry of grape-growing areas in Israel. I would like to see a more rigorous appellation system put into play in the industry and greater recognition given to Estate wineries such as ourselves that have taken the time and effort to invest in their own vineyards, and take care of their own supply chain.

David Rhodes is a California trained sommelier who has worked at wineries and restaurants in the USA and Israel and is the host of Rhodes to Israeli Wines on tlv1.fm and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

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Monday, 18 January 2021

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