Palestine’s first winery hopes to foster local identity

Over the hillside dotted with olive trees and vineyards, which leads to the Christian West Bank village of Taybeh in Palestine, the overcast sky heralded the coming of winter; but it did little to dampen the spirits of Nadim and Canaan Khoury, a father and son duo who had just celebrated the opening of their new Taybeh Winery — the first in Palestine.

Already known for his beer brewery, which he has been running for 20 years with his family, Nadim, an amateur winemaker at home, decided it was time to bring some good quality, locally made wine to the Palestinian market.

“When I came (back) to this country in 1994, there were nine wineries in Israel, now there are 300,” noted Nadim, who learned beer brewing while a student in the United States and returned to invest in his town following the Oslo Accords — a set of agreements between the government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Several Israeli wines have received accolades for their quality in the international market.

Though living in a primarily Muslim society, where drinking alcohol is forbidden, Christian Palestinians have a long wine tradition, said Nadim, who is Greek Orthodox. In the past, there were two monasteries in the West Bank area that made their own wines. The Trappist Latrun Monastery came under Israeli control following the 1967 war, making it inaccessible to Palestinians living in the West Bank, and now the Salesian Cremisan Monastery near the village of Beit Jalla in the Bethlehem area is being threatened with being cut off from the village and the rest of the West Bank by a land confiscation bid, for what Israel maintains are security concerns.

Successful opening

After completing his degree in mechanical engineering and material science at Harvard, Canaan returned home and studied winemaking with an Italian winemaker who worked with the family to create the first batch of Nadim wines, including a Merlot, a Syrah and their Cabernet Sauvignon. Their Sauvignon Blanc will be ready in the spring.

wine consumption

Situated almost 2,800 feet above sea level, Taybeh is perfectly located for growing grapes, Canaan said. Indeed, grapes are the second-most grown crop by Palestinian farmers in the region, after olives, but only very little of the crop has been used by wine aficionados to make wine at home — until now.

On a recent rainy day in December, the Khoury family welcomed Palestinian wine lovers, dignitaries, diplomats and Christian religious leaders from the Greek Orthodox, Melkite, Roman Catholic and Coptic churches to the launching of their label — Nadim wines — a name which means “drinking buddy” in Arabic.

They asked for a blessing from the religious leaders, who obliged, and walked around the winery together chanting prayers and holding up crucifixes as they passed the big, shiny new wine vats and oak barrels used in the production of the three wines introduced at the opening.

“This gives a message to (Palestinians) living abroad that they should invest here. It lets the world know we are here, in this village of Taybeh, where Jesus passed through (on his way to Jerusalem),” said Nadia Fakir, who returned to Taybeh from Virginia, where she lives with her husband, to visit family and friends for the holidays.

Pedro Sousa Abreu, Portuguese Representative to Palestine, and self-proclaimed wine connoisseur, declared the wines “very well produced.”

“I am well impressed,” he said at the opening.

The Merlot is ready to go, he said, though the Syrah might do well with another year in the barrel.

“After that, it is good for the world,” he said.

Challenges

The village used to be surrounded by vineyards, said Nadim, but in the 1980s, a Phylloxera pest blight affected many parts of the region and destroyed 50 percent of the existing plants. An area in Taybeh called El-Enbaat was completely wiped out. The Taybeh Winery recently started planting vineyards in that area for its wines.

According to Canaan, 23, who runs the winery, there are about 21 indigenous varieties of local grapes. The winery is now working with four local grape farmers to produce the grapes for their wines. Though there has not been any opposition to the winery from any Muslim groups, some Muslim farmers declined to work with the winery because the grapes would go toward making wine. So the four farmers supplying the grapes are Christians — two are Catholic — from the surrounding villages of Deir Rafat, Bir Zeit and Aboud.

In addition to facing the uncertainties of nature inherent in all agriculture, the winery also faces political uncertainty, said Canaan. Israeli settlers have damaged and vandalized the area vineyards in the area of Bir Zeit, he noted, and they have had to replant. They lack access to qualified labs and must do all quality testing in-house. Winemaking equipment has been held up at check points, and just before the opening, Canaan said he spent three hours trying to cross a checkpoint from Jerusalem on his way back to Taybeh after having bought cheeses for the event.

“We do face some challenges politically here,” he said. “The country here is not very stable, and we are running a big risk. The situation is unpredictable. It makes the process difficult. The uncertainty is the biggest problem we are facing.”

Palestinian identity

The wines, which were launched just in time for the Christmas season, will be first available in hotels and bars in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho through the marketing channels they have already established with Taybeh beer. Nadim is also hopeful to be able to market his wines in Jerusalem, where their Taybeh beer has been available for 20 years.

“We do have a very young wine culture,” Canaan said. “Many people in cities (with large Christian populations) have been making their own wines, but they use local grapes so it comes out different than the international communities. We want to educate the consumer to drink quality wines, aged in oak barrels. Aging is a new concept (here).”

They are looking at a clientele base among educated Palestinians and those who have traveled abroad, he said, and hope to someday be able to market their wines abroad as well.

In addition to educated local consumers, Canaan, noting that Israeli wineries are excelling in exporting wines, said he too sees the winery as a chance to help create an identity for Palestinian wines, and a chance to help bolster Palestinian pride in their identity in general.

Though there has not been any cooperation with the Israeli wineries, he did visit some wineries at the beginning of the process.

“There was no politics. Just a winemaker visiting winemakers,” he said.

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.