By Gabriel Geller – Royal Wine/Kedem
With Chanukah soon upon us, I thought it appropriate to tell the story of the legendary Israeli winery Domaine du Castel. We often talk about the renaissance of the Israeli wine industry, which began in the 19th century. Perhaps the most illustrious member of the famous French-British banking family, philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild, has donated and invested considerable resources to the Jewish establishment in Israel to rebuild the Holy Land’s infrastructures and agriculture, more than 2,000 years after the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash. Baron Rothschild is the most notorious pioneer of what would eventually become a blossoming and thriving wine industry.
Fast forward to the 1980s. Eli Ben Zaken is an Egyptian-born Jew who grew up and was educated in Italy, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom before making Aliyah. He (in the 1980s) owns and runs Mama Mia, a popular Italian restaurant in Jerusalem. Over the years, Eli had developed a refined palate, and found himself naturally attracted to the complex flavors, nuances and aromas present in European wines; particularly those of France’s Burgundy amd Bordeaux.
Back in those days, there were only a handful of quality Israeli wines, most of them modeled after the wines of California. The Ben Zaken family lives to this day in Ramat Raziel, a charming and picturesque village located in the Judean Hills 10 minutes outside of Jerusalem.
In 1988, Eli decided to experiment: he would plant a small vineyard next to his house, and once the vines had matured to yield good grapes, he hoped to produce a small batch of wine. Eli learned winemaking and vine growing techniques by reading books written by the late Professor Emile Peynaud, considered by many as the father of modern enology. From his first harvest of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in 1992, Eli Ben Zaken made his first wine which he called Castel Grand Vin, Jérusalem, Haute-Judée, as a tribute to the wines of Bordeaux he liked so much. With only a few hundred bottles at hand, Eli served it mostly to his patrons at the restaurant and shared it with his family and friends.
In 1995, Eli and his wife received an unexpected fax from Dalia Penn Lerner. The Israeli actress had decided on her own to send a bottle of the Castel Grand Vin 1992 to Serena Sutcliffe MW (Master of Wine, the highest distinction and diploma in the wine industry). Mrs. Sutcliffe, then the head of the wine department for the prestigious auction house Sotheby’s, raved about Eli’s wine in her thank-you note back to Mrs. Penn Lerner. Mrs. Sutcliffe’s letter motivated Eli to turn his small, hobbyist wine production into a professional winery, which he named Domaine du Castel.
This is how, just over a century after Baron Rothschild, Eli Ben Zaken became one of the pioneers of the boutique winery revolution in Israel. Dozens of new wineries are driven by the same passion in search of uniqueness and excellence that followed in Castel’s path. Like the small jar of pure olive oil that was barely enough to maintain the Beit Hamikdash’s menorah light for one day, yet miraculously held up for eight, Eli Ben Zaken’s little barrel of wine became the flagship boutique winery of Israel, producing about 25,000 cases annually.
Over the years, Eli Ben Zaken was joined by his 3 children, Ilana, Ariel, and Eitan, who each play an instrumental role in the winery. Ilana is the export manager, Ariel runs the day to day operations and administrates the winery together with CEO Elad Katz. Eitan, who was trained in Burgundy, is the winemaker together with Eli. The Ben Zakens have expanded production over the years, first producing the winery’s second wine Petit Castel. After that, they created a Burgundy-styled Chardonnay called ‘C’ Blanc du Castel, and then in 2009 the first Rosé du Castel, the first high-end Israeli rosé. In 2015, the winery moved to a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility in Yad Hashmona. This led to the production of 3 new wines: La Vie Rouge, La Vie Blanc,as well as a Muscat varietal semi-sweet wine.
Domaine du Castel’s wines consistently receive the highest accolades from the world’s top wine critics and writers, with 90+ scores for almost every vintage. Recently, the Castel Grand Vin 2016 was included in the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines for 2019.
The Ben Zaken family keeps reinventing themselves, which is one of the key elements of their success. In 2017, they started a new winery out of their original facility in Ramat Raziel. There, they will produce Mediterranean-style wines under the name “Raziel.” We are very much looking forward to seeing their new wines in the USA soon. L’chaim, and Chanukah Sameach!