From the soil and sun of Israel, to grape, to wine, and to your table – process secrets revealed as never before
The first Israeli winery ever to win two Decanter World Wine Award Gold Medals in the same year; 9 medals in 2019; 11 in 2021. Only founded in 2005.
Interesting? How do you do it?
Amichai Lourie is a magazine cover DIYer. He grows his own vegetables in his hothouse, ages and cures his own meats; he built his own matza bakery. He credits his early experimentation with wine even more than going to school afterwards. The risks he took at home as a hobby with several hundred bottles, moving from a cellar to digging out a cave, now expands to playing with thousands of liters and whole vineyard plots, as he produces 250,000 bottles a year, and growing. “I mix lo-tech and hi-tech;” and then he demonstrated that to us for two straight hours.
It starts with the land. Shiloh Winery as a rule does not buy land. “I make long-term unique contracts. I don’t work with growers that don’t love what they do and don’t respect the land. Does it make a difference, talking to plants? Yes, it makes a difference. So does loving the land. I have bid goodbye; left contracts at a loss, when I felt the farmers were just about business.”
Together with partner farmers around the country, Amichai conducts soil studies; analyzes the annual rainfall and weather pattern, and the sunlight angles and temperatures over the course of the day and the year. Sometimes they grind the soil to pulverize larger rocks; sometimes they plant alfafa or other crops a year in advance, and then grind those nutrients into the soil as well. In the same plot they may plant different varieties; or plant the very same type differently; achieving different results. “Come see a plot with clusters all visible to the light, spread out. Directly facing it, the clusters are all hidden by leaves. The morning light hits this row’s open clusters, ripening them gently; whereas the other side experiences the day’s heat with more intense midday and afternoon light; it needs the leaf cover.” That is just the start. The watering is automated and the moisture is monitored in every vineyard; an Israeli system; as is the drip irrigation. A small puddle from a broken pipe can be stopped; and a heat wave can prompt more watering. An alert comes to the phone in his pocket faraway, he touches the screen and adjusts the flow in each part of the plot. This ensures consistency.
Environmental concern runs throughout the process. Here, growing grapes and making wine improve the land and the air at every stage; not worsen it. Few artificial substances are used. “We spray about one-tenth the normal. We do what we have to when it needs to be done; not automatically.” Isn’t that foolish? All kinds of natural pests affect the earth, the vines, the leaves, and the grapes themselves long before the precious juice is pressed out and the long wine-making process begins. But if you believe in the earth, and monitor to an extreme, you take that risk.
Working with Amichai makes demands on the growers. They have to accept an outside agronomist coming in every week – every week! – and telling them what to do or not do; besides Amichai’s regular visits and his quality demands. “They don’t like it at first, but over the years they see from the results it is worth it.” Solutions can be applied to a particular vine or section of one vineyard. If everything is all right, validated by an expert, then let nature do its thing. This winery’s grapes get an excellent shot at perfection on the vine. Even pruning in the wineries is done differently in each plot; not standard for each variety. “The same plot, fed by the same faucet, I will look at and say, this side needs to be treated in one way, the other side in another. It is like a different child; each learns differently and has its own needs; each vineyard is like a child.” This reminded me of the Talmud’s description of Daniel Bar Ketina (Taanit 9a). He would review his field and say, “This row needs this much rain; this row needs a different amount,” and his prayers would be answered on that microscale.
One of the greatest threats to the fruit itself during the growing season is the grape moth, which can wipe out a vineyard. Vials releasing a smell like the male pheromone hang throughout the vineyards. It tells the males that there is much competition, stay away; and the females do not reproduce. It used to last two months; now it lasts 3 months, covering the whole season; an Israeli invention. “Expensive but worth it. Especially when repeated every year, it pays for itself.” No pesticides are used unless there is a spot problem. This is instead of the usual “spray every ten days”. Natural compost is spread once a year, not once in three years – preventative action, nurturing, are keywords in Shiloh Winery’s approach.
We are now up to the harvest. Every day that a grape stays on the vine and might pass its prime is a risk; every day it is ripe, the animals and insects and birds are more interested; the wrong weather or water can spoil it. And yet, Shiloh favors a late harvest with fruitier grapes, where the phenolic maturity means the flavor is embedded into the fruit; and you can taste that difference. At least some vineyards are not harvested until after Sukkot. One part of a vineyard may be ready before the other – it will get picked before; instead of simply picking everything at once.
Many, many wineries producing high-end wines harvest at night, when the weather is cooler; and justifiably advertise that on the label! Consider though – you estimate in three days the grapes will be perfect. So, you arrange for 50 people to come pick at night, with lamps and equipment; set up sorting tables to leave out rotten grapes and unripened clusters; pack the clusters into bins and load the truck, move to the winery, and start pressing the grapes. This can last into daytime hours. Black grapes absorb the sun’s heat; they can be over 30 degrees Celsius by the time they are ready to go into the tank; very bad for the wine. There are techniques to cool them down, but it is damaging. The larger the winery, the more grapes, the more time. What if the last check shows they need several more days to be optimum? Too late, or absorb the loss of rescheduling. I once brought a group and the winemaker interrupted his tour and took a phone call – then apologized – “This is the winegrowers’ hotline; we help each other out; every hour and every day is critical now.” When to pick affects all the work before, and years of work after. “You can make really terrible wine from good grapes; you can’t make good wine from bad grapes,” says Amichai; and that moment when the vineyard is ready go is one of the most sensitive moments in the whole process.
His approach is totally different; as he says, he does not follow the flock. Amichai spend his days in the vineyards and creates carpets of clusters thrown to the ground. “I won’t pick one berry I don’t want.” What a statement; I told him to make a T-shirt! If the vineyard shakes off the day’s heat and reaches its cooling point at 1:30am, Amichai starts picking at 2am – by machine, with his small staff, taking the whole harvest in 2-4 hours; it is in the tanks by 10am. In fact, when the grapes arrive, if you put your hand in the bin you will pull it out fast – it is chilling. Recently he picked three different vineyards in one night – one was in the tanks by 10am, the last by 12 noon – the temperature in the first was 12 degrees Celsius; the temperature in the last, third batch was 9 degrees! Flexibility – the day before this interview, he cancelled a night harvest to give it another 4 days; and thus he called me to come to Shiloh; he was free. On rare occasions he will pick a particular vineyard by hand. Overall, the quality control is there in advance; the coolness and speed result in a quality product later. He calls it “a hands-on boutique winery using machines.”
“This forklift weighs the grapes as the harvest comes into the factory. We used to take a few bins, pile them up on the side, put them on a scale, weigh them, and then start the process. For three or four weeks a year we work around the clock; crazy busy, every second counts. Now, as they come off the truck, this forklift weighs them and puts them straight into the next stage. Does it really make all that difference? Spend $15,000 for a piece of equipment used less than a month a year? One small thing? No. But when you have a chain of small things, it adds up.” An early decision was for the first decade, which became 15 years, to invest and reinvest all resources into making better wine; not into a visitor center, comfortable furniture and the like (we sat on loose plastic chairs here and there amidst equipment and barrels; not even a table). “That is why I have assembled expensive equipment that only a multi-million-bottle winery has. At each stage, another small difference, one more edge to make a better wine; in a country making great wines.”
How do you get the grapes off the pieces of vine and leaves that came with it? Any extraneous material must be filtered out or it will affect the taste. “Some genius created this machine, a destemmer – it oscillates, it gently separates the grapes by shaking them off, not by hurling them against the sides, with no pressure.” A peristaltic pump, so gentle it could pump out a fish tank with live fish, applies no pressure; no damage to the grapes, no loss enroute; and sends the grapes into the fermentation tanks for red; and into the pressing machine if it is white wine. Four such pumps are employed at different places in the winery for such delicate transfers. The main filtration machine can be adjusted as to how much grape skins and material it takes out. Then, further processing allows smaller batches to be handled differently, in line with the vision for each batch’s fermentation and post-fermentation process. Each variety, each vineyard, and often each batch is a separate decision. Very often batches themselves are also split, so they will grow up as non-identical wines – they will each be treated slightly differently and evolve differently.
The night’s pickings are now in vats as the alcoholic fermentation process starts, as sugar turns into alcohol; and after two weeks to a month will meet barrels for the very first time. The malolactic fermentation in the barrels also takes several weeks. The strong, powerful malic acid in the grapes, thanks to bacteria, becomes the smoother lactic acid. This is how Amichai understands what the Sages meant and understood by having 40 days for fermentation; not only for turning the sugar to alcohol, which could take a week to ten days; but this second stage must take place as well for it to become wine. Special gaskets have water in them so that gases can escape as it bubbles and ferments; but air cannot get in. Each barrel is tasted every once or twice a week at this stage – and that can be 1000 barrels!
We should clear the air first – but there is no air. Amichai explains that oxidation at various stages in the winemaking process is essential; but oxidation also damages the wine. At every stage, he blocks oxygen from the liquid unless it is in the wine’s best interest. Many wineries buy canisters of nitrogen gas to flush pipes, barrels and tanks at different stages. But each time one has to hook up the cannister; decide if it is worth the effort and so on. “You see those blue machines? They take everything out of the air that is not nitrogen, and I get over 99% pure nitrogen in unlimited quantities. Nitrogen flushes the pipe; then the grape mix goes in. Every time liquid is moved, all the way through the bottling process, nitrogen goes in first, and the liquid displaces nitrogen – and is then followed by nitrogen, so that air never touches the liquid. I have an unlimited amount, so why not? Another machine takes the moisture from the nitrogen, so that does not affect the wine either.” This prevents many common hazards that can befall wine at different stages. Even after it has been in the barrel for two years or more; the last stages of production can also develop problems from oxygen. Problem solved.
Next comes an ozone machine – yes, ozone – which sterilizes and purifies, including hard-to-get-at parts. Every barrel goes though ozone sterilization; and they are also steamed at intervals. A whole room may be sterilized in ozone; which dissipates after 12 hours, and is good for the world’s air.
The liquid now goes into steel tanks for further fermentation. Skins naturally float to the top. But since contact with the liquid makes a better wine, a sprinkler-type system in the tank regularly mixes the skins with the liquid. At least once a day, in each tank, this is done by hand as well. Tanks vary in size; so there is much more control and an appropriate fermentation for each variety and for each planned outcome. Some wines do better in larger batches; some in smaller. The tops lower themselves to be in direct contact with the wine surface; again, no air.
Micro-oxidation is important. When the wine is aging the oak barrels allow a degree of oxidation, and this is what makes wine special. When the wine is fermenting in the tanks, the yeast needs oxygen. Wineries will transfer from tank to tank or use a spray process to allow some air. Here, a micro-oxygenizer shoots, for example, 0.3 grams per 100 liters every 24 hours; tiny, tiny bubbles of oxygen into the tank. This affords tremendous control and avoids many problems. It is a much cleaner fermentation, without reduction; and without various negative aromas and flavors that often develop. Amichai considers this a big step, a major success, not a little step. For years now this process has avoided spoilage and other risks to wine quality. Anita Jacobs asks him how many he has? “I have several, each with two outlets to handle two tanks; I move them around. In the new winery there will be an outlet in the wall by each tank – you know what, let’s go see the new winery!”
After ten years the winery finally bought an adjacent piece of land from the government to expand operations and make a visitor center; a beautiful piece perched on the hillside overlooking the fertile valleys right below it – but major underground town piping was overlooked. The government accepted responsibility; is redoing the piping; and constructing a multi-story concrete belt holding earth to raise the adjacent valley floor to street level. It is currently six years since the purchase; and counting. Amichai takes it in stride. “The Sages told us acquiring the land of Israel would come hard.” The rooftop catwalk will overlook vineyards and olive orchards in all directions, with the winery barrels below. A gourmet restaurant will offer a magnificent view of Shiloh Valley.
After the initial fermentation stages, the liquid, now entering its wine state, is placed for the months and years to come into barrels – but which barrels? French oak, American – even from which forest is considered. Toasted slightly, well-toasted? The same harvest is split between different barrel types, which will result in a year to three years’ time in a different wine; though it was all Cabernet Franc or Merlot to start with. Even though special fans move the air around to achieve a consistent temperature; still, it can happen that the temperature of the upper racks in the storage room is two degrees higher; so those barrels of the very same batch will age differently than barrels on the lower racks; all duly noted and tracked. Different barrel rooms are kept at different temperatures; one at 13-14 degrees Celsius, one at 16 degrees Celsius; to individually treat wines in different stages of their development; or to process different wines with their own requirements. These decisions change over the years and create different results. This is one of the areas where Amichai continuously experiments; this year he dropped temperatures by 2 degrees overall.
At regular intervals, and at the end of an expected maturation period, each barrel is tasted; again and again. It is now many months since the grapes were picked, and different characters have developed. “You can cook chicken in water, it will be fine; add vegetables, better; spices; better. A chef,” – and Amichai himself is a chef, aging meats, matching meals to his wines – available for families and groups by reservation – “will have a fermented lemon mixture prepared, to use one spoonful in a recipe. So, I like to have many, many options to create different blends; and to achieve complexity in the wine.That is why I diversify my stock so much in every stage of production. I do not produce all six Selected Reserve varieties every year; it depends on that year’s vintage quality. Other lines I keep to a certain standard and deliver each year because people expect to have their new Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. But certain Mosaic lines or other wines will differ; every year. I push the envelope, I experiment; there is tough competition and you have to go that extra mile. The constant separation and differing treatments all the way along give me a tremendous range. I try to have as much ingredients available as possible to build those lines.”
Then decisions are made. “We love blends,” says Avinoam, Amichai’s son. “We will take a Merlot from the Shiloh area and mix it with a Merlot from Qiryat Shemona in the far north, from the southern Hevron area, and from central region Mevo Horon. A Secret Reserve Cabernet is indeed made of all cabernet sauvignon grapes; but it is a mixed blend.” “Then we have to choose what quality level it has achieved,” adds Amichai. Will this barrel go into the flagship Mosaic, to Secret Reserve, Legend, Shor, or to the Privilege entry level; or is it a white Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or a Rose. “I bring in outside paid consultants and colleagues to determine the level batch by batch with myself and my staff. I insist on looking in the mirror; I will not fool myself. Sometimes when you taste your own wines, you are biased. Sometimes you invest so much you believe you have something special; you invested so much in this vineyard it must be fantastic – you need someone to tell you no – and the other way; with little effort it comes out fantastic. When a doubt arises, I prefer to put it in a lower level and charge less for a higher quality. Recently we had such a disagreement; I overrode those who felt it was a higher quality level and chose to put it out as 2017 Merlot Shor. When the market in Israel and in the US realized my mistake, what was a 10-month supply sold out in 3 months. One friend sent me a picture of some 30 cases in his living room. And, he went and bargained store-by-store to get it for 75 shekels a bottle instead of 84, because he was buying cases – it should have been 140 shekels per bottle. But I’d rather make a mistake in that direction than the other way.” When there is a doubt, the barrel will be put aside, to be decided upon later. Once the choice has been made which barrels go with which others, they are mixed in the tank again to ensure homogeneity and consistency of each line that will come out – bottle number 1 will be the same as bottle 17,004.
Carl Jacobs asks about more advanced filtration at different stages. “The toolbox in kosher is smaller,” admits Amichai. “I cannot even use fish-based products. We use a potato-based substance at one stage that we have found works well. This is Israel, we are Israelis – put limitations on us, we find a new way and make breakthroughs.” Some 15 years ago, a New York distributor, Nathan Herzog from Royal Wine Corporation, told Amichai that if he could find a way to make high-end wine fit the halachic category of mevushal, it would be a boon. Heating wine renders it impervious to some halachic hazards in handling the wine after opening the bottle, and thus is demanded by major US kosher agencies to allow it for public consumption; such as serving at weddings and in restaurants. Wine enthusiasts are under the impression that pasteurization ruins higher quality wine flavor, and avoid mevushal wines. Yet the general public is unaware that multi-billion-dollar wineries do heat their batches in different stages to achieve stabilization, coloration, and for other purposes that benefit the wine. For the halachic requirement, some wineries flash-boil it for under a second. “This is the only real secret in the winery. Over a period of time, I developed a machine, and had a builder make it for me to my specifications. A few rabbis know the secret to authorize that it indeed cooks the wine halachically. Most people cannot tell the difference; and these too earn high scores. Mark Squires of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate picked up on it. He said, ‘This wine has everything going against it. It is from Israel, it is kosher, and it is cooked.’ Yet he gave it a score in the 90s and said age it for a decade at least.”
We are nearing the bottling stage, but not just yet. Each batch is now placed in a cooling tank. Normal coolers go down to 2 degrees Celsius. To go colder requires a far more expensive machine; and insulating the machine to reach even colder temperatures – even down to 7 degrees below zero Celsius, is a real challenge and cost; for which Shiloh Winery has developed methods and materials over the years. “This is an expensive, time-consuming process. But this way, sediment and materials go to the bottom and sides. It makes a much cleaner wine, and is worth it,” says Amichai. From here once again nitrogen goes into the pipes first, the wine flows to the bottles, nitrogen follows behind, and gases prevent air in the bottles. The bottles are corked, with a vacuum between the wine and cork; the cork slowly releases the gases into the air. The bottles are labeled, and a laser printer gives exact details on the case.
A tithing percentage will go to the poor in the 3rd and 6th years of the seven-year Sabbatical cycle, as mandated by Jewish law; distributed in unmarked bottles through organizations. A family of Levites will get their tithe share too. The winery allows each grower to decide what their approach will be to shemita, the Sabbatical year. In this current shemita year, 5782, less than ten percent is produced on shemita; over 90 percent let their fields lay fallow. People come pick the grapes, eat them or make their own wine. Customers in turn treat them according to their halachic standards. (I have a 2008 Shiloh shemita bottle waiting for a certain special occasion; it is not leaving Israel and will be drunk to the last drop). The remaining bottles will sit and rest after this challenging experience; until ready for sale and shipping. Done!
Well, er, actually, no; I glossed over a critical step. Cork is a natural product, with 5 million acres of European forests servicing the wine industry. The winemaker must choose which type, which shape, and which preparatory method to fit every type of wine the winery produces; how much air it lets in, and so on. And here is a shocking piece of the wine-making story I never knew. “Imagine you are buying a car”, explains Amichai. “You buy a $100,000 car and then find out that out of every 100 cars they make; 2 to 5 come out lousy, and you got one of those. And it is just tough; that is the way it is.” What!?
Yes, and Amichai gave a low figure – Wine Spectator tracked California wines: 9.5% defective corks in 2007; bettered to 3.7% in 2012. The cork industry’s own rule of thumb is “only” 1%-2% will go bad. A compound nicknamed TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) ruins wines; they smell moldy or musty; are stripped of flavor; or fruitiness is lost; or it is simply undrinkable. The winemaker may be able to detect it before sale; it could be it will ship across the world and be discovered only years later. Some tasters can catch TCA at 1 or 2 parts per thousand; some even at lower levels. The wine drinker may be disappointed or catch an off-characteristic and not know why. Another recent estimate was finding TCA in 7-8% percent out of some 20 billion corked bottles going to market. One factor is the chlorine bath given the cork to kill fungi and bugs. Another compound ruining flavor is TBA; coming from preservatives that treat the wood. Nowadays, the forests themselves are in “oak decline” from weather and human factors. Producers therefore are using plastic, synthetic materials, screw tops and so on; at the loss of cork’s benefits.
Back to Amichai. “Wine is the only industry where 2%-5% is defective. I find that intolerable. I found Diam corks; processed cork. It controls the air to the wine’s benefit and is free of the tainting issues. They made a revolution. I consider it the greatest revolution in the wine industry since glass bottles. No problems in 14 years.” Diam’s byline is “the guardian of aromas.”
That is it for the wine process; but the labeling deserves a word. Every bottle says ‘Made in Israel’; every bottle says Shiloh, in Hebrew and English. “Consultants said ‘stay away from Israel’, ‘Shilo is in the “territories”; you could lose business.’ I am proud of who we are; where we are; and the blessing of the land; hakarat hatov, I won’t spit in the land’s face. I pay the price of who I am and where I am.”
Now that we have crates of wine, it is time to sell them – presale is of course preferred. Suppliers and restaurants used to annually require a new tasting before risking their portfolio on the new vintage. It has been 5 years since the last time a regular Shiloh Winery customer asked; now they just take the new offerings. Amichai attributes this of course to his consistent quality, but says it is a credit in general to Israeli wines being accepted as quality products. Once it was commonly said that Israeli wines must be drunk within 5 years – now wine critics often say, give this wine 10 years or more. “A leading wine critic wrote about one of our early wines that it had years to go still. We were surprised! So we opened an early bottle; and we were shocked how good it was. We have since opened our 13- and 15-year-old wines at high-end tastings with experts. They are not just good; they are still going strong.” A long way from the sweet kiddush wine many of us grew up on.
How do you see wine sales overall? Are you selling to Dubai and the new Arab markets (who are even buying from Judea and Samaria)? “An upscale restaurant in Dubai wants wines; but I told him wait. I have regular customers, a supplier in France, for example; that already want more product. I do not want to disappoint them. The existing demand exceeds the supply. The stock is sold out before the new vintage comes in. As our new vineyards complete their halachic cycle of being ready (nearly a 4-year cycle from planting), in about two years’ time I will have more wine available; and then can respond.”
Why here? Why Shomron? “All of Israel is wonderful for wine, as the verse says, it is a land of vineyards (Devarim-Deut 8:8); and the tribes are blessed with terms of wine and olive oil (Bereishit-Gen. 49:11-12, 20; Devarim-Deut. 33:24; and other references). The reason why all our new vineyards are in this region; why over ninety percent of our vineyards are here; is complexity. Complexity is the hidden factor that makes wines great. Besides the high altitude, ample sunlight, cool periods and Mediterranean breezes, the land itself here is diverse. The change of soils, of even microclimates, can be mere feet away from each other. I have a Merlot vineyard with one plot steps away from another right below it. The way the sun hits the soil in each plot, and the soil itself, is totally different; one has little berries with a certain complexity and the other is totally different. Five different soils lie within walking distance; five different climates, in the radius of a ten-minute drive. That diversity in the landscape I find only here in Shomron. The complexity makes the wine delicious; and why it stands up against older vines around the world.”
“This was the land’s nature; its renewed vineyards are prophecies: ‘Again you shall plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; Men shall plant and live to enjoy them’ (Yirmiyahu-Jeremiah 31:5). ‘But you, O mountains of Israel, shall yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel; for their return is near (Yechezkel-Exekiel 36:8).’”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Shiloh Winery makes great wine.
Rabbi Barnea Levi Selavan is Foundation Stone CoDirector www.foundationstone.org; running programs that teach Israel and its heritage in many forums, in the field, in museums, online, and overseas. Barnea is a licensed archaeologist and guide, Tel Aviv U. PhD Candidate, writer and editor. This onsite interview was conducted on Shiloh Winery’s behalf during harvest season in Elul 5781/August 2021; accompanied by Carl and Anita Jacobs of Jerusalem. Barnea may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.