Enter a Winemaker’s Head and Heart; See Israel Through his Eyes
Amichai Lourie shares how he became and stays a consistent award-winning winemaker;
a no-holds-barred personal interview
“It doesn’t get better than planting vineyards in the earth of Israel; nothing more fulfilling. Children having grandchildren; maybe that tops it. Harvesting the grapes; making wine. A wine being kosher is important but this is more; it is a shlichut, a mission; in many ways. People around the world choose to serve God and perform their commandments with our wine; they make Kiddush on Shabbat knowing the farmer shares that passion with them. It has that extra special dimension.”
Listening to Amichai Lourie, Shiloh Winery’s driving force; father and grandfather, visionary businessman with a global view – you understand what makes him tick. You hear an authentic voice of Yisrael, the people of Yisrael, as once they were – one people, living in their own land; interacting with their land, with their inheritance, as a Heavenly gift. They bore the responsibility of caring for it; using its produce to help others. They knew, or else they had to learn, living in the land of Israel meant being worthy of it.
Amichai says he cannot sleep at night, thinking about details and efforts needed at every given moment in the processes; striving for excellence – remember on the same day he may be planting new fields with his partner farmers and choosing the angle facing the sun on the hillside, and which variety to plant for the coming decades in this plot; while tasting and deciding what wines to produce from mature barrels ready for finishing.
Photo credit Eyal Keren
His dedication to detail does not relax because of trust that heavenly assistance will take care of any problems; the opposite – a living example of how Rabbeinu Bachya explains bitachon, trust in Heaven – after every possible exertion is made, then there can be blessing. This year, 5781-2, 2021, the harvest lasted for two and a half months. That means that from late summer, through all the holidays, into late October, the winery team made 2 or 3 night harvests every single week throughout; working full days before and after; no sleep.
Photo credit Eyal Keren
Amichai honestly feels it is the extra care that makes the difference – and his wines have earned the international medals and recognition to prove it; year after year now. As we walk around the winery, out of the corner of his eye he sees a mark on the ground under a tank. Instantly he put his son Avinoam on the case. Every time over the next two hours that Avinoam passed us – working hard non-stop – Amichai asked him if he had yet checked the cause. No rest.
How did you come to make wine here? “My wife and I moved 30 years ago to Maale Levona across the road; because we had friends loving it. I cross through the Maccabee battle sites to get here every day; working near where the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, stood for centuries. It took 2 hours on hard roads to get to Jerusalem when we originally came; now it takes only half an hour. We watched and lived this process. I was working then as a contractor – in fact I laid the infrastructure and poured the concrete for the Eli cemetery; but once it ‘went into use’ I could not walk in; I am a cohen – tomorrow I am doing a pidyon haben.”
“Two things happened at once. I started making my own wine at home, just like we grow our own vegetables, make our own sour dough to bake our bread, and have our own matza oven. My wife Yael and I went together for courses at the Sorek wine school to improve; and as a hobby, you go crazy into details. I went from a few hundred bottles to 2000 bottles; experimenting all the time. Then, a friend made an event in 2005. So I served my wines with meats I prepared, as I love to do. One guest was a newcomer to Israel, a Mexican businessman; Dr. Meyer Chomer. He not only tasted the wines, but says he was observing me closely, and how I approached the wine; he sensed a kindred spirit. He exclaimed, “This is unbelievable, I am making a winery in Shilo, I need a winemaker, come!” I thought, what could I lose? I had a broken wrist and elbow then; I had casts on for the year, and could not work in renovations. Little did I know how immersive it would be, and what a life change this would be.” Amichai never looked back. His hands-on construction ability led to assembling a unique array of machinery to attack and streamline each stage of the process; applying his core operating principle – prevention – eliminating openings for maladies affecting viniculture and wine making. Perhaps the highest level of translating his engineering sense into this venture was building his own machine, in secret, to halachically pasteurize wine; fulfilling US kosher wine import requirements. This process is known only to those rabbis certifying it.
Photo credit Eyal Keren
“I am involved in every stage of the process: choosing the plot, planting, caring for the vines, harvesting, tasting and making the blends, producing the wine, and shipping and marketing it here and overseas.” How long would it take for someone to learn what you do? After considering, Amichai answers, “I think several years of shadowing me.” Some people may have the agricultural sense to manage and care for the fields, but not the tasting ability; the mechanical sensitivity needed for production, but not the social skills needed for selling to restaurants. Amichai regularly visits each field in the region and across the country; tastes hundreds of barrels at regular intervals; and in normal times, travels to conventions and to markets overseas. He knows he must gradually delegate.
“When you respect Eretz Yisrael there is a big bracha, much blessing,” says Amichai simply. “You don’t need to be a big ma’amin, you do not need deep faith to see what is going on. The Torah says the land will be desolate until you return. Mark Twain describes the land in terrible terms, as do other travelers over the past millennium. But the rabbis explain a blessing within the curse – (Vayikra-Lev. 26:34) your enemies will have a desolate land. The students of the Vilna Gaon, and of the Baal Shem Tov, came and started working the land. Look today what is happening in Israel. We are teaching the world about agriculture and water. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) says when the land gives fruits again it is the greatest open sign heralding the coming redemption; quoting Yechezkel (36:8): “But you, O mountains of Israel, shall yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel; for their return is near.” One has to be very careful; early expectancy damaged our people at different times in recent history. But when you pray now for the ‘coming’ of Mashiach, it is different; what we are seeing now is this process. And we are literally doing the ground work. Expect setbacks, as the Sages say; earning, meriting the land of Israel means it is out of your control; we must take setbacks in stride.”
“I like to say Eretz Yisrael is like a person, it is like it has a soul. If you identify with it, like Yosef did even in prison and even as Viceroy of Egypt – ‘I am a Hebrew, I am from there’, it cares for you. Moshe, raised and dressed like an Egyptian, as the midrash says (Shemot Raba 1:32); did not protest when Yitro’s daughter said ‘an Egyptian saved me’ – and for that lack of protest, for not admitting and acknowledging his land, says the midrash (Devarim Raba 2:8), he was not buried in Israel; contrasted with Yosef, whose body we carried for 40 years through the desert and then buried near here in Shechem. Our wines express this. The labels all say ‘Made in Israel’; they say ‘Shiloh’ in Hebrew and in English; no matter where they go in the world. Our logo is the horns of the Shor, of the Bull; the tribal blessing of Joseph; and we are standing right here in Ephraim’s inheritance.”
“We called a quality series, ‘Legend’. All our names express some aspect of Eretz Yisrael. We have an ‘attitude of gratitude’, hakarat hatov, for the land and that we are here. Honi Hama’agel experienced how trees are planted for the coming generations; we found a world with trees and we plant trees for the next one. I started selling the Honi label wine in Texas; and this woman calls me up. She was astounded at the vision expressed here, and was telling me the whole story – turns out she was not even Jewish! These messages resonate.”
A line-up of Cabernet Sauvignon, in ever-increasing size bottles, catches Anita Jacob’s eyes. “There is a gourmet restaurant on New York’s Wall Street, Reserve Cut in the Setai. The owners order cases, and wanted a large bottle. I made a magnum, a 1.5 liter. We meet in New York and he said, ‘We talked about big bottles!’ So I made a 3-liter bottle. He visited in Israel before Corona and said, “We talked about big bottles!” I said, ‘I just made a 5-liter bottle, you can have it.’ He said, “I need 300.’ ‘I only have 100.’ ‘Amichai listen, I said big bottles!’ ‘Okay, tell me what you want and I’ll make it!’ ‘A 9-liter, a 12-liter!’ So that’s what you see here.”
Photo credit David Silverman
What is the most meaningful reaction you ever got? Amichai has ready answers to almost anything, he is quite the experienced interviewee; but this query gives him pause. “All the time I have funny stories; I walk into a restaurant and they urge me to take a bottle with my meal; the wine store owner is passionate about it and tries to sell me a bottle; describing where it is made and who makes it. But I think that the international recognition for our wines and for all Israeli wines is very important. The best wine critics give high scores to Israeli wines, and they are winning medals; and the critics say they can age for years and are worth purchasing and putting them away.“ For Global Drink Wine Day, February 18, out of the 30,000 wines Decanter Magazine’s staff tastes each year, they put out 20 as “don’t miss”. A friend sent Amichai a picture displaying a Shiloh wine as one of these 20. This friend had also recently put a bottle of wine on a Times Square billboard, knowing how to fake images; so Amichai ignored it – he was crying wolf. Then his friend sent the link…and it was true. Shiloh Winery, Mosaic Exclusive Edition, Shiloh, Judean Hills, Israel 2017 Gold, 95 points. 38% Syrah, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot. Lifted, floral violet, luscious red berry fruit and spice aromas on the nose, while the palate is graced vibrant fruit, leather and a beautiful mineral finish. In answer to my question now, he says, “That was a special milestone.” Note it says Judean Hills, Shiloh, Israel – what an accomplishment!
Credit Eyal Keren
“Every consultant told us in the beginning to hide Israel; certainly, hide Shiloh! Here we are walking in the land we read of in the Bible. We read from Jeremiah (31:4), in the Rosh Hashana haftara, ‘There will yet again be vineyards in the hills of the Shomron!’ I do not even know how we can walk. The gravity, the attraction is so strong between us and the ground; it is as if your legs have invisible roots connecting you. This is where our great rabbis, the Ramban and others, explain mitzvot, commandments have to be done – everyone doing so out of Israel is just keeping in shape for when they come here. I have a friend who is very careful about following the instructions Rabbi Judah the Pious wrote in his will. But I asked him, ‘You know some items were only for his immediate family and students; some are for all – and one of those is to only live in a wooden house outside of Israel, not a permanent building – I’ve been to your house in Lakewood. How do you and your neighbors live in stately homes?’ His tour guide yelled at me, ‘You are insulting your customers!’ I said yes, I am now an Israeli; it says before the Messiah comes there will be great chutzpa; what can I do, it is our DNA here.”
Created by Elina Neustadt
“So I am proud of who we are and where we are. We are growing grapes and making wine surrounded by ancient winepresses where our ancestors made wine, and we merited this revival. We did not treasure the land. We did not keep shemita, the seventh Sabbatical year properly and we lost it; the land had its Sabbath rests (Vayikra-Lev. 26:34 again); we did not behave properly to each other and the land spit us out (Vayikra-Lev. 18:28) – this is our time to love it. I have hakarat hatov, recognition of the good; I do not spit in the land; I am proud like Joseph. If I am going to not be proud of who I am and where I am, I will pay the price; I will rather pay the price of being proud of living in this special time in history and special place on earth.”
How do you see the future? Many people are asking about the wine industry. “As I said, the demand on Shiloh Winery outstrips our production. I am planning more vineyards, mostly in this region, and in several years will respond better. I am deeply worried about the future. Israeli author Netanel Ellinson recently coined a term; the ‘third-generation crisis’. Historically, the third generation ruined Israel’s society in the past; under the first kings of Israel and in the Hasmonean State. Actually, he says it happened precisely in the 73rd year. The pioneers fight for their lives and are fresh with excitement. The second generation establishes itself and builds the economy. Seventy years in, the third generation forgets what went into what they have become; what they have; and ruin it. We are now at that very societal transition moment; the third generation since the 1948 battle for Israel’s existence is taking the reins of the country and society. We must voice our appreciation and share it broadly.”
Photo credit Eyal Keren
“On a personal level, I am planting the land, harvesting its fruit, making wine that leaves this biblical soil for people to appreciate the world over and expresses prophecies coming true; step by step – I live the future every day. My present is actually taking steps to build the Temple, as we revive the land and our people; in the way we were told to act and treat the land and share its bounty with others. It is happening in front of our eyes. I am content with my present. My present is what most people dreamed the future would be like.” Welcome to Amichai Lourie’s world of wine, where dreams are true.
Video credit 'TIIF -Wine on the vine'
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.