Walking alongside the fields of Shiloh Valley to meet Amichai Lourie, winemaker, ponds of rain water in the ground between the trees gave hope for next year’s crop. The new visitor center building overlooking the vineyards rose ever larger on the horizon, and amidst the worries and fears of the war, a bit of hope and life filled my eyes and heart. Flowers with bright leaves – we will go on.
"The Best Is Yet to Come"
I walked into the spanking-new spacious courtyard and an eerie ghost town feeling hit me. The colored stone walls rose above me on all sides, large windows looking into the well-equipped lab and a hall to house a store – no one there. Second-floor balcony for hosting events facing sunset over the hills and valleys; a catwalk to see the vats and barrels below – nobody around. Everything “almost” finished; tubes of wires and pipes coming out of floors and walls. Wings for hosting people, wine production, meeting rooms and more; an outside patio. Empty.
I finally discovered an inner room where rows of goblets and numbered bottles on the table were the centerpiece around which stood Amichai, his son Avinoam, his righthand man Aharon and a visiting supplier with a keen sense of taste. Checking the quality and nature of wines drawn from different batches from vats and barrels holding the new year’s harvest, sipping in combinations (and using the spittoon), the conversation was a master class in terminology and analysis with crucial decisions affecting tens of thousands of liters; I sat quietly on the side. Sets of wine containers were lined up, marking the variety and which tank they were from, so each tester could take these “ingredients” and make a mix in different proportions, a blend on a small scale, in proportions. From this, each would seek to taste what the blend might taste like years from now. A little more of this, a little less of that. This vat has more air, this one holds a larger amount and we can take some to put over there. A lot of math, even while drinking – actually usually spitting it out, of course. Notes are taken, calculations are made.
No one else was here to help. The staff is drafted, and so too, many growers in the vineyards. I would later discover that for lack of workers Amichai herniated a disc while harvesting grapes. When the doctor said “You are going to the operation room this week and you are out for three months!” Amichai chose to wait until all the wine is evaluated and “put to sleep for the winter” in the right tank, barrel, combination and quantity. Not only that, as now comes the harvest, the end of fermentation, the first blending, you must be as sharp as you can be in daily decisions requiring tasting wine every single day. Painkillers affect taste sensitivity, and so Amichai just “handles it”.
The tasters were raving about the Petit Verdo, noting a lack of mid-palate taste in some Cabernet Sauvignon, and decided to sacrifice some superior quality wine to bring up the level of the other — we are talking about blending tens of thousands of liters together, and how much, and what quality level will be achieved.
Shiloh Winery offers six quality levels, priced accordingly, and they were discussing placement in these categories. The expertise here goes beyond even a normal connoisseur, because even before riddling, racking and settling the wines, meaning they are still with unfiltered sediment and are before any real maturation, the potential of the wine years down the line must be assessed and treated a mere few weeks after harvest. Sometimes the decision is to simply wait and “let the wine talk”, and as its character develops, that will inform the paths to take. Add to that Amichai’s penchant for experimentation, as a chef chooses different ingredients – this year putting some of this variety with that one, leaving some grapes longer on the vine, more time in the barrel, micro-oxidation and a million tricks to improve quality and refine every aspect. This makes the conversation and discussion all the more interesting. Amichai has an inspiration, and only after a while and matching up several tens of thousands of liters to go here, to go there, and calculating the size of each vat, should it be big or smaller, does Aharon say “I got it”, quietly commenting to the visiting taster that when Amichai started talking this approach it was not yet worked out, it finalized only as he spoke. Such exchanges achieve the results which win Decanter 90s and up every year.
But instead of a whole team, now these decisions are being made by not even the number of people you can count on one hand. The war is present in every facet of the operation.
The team now has the decision and goes to execute it, meaning, Avinoam and Aharon, and another warehouse helper, while Amichai and I sit down in his office to talk.
PICTURE OF TASTING
“This is the first time I am sitting in this office, my new office,” Amichai says. The harvest was going on all during the holidays of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, even Motzai Yom Kippur, no break. A vineyard on the Lebanese border was deemed ready and a crew and truck were prepared for Motzai Shemini Azeret, Simchat Torah. Another son of Amichai serving in a special unit was called in before 7 am that Shabbat morning. He called and called 14 times to his parents’ house, and Amichai said to his wife, “Pick it up, he wouldn’t be calling on Shabbat and Chag unless it was an emergency. “There is a war on. Do not leave the house, do not be unarmed. And don’t believe the numbers you will hear. Things are worse than you think.”
After a most cautious day indoors, Amichai prepared to drive north, as planned. The grower told him, do not come – all my family and staff have been called in, there is no one to help you. In the next few minutes Amichai discovered he had no staff either, his regular workers and temporary workers were all called up. For a week the army would not let him enter that northern area; then it was touch-and go, driving 2.5 hours and then getting a no. He tried to pay the truck driver who came all the way from Netivot for this no-show, and the man absolutely refused. Everyone has a sense they are in this together and no one should take a loss because of war-related obstacles. A week later they were let in – only once daylight came, no night harvest this year – and picked grapes next to artillery cannons booming, the ground shaking the vines and the tractors. At age 57, Amichai was the youngest person working, it was the retired moshav old-timers aged 72 and 75, masters at their craft and lovers of the land giving their all. No one younger was around.
“Chanukah was going to be the Chanukat HaBayit, the dedication of this new center,” Amichai says wryly. “Sometimes a sad time turns into a happy time, and sometimes a happy time turns into a sad time.
From the inception of the winery in 2005, owner Dr. Mayer Chomer and Amichai had two goals in mind. First and foremost, Shiloh Winery would make the best wine possible. Comfortable offices, forget it. Every investment and every profit was dedicated to make more wine and better wine. “We would tighten our belts. Any expense needed was authorized, with a commitment to steady investment in technology.” This would continue until in the public’s mind and the business world’s mind, Shiloh Winery consistently made fine wines. They spared no expense on grapes and equipment. They shared a vision of the land come to life, of biblical prophecies telling of the Shomron/Samaria region again giving its grapes, 2600 years after its destruction. and proudly sported the Shiloh name, resisting suggested political oppositions to their location. They each feel God’s blessing in proudly representing Israel.
Only after ten full years Mayer and Amichai felt it was time for the second part of the dream to come to fruition, and create a space that reflects the exquisite fruit of the land and enables appreciating it in a worthy setting. All this time people visited the winery from Texas, Los Angeles, Herzliya and Petach Tikva, Italy and England, and were shocked. They say, “You make this amazing wine in this shell of a place?” They meant worse but were being polite; yet it made the achievement more impressive seeing the dedication to innovate and to achieve quality, which the equipment itself demonstrates. Having reached the milestone of public recognition, they felt expressing the love for the land and its product, and appreciation to the Creator for his blessing, should be done in an honorable way. The verse says blessing is expressed when a person sits under their grapevine. The Sages say a beautiful building and beautiful ware expand a person’s mind, as does wine when properly consumed. Thus, a beautiful structure with visual interaction with the soil, the vines and the production process, would connect the visitor to the liquid in the bottle. Understanding she or he is tasting the land, and is holding the physical proof of the land’s blessing; an overflowing glass of fulfilled prophecies.
Dr Chomer bought a property in 2015 on the edge of the industrial zone, right next to their vineyards. Seven years went by because unwittingly it was sold with public infrastructure below, which needed rerouting by the regional council – only then ground was broken and construction began, in February 2022. Moving existing equipment and installing new equipment into the new production facility was completed during July and August 2023, as the harvest commenced in August and continued through October. They worked insane hours, very hard. Touch-and-go but made it on time. Thankfully the heavy equipment was all in place before the horrific events. This summer’s harvest was completed and now the whole harvest was done in the new facility, they received the grapes, processed wine, transferred from tanks to barrels during fermentation stages. Only a few weeks of finishing touches and the center would be ready. All that came to a halt.
The winery staff is comprised of very talented people, which expresses itself in their talented capabilities that come to the fore now in fighting, and they are thus crucial to the war effort and not here. The end of the dream will have to wait. Now we have a different mission – save Am Yisrael. Even chatan mechedro and kallah mechupata, a bride and groom leave their wedding canopy to fight in this situation. A nephew was to get married on the Friday following Simchat Torah. Serving in the Golani unit, as the events unfolded he immediately went in for about 70 days straight, got out for the first time for Shabbat, 48 hours, and is now back in. The wedding is delayed….
Since Shemini Atzeret, October 7, Amichai and his handful of workers continued for weeks to harvest while moving all the tens of thousands of liters from processing tanks to vats, from vats to barrels, and have almost no time to consider and evaluate, to make and execute decisions that are fine-tuning.
Itay, doing amazing work in Gaza, just as good as he usually does at the winery!
The dream remains fully potent. The land of Israel is acquired through not being in control; through suffering. The Sages told us it would be a bumpy road. If it comes too easy something is wrong. Rabbi Akiva’s lamp blows out, all seems go wrong and he says, “Everything the God the Lover does is for good”. The challenge is real, Amichai says, “so we are on the right road. My boss and I are confident despite what seems to be a setback.
Amichai just bought a large industrial Italian filtering machine. A consultant flew in for three onsite training days – his trained worker is now fighting. He got out in late December for three days with his family, the first break since he was called in on Simchat Torah, and went back. The consultant refuses to come again to Israel now. The machine sits on the floor almost unused, a most significant direct outlay without really benefiting this year’s harvest.
Amichai is a fervent believer in learning Torah and working, and the ability to combine serious study with being self-supportive and serving in the army. A young man came to work during vacation to clean barrels. This requires operating the rinse for 30 seconds, then a minute and half, then going to the next barrel. He has a set of Mishnayot, the Oral Law, and a classic Jewish legal work, the Mishna Berura, and alternated between the two, studying for a minute and half at a time. As the hours went by, he covered a huge amount of material. Amichai says, let students learn to use firearms properly and then stand guard in situations where they can study and be alert. King David’s army is described in the book of Samuel – Amichai says, you don’t think they learned, besides serving? Remember the quality of these generations, and the Talmud’s recounting David’s nightly personal learning at night. It is doable on a societal level.
Reflecting in his unfinished room, Amichai says is an adage many winemakers say, you cannot make terrible wine from good grapes, but you can’t make good wine from bad grapes. He used to say it takes a lot of work to ruin a good steak, and he thought the same that if the grapes are good, it is hard not to make good wine. His matured revision is far broader. The growers have to really, really care and be responsive. He must grow a broad selection of good grapes in different soils and conditions to enable options, develop his own skills and sensitivity, and incorporate technology in every production stage. That is not enough – the winemaker must have a team that understands, works and cares, each investing their expertise and experience at every stage. It does not stop there. A distribution and marketing team working with him with honesty and integrity to ferret out opportunities, country by country and community by community, represent him faithfully and bring the final product to those who will appreciate it and pay for it are all essential to make it all worthwhile. In his case, Royal Wine Corporation and the Herzog family, and Shlomi Zur of Zur World of Wine/Zur Agencies each make him feel like family. The way they treat the Shiloh brand and Amichai personally is way above and beyond business. Around that he has an owner ready to share his vision.
Amichai is deeply, deeply appreciative that he has indeed been blessed with such workers and business partners. To express his Hakarat Hatov, recognition of good and praise, he starts by quoting Rav Avraham (Yeshaya) Kook. The first words out of a Jew’s mouth every morning are “Modeh Ani”, “Praise/acknowledge do I …that You have returned my soul to me” – why not, “I praise you”? Rav Kook says the first word cannot be “I, me”. The praise must come first. The person can’t even exist, can’t even form, if you do not start first with, “thank you”. If you said “thank you,” ‘I’ can exist. Amichai’s mantra is an “Attitude of Gratitude.” The privilege of having a shidduch with growers, winery staff, backup from the owner, and really just as important, a staff working very hard day and night to sell our wine in Israel and abroad. I feel a special gratitude for the blessing that all these amazing people connected to me personally. I feel blessed with the business owner, the growers, the site staff, the truck driver, the companies sell our wine.”
Amichai associates this with the enterprise of making this land fruitful again, and broadly applying the blessing one says when seeing a restoration of the House of Israel, “Who restores the boundary of the widow” (Tal Berachot 58b, Code of Jewish Law 224:10). Whatever else is going on, Amichai expresses praise that Mayer, he and Shiloh Winery has merited such good people.
But key ingredients of this mix were affected now. The verses speak of the rejoicing in the harvest and wine production. The entire summer was spent on production leading up to the joy of these weeks as the completed harvest starts its fermentation into wine. Over a period of months grapes are picked and pressed, some batches in malolactic fermentation, some in alcoholic fermentation; batches are removed from one stage to the next as the harvesting continues. That is usually the work of a large team, with many not sleeping for weeks as night harvest in cool conditions produces a better wine, followed by handling all day, and traveling to fields to decide on the exact day to pick them. Here only a handful of men were available – hence Amichai hurt his back.
Isru Chag Sukkot, literally the day immediately following the festival, initiates the great sales days of the entire year, when the sales force spreads out to help stores seeking to replenish their stocks, depleted from holiday sales. Now, the salesmen locally in Israel are drafted. Worse, the main consumers are in the 22-45-year-old age bracket – they are drafted, hundreds of thousands of men not drinking week after week; and of course, the women are not buying wine to have by themselves. The stores had no need to restock, and still do not even now, months later. Zero Sales. Normally these sales offset the major expenses harvest season requires, in worker time and associated services – no income this year. Within this challenge, Amichai again expresses Hakarat Hatov. Those growing vegetables, if they are not picked on time, not shipped, the whole crop is lost. If the cows are not milked, the cows can die – and indeed that affected the farms around Gaz, with the army stepping in as they could while the residents are away. That ilk needs special care to transport while fresh. Whereas with wine, it can stay in the bottle and most even improve. A delay here, not a total loss.
Overseas, Joseph Stamler, a stalwart of Royal Wine Corporation, who would personally escort Amichai in the US, a man of joy, appreciation of the Mitzva involved and a highly effective salesman, passed away on Simchat Torah. Abrey Ron in nearby Giva’ot Olam, an Itamar hilltop farm that is a model for many, founded by, lost a son whom Amichai had seen just weeks before, and who after hours of fighting and combat, saving countless lives, was killed. Brothers came to his funeral and went straight back to their special units; they did not sit Shiva, the seven-day mourning period. For decades, Shiloh Winery supports a special undercover unit, with regular private events. In the first days of fighting, they lost nine members, and twelve injured in critical condition. Amichai feels these losses personally, and it colors the sadness permeating the walls here. Yet, I can tell the hope is far stronger, surfacing out of and beyond the pain.
"All hands on deck"
Our wide-ranging conversation goes for hours as the afternoon wears on. A fascinating perspective into the winemaker’s mind. “We worry. We review our decisions. Which plot of land, variety, when and how much to water, picking time, fermentation time, blending, production, marketing- and at any given time the harvest of several years ago is being bottled and shipped, while others are being processed on their journey. We worry.” The concerns for family, friends, associates, fighting actively are now also Amichai’s worries, as he navigates the Shiloh Winery ship of through challenging waters with less than a skeleton crew.
After weeks of working and worrying, Amichai is expressing his feelings overall. The terrorists could have easily reached the religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak – who would stop them? Many in this so-called Chareidi religious world volunteer and work in lifesaving organizations and recoveries of bodies, with challenges of dealing with burnt and mutilated cadavers that experienced Zaka people and rabbinical halachic authorities say is unprecedented. Amichai has a prescient comment, which actually happened in some frameworks just after our talk – let them do 2-3 weeks of training to hold a gun and then be armed in their neighborhoods, with one team always at the ready in each yeshiva, as they learn. Then do public service in these various organizations. Indeed, my own married nephew learning in Kollel put on the green uniform and was even spoken to by the Prime Minister in the base, as he accepted a short army training program so he could protect his community. Furthermore, feels Amichai, women need to be trained so they can hold a gun as well. A terrorist needs to know if a gun is pulled, five people around him or her will shoot back. There has to be a sea change, even with all the risks involved of having more firearms in the populace. When two Arab residents of Jerusalem entered a Jerusalem synagogue in November 2014, they killed six people before they were taken down. Terrorists do not fight army-to-army, they want the easy target, to prey on civilians, on women. Would they have known civilians are armed and each synagogue has a response team, this may not have happened. First emergency responses, medical or otherwise, come from the civilians on the spot. In other medical areas the Chareidi community is the model for the country for example, in kidney donations, in emergency response teams, and in recovering bodies and body parts. This effort to be armed could be their societal model as well.
A positive note as sounded when Amichai started speaking about and could not stop praising One Israel Fund for equipping the communities and many soldiers with much needed equipment, with a staggeringly fast response time; hours to days. How wise the choice of supplied equipment is, how all donated funds go to such purchases – boy, is he appreciative. Then some words about how overseas Jews are connecting and making a difference, singling out the activities of Gabriel Boxer the Kosher Guru, and Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue for setting an example, coming personally to Israel with his congregants despite perceived dangers, and galvanizing his own community and others to be outspoken, take a stand and be supportive.
He was laughed at for not hiring much cheaper Arab labor to build the new winery and visitor center. For a variety of reasons, including that he did not want the intimate details of the industrial center to be mapped, Amichai opted not to. Everything is “Avoda Ivrit”, Hebrew labor. He wanted to give neighbors Parnassa, sustenance, as the highest form of Tzedakah, charity. You see people working on heavy machinery, moving boxes and barrels, driving trucks, the plumber and the electrician, some with a fringed garment, Tzitzis, getting dusty and muddy and greasy, some with a head covering and some without. Now that the Gazan workers in Beeri led the murderers with a map of each house, who lived in them, who could easily be attacked, raped or robbed, no one is laughing anymore. Notes were taken, and shared. Dozens of people have since written Amichai, “You were right”.
I personally recall my grandfather Yosef Seh-Lavan telling me when in the 1920s and 1930s there was this new concept of Avoda Ivrit which the European experience did not allow for. He assigned homework to his students to do over the Passover holiday, and when they came back, none had done it. Why? “We were working in the fields.” He was very proud. That value of let us do it ourselves on our land, as opposed to cheaper labor, has been lost in many areas, particularly in construction. However, since these people are now drafted and fighting, work on the center is at a standstill.
Back to winemaking. “I like blends. I prefer ‘teiku’, evenly-matched situations and seeing all sides and waiting, rather than choosing sides. I like praying on the High Holidays each time with a Machzor, a holiday prayer book, of a different custom, to get another angle. I don’t want to be in one path all the time. That is reflected in my cooking, my food choices, and my winemaking.”
“I want the visitor, the native Israeli or the tour guide such as yourself to never ever say, ‘Been there, done that, no reason to go back.’” Shiloh Winery offers different experiences, a breakfast experience is different in atmosphere, content and menu than a sunset dinner experience, a corporate wine-and-cheese meeting on the private roof is different than a chance to go out into the vineyards by foot or by car, or to have a family and friends’ outdoor barbeque in the patio. On the Sukkot holiday there will be an area with the requisite Schach, thatched roof. There is an area prepared to serve daily refreshments and meals that complement the wine. Friday mornings will have their own buzz, their own mix, while Monday evenings for example will have their own identity, to be determined. Chefs are asking about doing pop-up events. The visitor center will become a lodestone for attracting Simchas, happy celebrations and events.
“We are planting more vineyards, and this will result in significantly greater production – in 2026!” It is well known that the vines must be in the ground for 3 years, with some legal slack in counting the first part year as Year 1, then there is a sanctity to the fourth-year grapes, but they can be “redeemed” and used. What is less-known, as I discovered, is how the Shemita/Sabbatical year affects the normal state of finances for years. Some growers let their fields go fallow and do not produce wine, so there is less to sell two years down the line. Others choose one of the approaches that enable winemaking, but that wine has limitations both on distribution and in customer base. This also means reduced income two and more years down the line from the Sabbatical year itself, when the wine matures and is ready for sale.
These issues reflect a concept called Mitzvot Hateluyot Ba’Aretz, the biblical commandments relating to the produce and treatment of the land. Our rabbis say Moses was jealous of those who would enter Israel while he could not, and thus he was preempted from their fulfillment. Amichai would like to induce more cooperation between the olive oil producers, honey producers and the like to enable consumers to learn and to choose from a range of such products, acknowledging and savoring the direct absorption of the land into our bodies through eating and drinking.
His own network of fields just let 200 tons of grapes rot on the vine last year. Instead, he would let his facility be used and invest his town time to make wine which could be distributed or sold to the needy, at the cost of the bottles and packaging. Amichai feels this requires more rabbis to come out and see the fields. They think, let people come to the fields and pick all they want – but that doesn’t use up hundreds of tons. At about three dollars of costs per bottle, a fraction of what wine really costs, the public could truly benefit, and fulfil the Mitzva of consuming holy food with the attendant care it requires. For example, in making the Havdalah after the Sabbath of a cup of wine, one does not douse the flame with Shemita wine, because that renders it inedible and one drinks it up as much a possible avoiding leaving leftovers. A small effort to make for producing so much food.
The normative approach is to recognize and accept a financial hurdle in Shemita observance. Yet, Amichai, and other winemakers I have spoken to, who treat Shemita in their business model, feel the unseen blessings in grape qualities and quantities in the years before and after; thus increasing their profit in a less obvious way. We are now in the eighth-year harvest, following a Sabbatical year, and indeed, “This year’s grapes are exceptional, amazing, a very good year.”
That explains the conversation on the tasting room. The market needs Cabernet Secret Reserve. The Petit Verdot was outstanding, the Cabernet Sauvignon needs a mid-palate boost. When in army training everyone is running while four people carry a person on a stretcher, Masa Alunkot, they have to make sure Everyone gets to the finish line, not just the strongest and fastest – the Verdot will help the Cab.
Amichai says feelingly that it is most a particularly appropriate to implement such mutual support between the wines now, because the whole country, the whole society here and abroad is doing that for one another. Rabbenu Bachya said hundreds of years ago, just as a little light casts out much darkness, so too a little truth decimates much falsehood. That is happening now.
Moreover, as Rabbi Avraham Isaiah Kook wrote a century ago, a light will appear out of the people themselves, in the period leading up to the Messiah. Out of their bonding, out of their good deeds, and their approach to life. These will have a greater impact at that time than ever before in history, he contends. Even from amidst their internal arguments, he contends, it will emanate from love and the desire to see the nation redeemed. The Achdut, the togetherness, the extreme lengths of Zaka organization workers go to save and identify bodies, the bravery of so many civilians and soldiers responding on the spot and in the long term to defend and to attack under fire; the media is filled with heroism of the living and the dead, from every sector of society. Many, many “Akeidat Yitzchaks”, Binding of Isaacs; many willing to give up their lives for their people and to fight evil. And the different segments of society are seeing the positive elements in the other segments of society on the ground literally around the country, as those exiled from the north are housed on the coast, those from the south in Eilat and the Dead Sea, and everywhere. Volunteers from here come there –in fact on the day I am writing this, my wife went to give support in the south along with students from Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem, as missiles from Gaza were in her region, which I saw on the news and called to see how she was doing, while she saw smoke rising from downed rockets. The Chessed, the giving, is constantly crisscrossing the country, and people coming in from overseas add more to these wonderful waves of binding our own people and caring people from all over the world together.
Amichai looks forward to the moment soon when evil is vanquished, when families are reunited, and when together we an rise up a cup of wine, Kos Yeshuot, a cup of salvation, and thank God for His many blessings to His land and to His people. The good times will come. If you wanna talk about wine contact Amichai in any way through: Amichai Lourie | Shiloh Winery ---------------------------------------------
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. Barnea may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.