Winemaking in the battle fields

07 March, 2008

You hear the argument less frequently than you used to, but a significant number of people still believe that wine, like sport, has nothing to do with politics. It was a fiction that was peddled, invariably by apologists for the regimes concerned, in the days of apartheid South Africa, Todor Zhivkov's Bulgaria and Pinochet's Chile; but it's still alive and shrugging its shoulders today. For every principled individual like Steven Spielberg, who resigned as artistic adviser for the 2008 Olympics in protest at China's role in Darfur, there are dozens of governments who would rather bite their diplomatic tongues for "the sake of the Games", not to mention

their trade balances.

If you believe

most industries have a political dimension - and the greater and more profitable the industry, the broader it tends to be - then wine is no exception. To those of you who are not convinced about this, I would put the following question: what are ethical trade, climate change, globalisation, water usage, labour practices and agricultural subsidies, all of which affect wine to a greater or lesser degree, if they are not political issues?

Before you assume that this column has been hijacked by Dave Spart, Private Eye's fictional, far-left conspiracy theorist, perhaps I should explain what's on my mind. I've just been on a five-day wine trip to Israel, visiting wine regions from Upper Galilee to the Golan Heights, Samson to the Judean Hills, as well as attending the second edition of Israwinexpo, a trade show in Tel Aviv, and I can't imagine a more politicised place in which to make wine.

In Israel, life is politics. It is also perpetual conflict. Whatever the rights and wrongs of its treatment of the Palestinians - and there are two sides to this tragic, seemingly insoluble impasse - Israel has been almost permanently at war, or at least on a war footing, since its foundation in 1948. As Mitchell Bard writes in his book Will Israel Survive?, the country's present is so fraught with danger that "most discussions focus on a day, a week, or perhaps a month in advance".

Given what's being going on in the Gaza Strip recently, you can see why life in Israel is so fraught. It is arguably a lot worse for the majority of Palestinians, many of whom live in miserable conditions, but that doesn't lessen the Jewish Israelis' sense of impermanence or fear.

Is this related to wine? You bet it is. A lot of wineries are close to the front line of Israel's various disputes with its Arab neighbours. When the country was at war with Lebanon in 2006, vineyards in the Upper Galilee were regularly shelled and several wineries were forced to close down for a month. Further east, the ≠wineries and vineyards of the Golan Heights are located on land that was captured from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967 and is still considered illegally occupied territory by some. Most controversial of all, there are a handful of wineries that have been established by "settlers" seeking to make a political point by choosing to live among Palestinians on the West Bank.

At times like this, with more than a hundred killed last week alone by the conflict between Hamas and the Israelis, wine can feel like an irrelevance. But I take a different view. In such a climate, tending vineyards and producing wine is an act of courage and of optimism. I have enormous admiration for the majority of Israel's winemakers, several of whom expressed anger to me in private about their country's heavy-handed response in the Gaza Strip.

Israel is trying to position itself, wine-wise at least, as part of the eastern Mediterranean or Levant, moving away from its Kosher image to something that has less to do with "liquid religion", as Adam Montefiore of the Carmel Winery puts it, and more to do with the wines of Greece and Lebanon.

However good the best wineries are - my top

10 would be Domaine du Castel, Margolit, Golan Heights, Vitkin, Carmel, Segal, Galil Mountain, Sea Horse, Chillag and Clos de Gat - I suspect that this will take a long time.

More to the point, the current conflict may make people think twice about buying Israeli wines. This would be a shame. Boycotting the country's small but increasingly impressive wine industry will not help to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As Israel prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its creation, peace seems as distant and unlikely as ever. But that shouldn't blind us to what Israel's winemakers have achieved. Surrounded by anger, dogma, devastation, deprivation, mutual suspicion and, there is no other word for it, politics, they offer the possibility of hope for a better future.

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