Israel's Good Name

Jordan River Valley

In Uncategorized on October 21, 2014 at 6:44 AM

This past Sunday, my father and I drove down to Bet Shemesh and Ashdod for shipping-related work, hoping to have a little fun as well. Leaving early in the morning in the rain, we chose the desert route – border-hugging Road 90 from Tzfat down to Jericho and then Road 1 through Jerusalem. Stopping momentarily in Bet Shean we had a large flock of pelicans pass overhead; the bird migrations in full force this time of year.

Looking down towards the Jordan River Valley

Looking down towards the Jordan River Valley

Our first stop was intended to be the mountaintop fortress of Sartaba (Alexandion) just before Road 505’s junction and after a wrong turn into a town, we were directed to a single-lane road that took us winding up the adjacent mountain. There, after parking, we found a desolate army outpost and a trail leading out to a rocky horn that I assumed was Sartaba.

Rocky horn - not Sartaba

Rocky horn – not Sartaba

Up on the horn, gazing out at the Jordan River Valley, I activated my phone’s GPS and discovered that the actual site was a few kilometres west from where we were standing. As you can see here, the dirt road snaking up the mountainside leads to Sartaba, looking down from where we were beside the army outpost.

The winding road to Sartaba

The winding road to Sartaba

As we looked out at the stormy clouds and the barren mountainous landscape, my father decided to see if he could roll a rock all the way down the mountainside. After the first rock crashed down into the dry streambed below, we saw small figures running away from the single-rock avalanche. I called out to my father to look at the birds running down there, assuming they were chukars or some desert quails, and then zoomed in on them with the camera. The 25x optical zoom was not enough and so I entered the iffy realm of digital zoom. I snapped and prayed, having a hard time seeing the colour-camoflauged creatures down below. Checking the display scene, I found myself looking at not birds, but gazelles:

Gazelles down below

Gazelles down below

Returning to the car, we attempted to drive to the real Sartaba but the road was too precarious and we do not have a 4×4. So, we returned to Road 90 and tried from a different access point. More rugged terrain suitable only for a 4×4. So, in summary, any attempt to reach Sartaba either requires a 4×4 vehicle or a very long hike up and around a mountain. Continuing down Road 90, we stopped next at a site known as Qasr al-Yahud (Arabic for “Castle of the Jews”) which is a spot along the Jordan River famous for several reasons. When the Jews crossed the Jordan River entering the Holy Land thousands of years back, as documented by the Bible, they crossed “opposite Jericho” and so tradition has it that this is the very spot where the waters stood in a pillar for the Jews to cross into the Land. Later, it is believed that this is where Eliyahu (Elijah) the Prophet ascended to the heavens after crossing the Jordan with Elisha.

Qasr al-Yahud - Israel and Jordan

Qasr al-Yahud – Israel and Jordan

But today’s tourists are mostly Christians who come to Qasr al-Yahud to baptise in the waters of the Jordan, a holy site harkening back to the dawn of Christianity. As far back as the Byzantine era, churches and monasteries were built along the banks, these being the lowest churches in elevation on Earth. These monasteries often served as safe havens for Christian pilgrims during times of Arab rule. The oldest monastery is St John’s which was rebuilt during the Crusader period on ruins from a Byzantine-era church. During Ottoman rule, when there was easy access for pilgrims, many Christian orders came and built their own monasteries. Earthquakes in 1927 and 1956 severely damaged the monasteries and after the Six Day War in 1967, the area became a closed military zone.

An abandoned Franciscan chapel

An abandoned Franciscan chapel

In the following decades, the monasteries became refuges for terrorists crossing the border and so the IDF was forced to set mines around the partially ruined buildings.

A minefield

A minefield

Now, at times of peace with Jordan, the site is open to visitors but several of the monasteries are still minefields and fenced off. When we visited, there were two Israeli soldiers and one Jordanian soldier guarding the border – a mere thirty feet or so of muddy water, where several pilgrims were in the water in white tunics.

Jordanian corporal keeping watch on the border

Jordanian corporal keeping watch on the border

After Qasr al-Yahud we kept driving until we reached the Beit HaArava Junction. There, we turned onto a small road to see the remnants of the original settlement of Beit HaArava (1939-48). At the end of the road we saw a few ruined houses, but they were on the other side of the security fence. We also saw a sign to the first potash plant which was in operations from 1925 till 1948. Getting back to the main road, we turned onto Road 1 to Jerusalem and took a two-minute detour to photograph Nabi Musa, the Muslim shrine and mosque for what they believe is the burial place of Moshe (Moses).

Nabi Musa

Nabi Musa

Pressed for time, we abandoned plans to visit the Kotel in Jerusalem and instead had a quick visit with family friends in nearby Ma’ale Adumim and then headed for Bet Shemesh to get the work done. When we left Bet Shemesh, heading for the port of Ashdod, this magnificent rainbow appeared in the sky:

Rainbow over Bet Shemesh

Rainbow over Bet Shemesh

After dinner in Ashdod, we took the labourious drive home via Road 6 – Israel’s longest toll-road and arrived home sometime after 9pm.

Sadot Winery

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2014 at 9:54 AM

With three wineries visited and sixteen wines tasted, we continued on with our wine tour. The four of us – Joel, Les, myself and our tour guide Yakov – popped on over to Sadot Winery, nestled in Sde Ya’akov just across the road from the fascinating Bet She’arim National Park. The newest winery on our tour, this estate winery is only in its second vintage.

The picturesque vineyard at Sadot Winery

The picturesque vineyard at Sadot Winery

Meeting up with Ro’i, the winery owner, we started with a look at his vineyards, sampling from two grape varieties. Even though the grapes are hanging lush on the vine, Ro’i is waiting for the perfect sugar levels before he harvests. What defines his winery as an estate winery is the fact that all his wines are made with grapes grown on the estate, definitely giving us the full behind-the-scenes.

Fruit of the vine

Fruit of the vine

After snacking on some grapes we headed down to his workshop and his rooms. Using a clever, yet simple, concrete structure, the winery’s various stations and the new deck is all in one spot, overlooking the vineyards, a water reservoir and the distant Mount Carmel. Ro’i showed us his latest batches, one just starting the fermentation process, kept in large temperature-controlled metal casks. Using little stepladders, Les and I poked our heads into the casks to examine the crushed grapes.

Peering into the cold cask

Peering into the cold cask

Moving on to the next station, Ro’i showed us the barrel room where his vintages are aging and his freshly picked grapes were waiting. And then, to the storage room where the finished bottles are waiting. With that, we headed up to the deck and made ourselves comfortable. Ro’i brought up his four wines and several bottles of cold water – the first winery to offer such a luxury.

Enjoying some Rosé

Enjoying some Rosé

We started with the Muscat Canelli and then, after some cold water and some discussion, tried the Rosé. After more water and more discussion, Ro’i poured us some Shiraz Tempranillo. And then, finally, the Syrah. After trying the superb Syrah Reserve at Tulip Winery, I saw the potential in this younger vintage. There was that same focused feel on the middle of the tongue, just a little larger – the general consensus was that the Sadot Winery Syrah just needed a little more alone time to fully mature and pack that wonderful punch. All I know is that if I were to ever make a wine that good, I’d be singing my own praises.

Ro'i and us (photo: Yakov Feder)

Ro’i and us (photo: Yakov Feder)

Finishing up our twentieth wine of the day, we thanked Ro’i, got back into the car and had a pleasant drive back to the hotel in Tel Aviv. As we drove we discussed the wineries and the wines. Each winery stood out on their own in some way or another, and their wines were a testament of hard work and fortune here in Israel’s magnificent wine country. This wine tour has really inspired me in the field of wines and I look forward to visit more and more wineries.

Tulip Winery

In Uncategorized on September 14, 2014 at 4:20 AM

With half our wine tour over and nine wines tasted, the four of us – Joel, Les, myself and our tour guide Yakov – headed over to the Tulip Winery to taste seven of their wines. We entered the visitor centre, sat down at the bar and settled in for some serious tasting. But before we tasted the wines, Lital (customer relations manager and our guide) explained to us the importance of the winery and the local village.

Tulip Winery

Tulip Winery

Kfar Tikva (Hope Village) is where this boutique winery calls home, and it is in this village where adults with special needs can become an active part of a community. A groundbreaking endeavour, this village breathed life and hope into those less fortunate and the winery was created with similar passion – producing a “wine that loves people”. Focusing on the good, Tulip Winery was founded in 2003 to bring together the love of people and the love of wine – providing opportunity for those with special needs to realise their potential.

Wine production

Wine production

With this unique factor, the winery takes on a different air – an extra meaning in the increasingly popular wine production. With numerous wine types, producing 220,000 bottles annually, Tulip Winery is the embodiment of hope and success and we were honoured to sample from their vintages. The first wine we tried was the White Tulip, a blend of Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc. Next, the White Franc and then we moved over to the reds.

Lital sharing some white wine

Lital sharing some white wine

The first of the reds was the Espero with its very appealing label. Following that was the Mostly Cabernet Franc, with a little bit of Merlot blended in. Despite that we visited after closing, Lital took the time to enjoy the wines with us and it was at this winery that I really voiced my thoughts on bouquet and taste. The strong aroma of blackberries, the hint of peach or pear – and what was that, lychee? I really had a marvelous time discussing the wines with Lital and Yaakov, with Joel and Les chiming in.

Talking with Lital

Talking with Lital

We then tasted the reserve wines, the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and the Syrah Reserve. I was quite impressed with the Syrah Reserve and according to the winery’s website it is considered to be one of the three best Syrahs in Israel. After being aged 18 months in French oak barrels, the flavour was rich and clean. I gave my taste note as “focused on the centre of the tongue” and there really was a difference between this and the previous reds which filled the mouth.

Tulip wines

Tulip wines

We finished off with their flagship wine, the Black Tulip. A blend of four grapes and aged 24 to 30 months in French oak barrels, this was a superb wine. Even the modern art label had a story: an art contest with the name “Don’t Label Me!” where the winner was used for the flagship wine’s label. The actual artwork is framed and hanging on the wall in the visitor centre.

Black Tulip artwork

Black Tulip artwork

After tasting seven wines, we talked some more, a bottle was purchased and we headed out, thanking our wonderful guide for the wonderful experience over and over. In my words, the tasting wasn’t: “Here, what do you think?”  It was: “Here, what do we think?”. All in all, my favourite winery of the wine tour. Next: Sadot Winery

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