Talking Over a Glass of Wine...
Koby Arens, a veteran winegrower from Binyamina, dreams of creating close bonds among local farmers, winemakers, and restaurants that serve and sell wine. We met him to talk about agriculture, wine, and what lies between them. And we even managed to get a bottle of wine from him to spirit off to a deserted island.
(Tip for readers: Have a glass of wine in hand while you're reading.)
Sometimes it's worthwhile, apparently, to reveal our great passions, to get away from the familiar and the obvious, to distance ourselves a bit in order to get closer again and discover that it was all there before, just waiting for the right moment. The Arens family, veteran farmers from Binyamina, owned extensive agricultural land and vineyards, but they had no winery and produced no wine. At the end of the 1990s, Koby Arens, the third generation of the family, was given a final assignment for his industrial engineering and management studies. His project: a plan for a winery shop-floor. And that was what triggered his desire to start making wine.
Koby's grandfather, Michael Arens, immigrated to Binyamina in the 1940s. He had studied medicine in Berlin and when the Nazis came to power in Germany, he quit his medical studies and went to Toulouse to study agriculture. From there he moved to Palestine. He thought to himself that doctors would not necessarily be needed here, but farmers certainly would be. Thus he purchased a house on the border of the settlement and established a farm -- without any electric or water services. He began with dairy products, then went on to grow field crops. Over the years he developed the farm and expanded it to include groves of citrus, avocado, olives, deciduous trees, and vineyards for fruit consumption and for wine. Today, Arens runs the farm along with his cousin Toby.
Whispering to the Vines
How did a farmer like you decide to leave the fresh air and enter the cellars of the wine industry?
'In the 1990s I was studying industrial engineering and management. When I was required to prepare a final project, I made a plan for a winery's shop-floor. From that, I actually began making wine too. For many years I was the winegrower for the Carmel Winery. In the year 2000 I went to Australia to tour the vineyards. During the tour, we went to the Institute for Plant Research at Adelaide University, where we were privileged to visit the winery that produces wine for research purposes. I was immediately drawn to the magic of the place and fell in love. About two years later, I returned to Australia with my wife Hadas and two children, and I studied for a degree in winemaking. While I was still a student there, the CEO of Carmel Wines, David Ziv, contacted me and offered to share the cost of my studies if I'd come to work for him afterward. So in 2004 I returned to Israel and began working at the Carmel Wineries, at first in the vineyards in Zichron and then, after a year, I became the manager of their northern vineyard (kayoumi), located in the Dalton industrial estate while I simultaneously managed all the winery's vineyards in the whole northern region'.
I understand that you are among the first vintners who arrived in this field via the vineyards, from the farm to the winery. Do you perceive any advantage in this?
'Of course. I'm familiar with all the growing stages in the vineyard. I'm very connected to the grape; there are those who say that I whisper to the vines. Throughout the years I conducted many experiments in the vineyard, and developed innovations like a new pruning method that affects the quality of the grapes for wine. I was the first vintner at Carmel Wineries who came to the bottle from the vineyard. The job enabled me to do a lot of experiments, using all the knowledge I acquired both as a grower and as a vintner. The process of producing the wine made it clear to me what I wanted to do the following year in the vineyards'.
It seems that good things indeed come in small packages.
What, in fact, is a quality grape for use in wine, and how is the pruning method related to it?
'Most of the taste and colour of wine come from the skin of the grape, so we prefer small grapes: they have a higher proportion of skin and pulp than seeds. That's why I had to think about how to reduce the size of the vines and grow smaller, high-quality grapes in smaller clusters. So how is that connected to pruning? It's all a question of willingness to observe things with much broader vision than you intended'.
Which is to say...?
In the pruning experiments I conducted for another purpose, I was rewarded with some added value. The general method was to prune the vines late in the season in order to postpone the grapes' ripening, so it would take place when temperatures were lower. Through this experiment I discovered that, besides delaying the grapes' ripening, I could also control the size of their seeds. The later you prune, the smaller the crop you harvest. But the grape clusters and the seeds you get are also smaller, which impacts the entire value of the fruit.
Local wine -- social winery
In the year 2010, Arens returned to the family farm, and currently he produces wine exclusively from the grapes they grow there. In addition, he serves as the vintner for Meir Shefaya Youth Village.
'When I returned to the farm, a friend came to me and asked whether I would mentor the winemakers at Shefaya Youth Village. I really liked the idea of working with young people. They wanted to pay me but it occurred to me that this was an opportunity to combine activities that would be good for everyone. I proposed that instead of paying me, they would allow me to make my wine in their facilities. The equipment at Shefaya Wineries is idle most of the time, so this was a chance to maximize their resources. When Ruti [Bruchael???], the curator of the Festival and leader of the Shefaya Winery (along with the young residents), took over the job, we considered an active partnership, and now we see ourselves as a social winery. In fact, there are three of us partners, and we each contribute our share: Shefaya Winery, Koby Gazit and me. We are all equally valuable because of the bond between us, which creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This winery is populated by three different brands. Each one produces wine from its own grapes. Koby brings complementary equipment, like pallets and squeegees, and he's got an active schedule; I provide the professional advice; and Ruti takes all the rest. This is sustainable local economy at its best'.
You are one of the vintners who has been part of the Wine & Plenty WIne Festival since its inception. Why is it so important to you to participate?
'My dream is to distinguish our region among wine producers, and to enhance our local wine. The Festival provides a stage for the excellent wineries here in the area. Throughout the world, wine is closely related to its locale, and I try to internalize this concept here. This regional awareness is an essential value. In the era of globalization, the local loses its value, and especially for us here, everything is decided according to commercial considerations. When I visit a restaurant abroad, the first thing I order is the local wine.
And if we're talking about local, which wine do you prefer to drink in our hot summer, white or red?
'There's some paradox here... On the one hand, it's easier to create red wine in a warm country because it's easier to improve the quality of the grapes at higher temperatures. In northern Europe, for instance, there are higher quality white wines than in the south. But actually in hot countries like ours, I think it's more appropriate to drink white wine. When I started working at the Carmel Wineries, I supervised the production of white wine, among other things, and that's how I learned to love it. Today I totally prefer good white wine. In the white grape, all the aroma and interest comes from the skin. And there are essential differences in how the skin ripens. Personally, I prefer the less mature shades. It's all a question of balance between acidity and sweetness. In a warm country like ours, I'd rather harvest the grapes relatively early, when I can get green, fresh, herbaceous aromas'.
And which wine do you particularly recommend, among those you'll be presenting at the Festival?
'Mourvedre 2012 Red, this variety is very hard to grow, extremely challenging. It's the first wine that I made. Until then, I had produced wine that combined different varieties. With a unique pruning process, I managed to improve this variety and achieve with it a very high-quality wine. This is one of the wines we'll present at Wine & Plenty'.
And of all the wines you've tasted in the world, which one would you take with you to a deserted island?
'A white wine, Chardonnay UNWOODE, produced by the Chapel Hill Winery in McLaren Vale in southern Australia. It's the tastiest wine I know. Generally Chardonnay is aged in wood casks, and I don't so much like the way the wood dominates the taste. But this is a quality wine produced without using wood'.
To sum up, do you have any tips for novice winemakers, one thing that's required for making good wine?
'Since I studied in Australia, I'll give you an Australian answer: To make good wine, you have to drink good beer J'.
follow the link to the festival website
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