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Future once again in question for Golan Heights wineries

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer to Syria to return the Golan Heights in a directly negotiated land-for-peace deal again raises a big question for fans of Israeli wine. What might become of the Golan Heights Winery?

The winery said yesterday it has never formulated a plan to deal with developments peace might bring. One development might be a shutdown. Another might be a move to Upper Galilee.

The winery’s fate was uncertain in the 1990s and in 2000, when Israel and Syria last negotiated the fate of the plateau, which Israel occupied in the 1967 war and annexed in 1981.

Attention focuses on the 5.4m-bottle winery, because it is generally deemed Israel’s best. Its Yarden, Gamla and Golan labels are famous internationally. Yarden wines made their mark in America in the 1980s by inspiring a kosher wine revolution, reshaping preferences from sweet to dry.

Speculation centers on a hope that Damascus might be open to a peace treaty that allowed the Golan Heights Winery and others to remain in operation on the plateau, perhaps under a long-term lease arrangement.

There are seven wineries on Heights and 1,600 planted acres (648 hectares). The others include Chateau Golan, the highly-rated Bazelet Hagolan, and four boutiques.

‘Everyone wants peace,’ said Anat Rushansky, CEO of Yarden Inc, the Golan Heights winery’s American marketing arm. ‘We are not extras in this play. We’re part of it. We can’t affect the situation. We keep on making wine, and hope for the best.’ Her comments echo those of the company’s earlier executives.

Daniel Rogov, the daily Haaretz’s wine columnist and perhaps Israel’s most influential wine critic, said there is ‘a point on which many on the Golan agree: It is not a question of “if” the Golan returns but only “when.” It could be one year, three years or 30.’

Rogov does not think a lease arrangement would be likely ‘because according to Muslim religious law even raising grapes for wine is forbidden.’

Many Israelis believe that if Heights wineries faced shutdowns their operations would move to Upper Galilee, an expanding high-altitude vineyard region. Amphorae, Barkan, Carmel, Dalton, Flam, Galil Mountain (owned jointly by the Golan Heights Winery and Kibbutz Yiron), Margalit, Recanati and Saslove, all top wineries, produce outstanding wines from Upper Galilee grapes.

Israel Ivzan, chairman of the giant Carmel Winery, a major competitor of the Golan Heights Winery, acknowledged that ‘24 years ago, the Golan Heights Winery brought the New World wine revolution to Israel.’ Peace with Syria, he said, would enhance wine tourism in Israel.

Written by Howard G Goldberg in New York

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