A Wine Lover's Guide to Galilee
The Western Galilee is one of the most exciting pockets for wine and food in Israel, and a spot that despite its bounties of both culture and cuisine still remains charmingly unspoiled.
At Lotem Organic Winery, a tiny two-man operation producing 20,000 bottles a year, everything is about energy. Winemaker Yonatan Koren spent 10 years as a career soldier in the Israel Defense Forces before trading his uniform for a life cultivating organic grapes—a move he says was motivated by a simple desire for happiness.
Winemaking brings together everything he loves best, Koren says, pouring two glasses of crisp rosé, a blend of light red Nebbiolo and Petit Verdot, on the open-air patio of Lotem’s small headquarters. On a clear summer’s day, the patio boasts a cool breeze and a sweeping view of the patchwork hills of Galilee.
Just inside, Koren’s brother Iftach, who lives in Tel Aviv but makes the drive north to help in the winery’s kitchen, is preparing watermelon sashimi and homemade chocolate truffles for a wine tasting scheduled later in the day. “There’s everything inside a bottle. There’s working with the soil, working with people, there’s creation, and there’s philosophy,” Koren says.
Koren is so big on energy, in fact, he and business partner Yaniv Kimchi have a soundtrack hooked up for their wine. Aging grapes are serenaded by new-age strains of Indian, Peruvian, and Arabic music 24 hours a day. Kimchi and Koren play music that they themselves like to hear, at specific frequencies linked to meditation and life force.
“No classical music, though,” Koren says, “because a lot of classical music wasn’t written for peace and love; it was written for war, and for crazy kings.”
Israel, which was the cradle of the world’s winemaking culture thousands of years before oenophilia reached Europe, is in the midst of a wine renaissance. For the past two decades, as Israeli cuisine has modernized, upgraded, and earned a global following, its vintners have been working to keep up with its chefs. But while its bigger wineries—Recanati, Tishbi, and Binyamina, among them—have earned an international following, there’s a quiet revolution unfolding in the Western Galilee, a tiny, lush pocket in the country’s north that boasts fertile soil, centuries of history, and a laid-back winemaking culture imbued with rustic charm and a tradition of easy elegance.
The Western Galilee is anchored by Acre, a 5,000-year-old port city that boasts Crusader castles, a shoreline teeming with fresh seafood, and a tradition of coexistence between its Muslim, Jewish, and Christian residents. Four years ago, Acre fisherman and bon vivant Uri Jeremias hedged his bets on the crumbling city, gutting two 19th-century Ottoman villas and restoring them into the spectacularly grand Efendi Hotel, a luxury boutique property unlike anything Israel had ever seen.
Today, the hotel—which sits adjacent to Jeremias’s famed seafood restaurant, Uri Buri—is a magnet luring tourists north from Tel Aviv and positioning Acre as a politics-free alternative to historical Jerusalem. Visitors dine family-style alongside Jeremias himself, enjoying seasonal delicacies including seared scallops with pomegranate sauce and salmon sashimi with wasabi sorbet, and then dream salty sea-air dreams in one of Efendi’s 12 rooms, all lined in cool marble and featuring painstakingly restored frescoes on the ceilings and Egyptian cotton sheets on the pillow-like beds.
It’s time, says Jeremias, that the Western Galilee gets a spot on the Israeli tourism map. The rest of Israel seems to agree: A gleaming new tourist center geared specifically to Western Galilee Tourism, run by the Jewish National Fund, was opened last year just steps from the Efendi at the mouth of the Acre market.
“The area has more to offer than Tuscany,” he says over breakfast in Efendi’s communal dining hall, where guests gather around a long wooden table for fresh-baked breads, perfectly poached eggs, and a cornucopia of Middle Eastern dips, fresh fruits, and marinated fish and vegetables. The region’s multi-level terrain, he says, means that vegetables, ancient medicinal herbs, tropical fruits, and world-class wines can all be grown in the same area. And along with the bounty, Jeremias says, there’s coexistence, a word that is tossed around a lot in Israel but hard to find in practice in its more heavily touristed enclaves near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“This is the one place in Israel where Arabs and Jews live together, work together, and it’s completely common,” he says.
The Western Galilee is one of the most exciting pockets for wine and food in Israel, and a spot that despite its bounties of both culture and cuisine still remains charmingly unspoiled. But its riches won’t be a secret forever. Here is a guide to the places you should visit before the crowds catch on.