The Many Wines of Yaacov Oryah

This week’s newsletter discusses Yaacov Oryah, a winemaker of incredible depth and talent who, after years of personal and professional trials and tribulations, is currently making wine at three different wineries.

While I didn’t actually meet Yaacov in person until January 2014 during the Sommelier Expo in Tel Aviv, I first encountered Yaacov’s wines in 2010, when someone sent me a bottle of Asif Winery’s 2009 Chavlei Aretz Avant Garde wanting an explanation for weird kashrut-related language on the label.  My curiosity sufficiently spiked, I did some research and discovered the 2006 article in the Israeli culinary magazine “Wine and Gourmet” which Asif’s Orthodox winemaker had penned calling into question much of the accepted halacha with respect to wine and its related kashrut halachot.  Similar too many of Yaacov’s other interests, his views were simply ahead of their time, espousing opinions far more accepted today than at the time (with Rabbi Dr. Hayim Soloveitchik penning two in-depth and highly-recommended books on the topic).

Yaacov was born in New York and made Aliyah with his charedi parents at the tender age of 5 where his family settled in Bnei Brak.  From a relatively early age his interests diverged somewhat from the mainstream charedi community he belonged to, joining Bnei Akiva as a teen-ager and fully breaking from tradition by studying in Yeshiva HaKotel under the auspices of the hesder program which made him the first member of his extended family to ever serve in the Israeli army.  Post his army service he returned to the fold, got married, had children and, after spending some additional time learning in various yeshivot, started working in construction while studying toward an engineering degree.

While wine was always of interest to him, his relationship with it was primarily as an enthusiastic imbiber until 2003 when he discovered that Sorek Winery was offering entry-level winemaking classes.  Taking his first course in 2004 and leasing his first vineyard the year after, Yaacov quickly realized that his interest was far deeper than he had imagined.  In 2006, together with a partner, he founded Asif Winery, initially intending it to be a form of négociant, only to realize that the traditional French method was ill suited to Israel wine business climate, which precluded him from obtaining raw materials of sufficient quality.  Only then did Yaacov realize an inner desire to actually create wine on his own and, with Itai Lahat at their side as an advisor, Asif released its first vintage of approximately 15,000 in 2007; rising to approximately 20,000 for the 2010 vintage (with another 10,000 bottles or so produced for others under the auspices of the custom crush facility which, quite ironically, was initially launched to provide kosher crush facilities for winemakers that couldn’t bear the burden of kosher supervision).

With economic realities dictating the winery’s move in 2008 from Moshav Bnei Atarot to the southern city of Arad, the winery’s focus on true local desert terroir wines became another focus point for the winery.  It was at this time that the winery’s economic difficulties started. When located in Atarot, the winery’s hashgacha was under the local rabbanut, which enabled them to sell their wines to the kosher-observing public whom comprise a good chunk of Israeli wine’s consumers.   However, the rabbanut’s office located in Arad had a rather negative view of Yaacov’s anti-establishment posture reflected in his aforementioned article and denied the fledgling winery a formal hashgacha, damaging not only the winery’s sale but also its competitive edge as a kosher custom crush winery and eliminating much of its guaranteed revenue despite the fact that many kashrut-keeping Jews who knew [and trusted] Yaacov happily drank his wines irrespective of his lacking a formal hashgacha (including myself, although I never served them at my table or served with to others).  This somewhat ludicrous situation was the catalyst for the aforementioned language on Asif’s bottles that stated that the wine was prepared in accordance with all applicable halachot and only by Jews.  As a slight political aside, my own experience with Israel’s sometimes ridiculous rabbinical establishment came when my planned mesader kiddushin Rav Aharon Soloveitchik zt”l was rejected as a legitimate Rabbi without a confirmatory letter as to his Judaic bona fides could be procured form his “city rabbi” would vouch for him (similar to Rabbi Lookstein’s current imbroglio, he “wasn’t on the list”); thankfully his “stand-in”, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l was on someone’s list otherwise my life may have developed quite differently), but I unnecessarily digress.

Similar to his independent streak where halacha was concerned, Yaacov’s free-spirited thinking led Asif to focus primarily on white wines, understanding their potential and “appropriateness” to Israel’s hot-climated terroir long before others managed to get past the perceived “sexiness” of France’s more “noble” and mostly red varietals.  Instead of focusing on commercially acceptable wines, Yaacov maintained his intellectual honestly and continued to create wines he thought were awesome without focusing on their marketability.  One manifestation of this was his obsession with the illogical concept of discarding the skins of white wines immediately following press as opposed to the high value placed on the tannins, flavor compounds and phenolic attributes they provided to red wine production.  As a result, starting with Asif’s first vintage in 2007 Yaacov was already experimenting with the fermentation of white grape varietals on their skins for periods far longer than the accepted few hours.  It wasn’t until his first commercial adaptation of such a wine for the 2010 vintage that he discovered such a wine was actually made by others and was in fact a wine with an illustrious and ancient past.  This information was passed on to him by the late Daniel Rogov while tasting his inaugural “Orange Wines”. While Yaacov doesn’t consider his wines to be “real” Orange Wines (at least partially due to the addition of sulfites and their lack of oxidation), instead describing them as “white wines with extended skin maceration” (my view is po-tay-toe / po-tah-toe). Another winemaking aspect of his I found to be particularly interesting (alongside being surprised it wasn’t adapted by more of Israel’s serious winemakers) was his attempt to early harvest portions of his vineyards which grapes are then blended with fully ripened grapes to provide proper balance and additional well-needed acidity.

True to his nature, Yaacov was very focused on making “honest wines” and luckily found a very receptive audience among the country’s budding wine aficionados, rapidly infiltrating the wine list of Israel’s top [non-kosher] restaurants and assuming near-cult status for his white wines which became nearly 100% of the winery’s production starting in 2009.  Shirking the over-oaking and late harvesting popular among many other Israeli wine wines allowed Yaacov to produce clean, focused and intriguing wines.  Unfortunately, intellectual curiosity and philosophical winemaking doesn’t always (or even usually) translate into financial success; and the young winery rapidly found itself on unstable economic terms, leading it to search for a white knight financial backer.  Once found, the winery re-branded as Midbar, taking its name from the desert terroir so crucial to the identity of its wines.  Unfortunately the new owners and Yaacov didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye on a number of fronts and Yaacov found himself looking for a new gig that would hopefully allow him at least a certain level of creative freedom.

During the period he was looking for a job, Yaacov continued to make wine in every way possible, some of which are reviewed below.  While Yaacov’s assumption of chief winemaking duties at Psagot Winery in 2014 took me by surprise, so far it seems to be working out quite well.  Despite Psagot being a rather large commercial winery and not being known as a bastion of winemaking experimentation and creativity (despite a highly talented and well-regarded winemaking team), Yaacov seems to have found a great middle ground between the need to produce commercially viable wines while also maintaining his winemaking vision and helping to elevate the already growing quality at Psagot, particularly with respect to the white wines, where his expertise is obviously a huge plus.  Similar to many other winemakers at larger wineries (including Ido Lewinsohn and Kobi Arbiv at Recanati, Jonathan Hajdu at Covenant and Pierre at Domaine Netofa) and further assisted by the fact that his position at Psagot is officially a “half-position”, he is also making wines under his own name, utilizing a custom crush facility in Ma’ale Levona (which is incidentally owned by a grower he first encountered back in his Asif days).

Together with the most recent release of a wine under his newly branded “Yaacov Oryah Wines”, Yaacov recently showcased a few other extremely limited wines he has produced over the last few years.  The latest official release is another Orange-styled wine labeled Alpha Omega whose name represents his desire for an “all encompassing” wine (Alpha Omega being the Greek Alphabet equivalent of “from A to Z”).  The other wines include a highly unique varietal Sémillon from 2009, two “Rioja-styled” wines I found to be especially intriguing and a delightful GSM (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre) blend, so appropriate for Israel’s terroir, most of which are reviewed below and all of which I would recommend.

If all of the above wasn’t enough, the latest development in the Yaacov Oryah story is his assumption of the head winemaking position at Ella Valley Vineyards following the departure of Lin Gold.  Lin has been the winemaker at Ella Valley Vineyards for five years since its founding winemaker – Doron Rav-Hon left to establish his own well regarded and white wine focused winery – Sphera.  Due to multiple and disruptive management changes at Ella Valley, over the years Lin also assumed many different administrative and management obligations at the winery.  Yaacov had some prior familiarity with Ella Valley after filling in for Lin for a few months while she was out on maternity leave last year.  Addressing some of the concerns at this dual-position, Yaacov recently took to Facebook to declare his strong belief that no conflict of interest existed given the pure terroir-driven philosophies of these two wineries.  While I personally have my hesitations as to the long-term viability of this arrangement, the quality of the folks involved leads me to give them the benefit of the doubt and adopt a “let’s see” attitude, especially given my love of the two wineries and strong desire to see them both succeed (not to mention my admiration of Yaacov, both as a winemaker and person).

Writing all of the above about Yaacov without taking a moment to say make the monumentally understated declaration that he is one of the most understated personalities in the Israeli wine world would be criminal.  With an intellectual curiosity that knows no bounds along with a quiet contemplation and powerful charisma, I always feel that I’d rather be talking about 10 different things other than the wine-related topics we inevitably end up talking about.  A true Renaissance Man, Yaacov is always thinking, exploring and striving to do more, making his a great person to hang out with, talk to and learn from.  The dualities of making wine for the general public at Psagot and Ella Valley while creating contemplative and serious wines that demand your attention under his eponymous label are only reconcilable in an individual as unique as he is.  As such, this newsletter represents a rare instance where knowing a bit about the man is a pre-requisite to enjoying and understanding the wines.

For purposes of this week’s missive and in addition to the Yaacov Oryah branded wines, I focused on Midbar (which continues to produce wines but not under Yaacov’s hand) as opposed to Psagot (which gets its own regular newsletter) or Ella Valley (for which there are no Yaacov wines yet).  I hope your encounters with his wines will lead you to appreciate his talents as much as I do!

Midbar Winery

Midbar, Chenin Blanc, 2010:  Along with French Columbard, Chenin Blanc retains primary responsibility for the historically negative view of Israel’s white wines.  Similar to the work by Kobi Arbiv and others with French Columbard, Yaacov’s Chenin Blanc joins those by Domaine Netofa (and a few non-kosher producers like Sea Horse and Shvo) in showcasing the lusciousness of the grape and its ability to produce top-notch quality wines.  Yaacov’s focus on purity and finesse helped in taming the grape and yielded a terrific wine that I thoroughly enjoyed.  With a slightly viscous and medium bodied palate, the wine has plenty of near-sweet summer fruit and rich honeysuckle balanced by flinty minerals, rich citrus notes and bracing acidity the wine culminates in a near-savory finish that lingers.  Juxtaposing the luscious fruit, acidity and savory minerals makes for one of the more contemplative white wines I have encountered in a while.  With impressive aging ability (albeit in drink now mode) providing the proverbial cherry on top, I doff my hat and say – Kudos Yaacov and thanks for the treat.

Midbar, Orange 44, 2010:  I believe this was the first kosher Orange Wine and certainly the first I ever tasted.  An intriguing blend of Chenin Blanc (52%), Viognier (24%) and Chardonnay (24%) which spent 14 days macerating on its skins providing the wine with plenty of extra depth, complexity and oomph.  An aromatic nose of passion fruit, papaya, apples, green tea, honeysuckle, floral notes, caramelized nuts, herbs and warm spices with an overlay of stony minerals, gun smoke and slightly oxidized funkiness.  The medium to full-bodied palate has a slightly oily feel to it and a tannic structure more reminiscent of a red wine.  With rich fruit, tangy citrus and roasted nuts along with flint minerals, hints of butterscotch, warm spices and some bitter pith backed up by gobs of mouth-watering acidity that keep the wine surprisingly fresh on your palate all the way through the slightly bitter finish that lingers long, the wine keep my senses busy for hours and I regret not having another bottle as this encounter with it was far more rewarding than my previous one five years ago as I knew to take it more seriously this time around.

Midbar, Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc, 2010:  Besides the incredible varietal Sémillon produced by Dalton, I find Yaacov’s work with the grape to be the most interesting.  Utilizing a classic Bordeaux blend of early harvested 70% Sémillon and 30% Sauvignon Blanc yielded a Graves-like wine with an Israeli twist that clocks in at a manageable 12.5% AbV.  Despite the abundance of notes in this wine, it is somehow all in focus with the aromas and flavors combining harmoniously to a wine that offers plenty of complexity but can also be enjoyed in a thoughtless manner.  With notes of tropical fruit and rich citrus enlivened by his almost characteristically juicy citrus, flinty minerals and notes of wet rocks, great acidity and slightly bitter finish, you can pretty easily identify Yaacov as this wine’s creator in a blind tasting.  20% of the blend was aged for six months in French oak that likely helped it reach a mature age of six years with dignity (having improved over the years I enjoyed it).  Additional notes of cracked pepper, slightly toasty oak and herbs contribute further to the wines complexity and depth.  That said, at this point it is past its peak but you might get lucky.  In any event – drink now.

Midbar, Viognier 2010:  Initially recommended to me by Ran at Avi Ben, this was one of my first Yaacov wines and a deserving wine to that honor.  A relatively rare unoaked Viognier, the wine has a rich and deep nose loaded with ripe white peaches, apricots and sweet citrus notes of lemon and tangerines along with luscious honeysuckle, apple and a hint of tropical fruit that stays blissfully in the background.  Plenty of rich spice and bracing acidity keep the fruit in check while retaining the luscious viognier notes.  A wine I will remember for quite some time.

Midbar, White, 44, 2010:  An oddball and unoaked blend of Gewürztraminer (25%), Sauvignon Blanc (20%), Chardonnay (20%), Viognier (20%) and Sémillon (15%) which was intended to showcase the good of Gewürztraminer while utilizing the other grapes to negate some of its more annoying characteristics.  At 13% AbV and with loads of typical Gewürztraminer notes of lychee and rosewater on the nose, the wine showcases additional notes of honeysuckle and blooming flowers from the Viognier along with more subtle aromas of fresh-cut grass and near-sweet citrus from the other varietals.  The main contribution of the Chardonnay is on the medium to-full bodied palate that is round, mouth filling and more substantial than one might have otherwise expected.  I’d recommend ignoring the off-dry label (a result of the bit of residual sugar) since the judicious acidity, impeccable balance and deep complexity will ensure that you don’t really notice it especially once you are left with Yaacov’s typical lingering saline and slightly bitter finish.  Definitely a poster wine for well-known expression that “the sum [of the wine] is [far] greater than its parts”.

Psagot Winery

Psagot, Moav, 2014:  While Yaacov Oryah’s first slew of 2014 vintage wines at Psagot includes a number of interesting wines including a varietal Viognier and an interesting Rosé comprised of five different varietals, the most interesting version is a continuation of his epic Sémillon-driven success at Midbar with this blend of 69% Semillon and 31% Sauvignon Blanc (with Matar producing a similar blend), both sourced from Tzuba and co-fermented (30% of it in new oak) on its lees for four months. With a portion of the grapes harvested early I believe Yaacov is onto something with re: solving Israel’s hotter growing season “issues” that can lead to flabby and low-acid grapes. With 12.5% AbV and a rich tropical nose tempered by delightful acidity and a healthy dollop of saline-driven minerals, this was a delicious and intriguing wine that bodes every well for Psagot’s continued development and promising future.

Yaacov Oryah

Yaacov Oryah, Alpha Omega, 2014:  A limited edition (less than 300 bottles) blend of Roussanne, Viognier and Sémillon that was prepared like an Orange Wine and was allowed to macerate on its skins for over two months (73 days) yielding a rich, bold and funky wine that I found to be fascinating but won’ be to everyone’s taste.  With his first attempt at Orange wine spending just two weeks on the skins, the Alpha Omega represents a quantum leap forward in this regard.  With my only experience in Orange Wines being Yaacov’s I am hard pressed to better describe it but using the biblical “HaKol Kol Yaacov VeHaYadayim Yedei Eisav” (“the voice is the voice of Yaacov, yet the hands are the hands of Esauv”) wouldn’t be inappropriate in this case.  A rich aromatic nose is redolent with rich orange and lemon, honeysuckle, candied citrus peel, scented candles, a whiff of oily petrol, jasmine, lavender and crazily enough – subtle notes of smoked meat.  The medium bodied and layered palate has a slightly oily feel to it that is backed up with plenty of acidity that also keeps the rich fruit in check and a completely unnerving tannic structure that can provide whiplash if you aren’t expecting it.  With gun smoke, melon, tart green apple and more juicy citrus, the wine toys with your senses and reveals layers and layers of notes as time passes by.  A long and lingering slightly tart and savory finish rounds out this incredibly different (and delicious) wine.  Made in Yaacov’s house without any formal hashgacha the wine doesn’t carry any kosher symbols but like his prior wines, he vouches for it, which was enough for me.  Definitely a must try which is enjoyable now and should cellar nicely through 2020, likely longer.

Yaacov Oryah, Iberian Dream, Reserva, 2011:  After spilling so much ink talking about Yaacov’s typical wines it is hard to switch gear and write about two Rioja-style wines he made a few years ago which I finally had the opportunity to taste.  Named for the Spain’s ancient Aramaic name (Aspania) and using the Talmudic expression for unrealistic dreams.  A blend of Tempranillo, Grenache and Carignan, the wine spent 12 months in five-year-old (neutral) oak.  Still tight with tannins that need some time to integrate, the wine was even more enjoyable the next day.  Loaded with rich deep and dark black fruit, earthy minerals, dark bakers chocolate and some notes of smoky oak the full-bodied palate is rich, velvety and caressing.  Very much an old world wine made from new world terroir.  Give this one at least a few hours and you will be rewarded with great balance and structure along with a voluptuous wine that pampers.

Yaacov Oryah, Iberian Dream, Gran Reserva, 2011:  The same wine as the Reserva above that spent three years in oak as opposed to one.  The extra time yielded a wine that is far more approachable and polished while retaining a decent aging ability.  Rich and near sweet, mostly black fruit on both the nose and medium to full-bodied palate.  Nicely integrated yet very powerful tannins hold the rich fruit together in a harmonious blend with the tart cranberry, deep spices, plenty of rich chocolate, pungent forest notes and lovely earthy minerals that are so reminiscent of true Spanish Rioja, it is shocking to think that these are Israeli grapes.  Beg Yaacov to sell you a few bottles of this treat but be prepared for rejection, as the quantities are so minuscule as to be non-existent.

Yaacov Oryah, Hunters Valley, Semillon, 2009:  Intended from the get-go to be released only after a few years, Yaacov harvested these Sémillon grapes extra early.  Ultimately the wine was released earlier than intended in minute quantities with Yaacov then [re]acquiring the remaining stock and cellaring it privately until he felt it was ready – a time that has finally arrived.  Despite being completely unoaked, the 100% Sémillon wine has some oaky notes.  Named after Australia’s Hunter Valley dubbed by Jancis Robinson to be Australia’s greatest gift to the wine world based on the outrageous Sémillon it produces, the wine certainly serves its namesake proud.  The wine has a rich and layered nose of tart green apple, white summer fruits, red grapefruit, sweet nectarines, rich Mayer lemons, warm spices and limestone minerals.  The medium bodied palate has 11% AbV and plenty more rich fruit, sweet honey, warm spices, saline and more minerals backed up by decent acidity that has lost some of its bite over the last few years.  I loved the wine and was happy to have the entire bottle to myself, which allowed me to enjoy its evolution over the many hours it keep, me company.