As a wine writer I meet many wine enthusiasts who tell me they would like to make their own wines (I’ve had that dream myself from time to time), and occasionally I am offered samples of homemade wines to taste and evaluate. Sometimes these wines are surprisingly good; other times they are barely drinkable. Regardless of quality, the home winemaker almost always mentions the dream of becoming a professional vintner.
Rarely does this dream come to pass, but Amichai Luria is that rare exception — the hobbyist who has become the professional winemaker at a successful winery, Israel’s Shiloh Winery.
The Boston-born Luria, who grew up in Jerusalem, began his professional life with a very different career path. “I was working construction. I did renovations in people’s homes.” At the same time, “I had a hobby — I made a couple thousand bottles [of wine] a year at my home.”
A chance encounter, however, gave Amichai the opportunity of a lifetime.
Mayer Chomer, a Mexican lawyer who had immigrated to Israel and recently decided to open a winery, had attended a social event at Luria’s house. Luria was serving his homemade wine, and when Chomer found out that the host was also the winemaker, he said, “Why don’t you turn your hobby into a profession,” recalls Luria. “I thought I was going to go from working very hard in renovations to an easier life in winemaking. I didn’t know how demanding and overwhelming making wine in large scale could be.”
Shiloh, which currently produces more than 200,000 bottles a year, opened in 2005 (with Luria joining the winery in 2006) and within two years the winery was producing 70,000 bottles yearly.
While most professional winemakers get degrees in oenology from universities or learn the craft by working at an established winery, Luria is self-trained, and this, he believes, gives his wines an edge.
Repeatedly during our conversations, Luria said, “I turned a disadvantage to an advantage.” (He explained that this “is a famous ‘Star Trek’ sentence. I am a Trekkie, what can you do.”) Luria believes that having learned to make wine based only on experimentation and tinkering gives him an advantage over more traditional winemakers. “Learning in [universities] for years and working in wineries around the world, you are taught to make wine ‘that way,’ but ‘that way’ is not always the right way. … When you do something as a hobby,” he continues, “you take it to the extreme. .. You take chances, you try to do things a little bit different. In the end, things that I did on a small scale that nobody else would think to do in a big winery, turned out to be the right thing to do.”
Luria wouldn’t share any of his innovations, as he considers them trade secrets, but he says that they do not include any “inventions.” What emerges, though, is the image of a winemaker who is always willing to experiment; those experiments have led to a profusion of minute innovations with blending, barrels and viticulture.
One of the most noteworthy is Luria’s approach to tempering wines in order to make them mevushal. Today, the majority of Shiloh’s wines are mevushal, and Luria seems to have been successful in mitigating much of the negative effect of heating wine. “How we do it, that is our own little secret,” he says coyly. “We’ve been there, we’ve done that, and we’ve proven ourselves.”
There is another side of Luria that also became clear during our conversations, and that is his sincere religiosity, and his belief that “it is very important for us to keep the Yiddishkeit in front of us in the winery.” He does that in ways that are both seen — such as making biblical references on bottle labels — and unseen, such as the winery’s approach to shmitta (the sabbatical year), trumot and maaserot (tithes).
Jewish law requires that every seven years Jewish-owned cultivated land in the Land of Israel lay fallow. Most Israeli wineries rely on rabbinic leniencies in order to continue to produce. While Shiloh has relied on such leniencies in the past, according to Luria, “our first shmitta we produced very little; last shmitta we produced even less, and next shmitta we hope not to produce at all,” explaining that, “there were contracts we needed to get out of.”
“When it comes to trumot and maaserot” (tithes of more than 20 percent of production given to the Cohens, Levites and the poor), explains Luria, “there are all kinds of [religiously sanctioned] ways to get out of [doing] it, but we on the contrary look to give maaser oney [tithes to the poor], and maaser levy [the Levite tithe]. … We look for Levyim [Levites] that are doing what they are supposed to” by being religious leaders and teachers, and seek them out to give them their share.
“Every third and sixth year,” he continued, “we give unlabeled bottles to gabbai tzedakah [charity administrators] and social workers to give wine to those who cannot afford it. … Can you imagine people who really have no money can get a good bottle of wine when there is no way they could afford anything near that [quality]?” he asks. “They don’t know that it came from Shiloh, and we don’t know who got it.
“I try to keep very connected to the land, very connected to Yiddishkeit, but obviously without sacrificing the quality of the wine,” says Luria. Under his leadership, Shiloh has developed a house style of making big, fruit-forward wines with a lot of oak and tannin.
Despite Luria’s justifiable pride in his winery, he is happy to praise his competitors. When asked what he drinks when not drinking his own wine, he says he likes to drink Yarden’s Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine, which he describes as “the best wine made in Israel.” He also enjoys “a good Herzog wine” from California.
Looking to the future of the winery, Luria says that “we are planting new vineyards … with new varietals every year.” As for what those new grape varieties are, he says simply, “Wait and see.”
Luria, no doubt looking back to his hobbyist roots, made a point of saying that he is “always happy to connect people with vintners” who can provide grapes for the hobbyist winemaker. When asked if he had any advice for the hobbyist winemaker wanting to turn professional, Luria paused, sighed, and said simply, “Plan in advance.”
The following are tasting notes for a selection of Shiloh’s current releases:
Shiloh, Mosaic, Exclusive Edition, Judean Hills, 2016: This is Shiloh’s flagship wine, which is only made in good vintage years. 2016’s cuvee was composed of 35 percent Petit Verdot, 29 percent Merlot, 16 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 16 percent Syrah and 4 percent Malbec. Garnet-colored and full-bodied, this wine has a still tight nose of cassis, cherries, Latakia tobacco, floral notes and an intriguing whiff of green bell peppers. Look for flavors of cherries, raspberries, cranberries and oak, with a note of crème de framboise mid-palate, and hints of mocha and toffee towards the finish. With good structure and an abundance of satiny tannins, this wine is enjoyable now but will only show its best a couple of years from now and should then drink well until the end of the decade.
Shiloh Mosaic, Judean Hills, 2016 (mevushal edition): This wine is produced annually in both mevushal and non-mevushal editions. Composed of 40 percent Merlot, 26 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Cabernet Franc and 12 percent Petit Verdot, this full-bodied, dark garnet-colored wine has a bouquet redolent of cherries, currants, blueberries, pepper and smoky oak, with hints of chocolate and grapefruit zest. The flavor is dominated by flavors of cherries, currants, raspberries and rhubarb, all on an oaky background. Look for notes of chocolate, pepper and, intriguingly, grapefruit on the finish. Drink now through 2026.
Shiloh, Secret Reserve, Petit Verdot, Judean Hills, 2017: Dark garnet-colored and full-bodied, this wine has a nose redolent of a forest floor. Look for aromas of cherries and smoke with whiffs of chocolate and orange blossoms. The flavor is dominated by cherries, currants and strawberries, with woodsy highlights and notes of spice and Seville oranges on the finish. This is a big wine with lots of powdery tannins, and while approachable now can probably use another year in the bottle and should then drink well until 2026.
Shiloh, Secret Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, Judean Hills, 2017: This full-bodied, fruit-forward Cabernet is Shiloh’s best-selling wine. The bouquet has elements of currants, cherries, smoky oak and brier, with floral notes, a hint of citrus and a slight green tinge. Look for flavors of cherries, cassis and cranberry, with notes of oak and pipe tobacco towards the back of the palate. The wine is well structured with a nice level of tannin, but perhaps has a tad too much residual sugar. Drink within the next five years.
Shiloh, Shor, Merlot, Judean Hills, 2017: Aged for 15 months in French oak, this full-bodied, garnet-colored wine has an enticing bouquet that is dominated by cassis with notes of cherries, oak, wildflowers and a green element. Look for flavors of cherries, cassis and oak with a hint of fennel on the finish. This is a good, straightforward, food-friendly Merlot. Drink now-2024.
Shiloh, Shor, Barbera, Judean Hills, 2017: Ruby-to-garnet in color, this medium-bodied wine has flavors and aromas of blueberries, raspberries and cherries with notes of vanilla and salad greens and a fascinating hint of chili pepper heat on the finish. Embodied with a nice level of acid, which makes this wine very food friendly, it should drink well for the next three years.
Shiloh, Privilege, Winemaker’s Blend, 2018: This cuvee of 74 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 16 percent Syrah, 7 percent Cabernet Franc, and 3 percent Grenache is Shiloh’s entry-level red. Luria made a point of saying that he puts a great deal of effort into ensuring that this is a very approachable, quality wine. Aged for six months in French oak barrels, this medium-to-full-bodied wine has flavors and aromas of cherries, cassis, pencil shavings and oak. Very easy to drink, it is ready to drink now and for the next three years.