In 2003, when he was a freshman in the economics department at the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon LeZion and hoping to become a winemaker, Roy Yitzhaki wrote down three goals. “The first was to produce the best quality wine you can produce in Israel, the second was to produce this quality of wine for less money, and the third was to give back to the community.”
There are many in Israel and abroad who would say that, with his Tulip Winery, which he founded that same year, Yitzhaki has succeeded in all three of these goals.
“I come from a family that works in construction and real estate, and we are wine freaks,” says Yitzhaki. “Every night with dinner we drink a bottle of wine, every time we travel abroad [we’re] visiting wineries. … We’re going to wine expositions, collecting wine, etc.” During that freshman year, Yitzhaki decided that instead of going into the family business, he wanted to start making wine. “I traveled to boutique wineries throughout Israel to learn how to produce wine. Previous to this I only knew how to drink wine.”
While he may have traveled throughout the country to learn about making wine, he found his opportunity to start producing wine just a few miles from his hometown of Kiryat Tivon in the Lower Galilee, at a place called Kfar Tikva (Village of Hope).
Founded in 1964 on the grounds of a former kibbutz, Kfar Tikva (locally known as the Village) is a residential community for 200 developmentally disabled adults, who the locals call chaverim (friends). Kfar Tikva is generally considered one of most innovative facilities of its sort in Israel, and is often praised for its practice of integrating chaverim into the life of the surrounding community.
In 2003, the Village was having financial difficulties, and decided to sell some of its assets, including an old experimental winery, which Yitzhaki, with financial backing from his family, decided to purchase. Yitzhaki says he approached the Village, and had a meeting with its CEO. And, he recalls, “When I told him I wanted to open the winery … and employ the people from the Village to be the workers in the winery, he was very, very happy. He gave me a huge hug.” Yitzhaki says he started the first harvest later that year, with a production of around 7,000 bottles.
Yitzhaki says his employees — the winery employs 25 to 30 chaverim during the year — live in the Village. They work throughout the winery, from the vineyards to the bottling plant, where they label the bottles. “However, the most interesting part of the relationship between us is [at] the visitors’ center, says Yitzhaki, where chaverim get a chance to interact with “people from all over the country, and from abroad as well. It’s very emotional, all of the time.”
The winery prospered almost instantly, and within a few years it had increased its production by more than tenfold. It had reached what Yitzhaki described as a limit: “I had reached the maximum production that you can sell in Israel as a non-kosher wine, 100,000 bottles a year. If you want to get sales above 100,000 bottles a year, you should get hashgacha [certification] to be kosher.”
In order for a winey to produce kosher wine, not only must all the ingredients be kosher, and the equipment sterilized, but everyone who comes into direct contact with the wine must be a Sabbath-observant Jew. As the chaverim of Kfar Tikvah are not Sabbath observant, this created what at first seemed an insurmountable difficulty.
In 2006 Yitzhaki met with the Rabbanut Harashit, Israel’s largest provider of kosher certification, to find a solution. “The rabbis told me ‘Roy, look, I’m sorry you should fire those people, and hire religious people,’” Yitzhaki recalls.
This set the winemaker on a four-year quest to find a provider of kosher certification that would accept chaverim from the Village working at the winery. His search eventually led him to Rabbi Aharon Haskel, the head of the Brooklyn-headquartered OK Kosher Certification agency’s Israel operations. “The first time he [Rabbi Haskel] came to the winery, he started crying. He saw the people and was so connected to them … he told me, ‘Roy, it will take time, but I will find a solution.’”
Rabbi Haskel found that the majority of the work that the chaverim had been doing, could in fact be done by non-Sabbath-observant Jews. There were some major changes in operations. The winery had to hire a group of Sabbath-observant workers to do all of the work involving the wine directly. Rabbi Haskel also required the winery’s visitors’ center to be separated from the winery itself.
Going kosher has certainly helped the winery’s bottom line. Since receiving certification in 2010, it has been able to boost production to 220,000 bottles a year, making Tulip what Yitzhaki describes as “the largest boutique winery in Israel.”
Yet for Yitzhaki, Tulip is about more than just wine or business; it’s also about giving purpose to a group of chaverim. He began a story about an employee named Natan.
“He was the first worker at the winery, from our very first day. … He’s 65 years old but mentally he’s about 5 years old. One day I told him I was going to take him to the vineyards to help supervise the harvest. I told him that I would pick him up from his house at 5 in the morning. I came a bit earlier, around 4:30. … I saw him waiting outside and he told me, ‘I was waiting for you for more than an hour. … I didn’t sleep during the night, I was so excited.’ It was so amazing. … and it’s like this every day.” ✦
The Jewish Week tasted a few of Tulip’s current releases available in the United States:
Tulip, Syrah, Reserve, Galilee, 2010: This full-bodied, bright garnet-colored Syrah has a lot to recommend it. Look for aromas of cherries, black pepper, cigar smoke and pastrami, with notes of cedar, oak, and eucalyptus. The flavor is dominated by cherries, cranberries and stewed prunes, with notes of smoke and spice on the finish. Ready to drink now, this wine should cellar well until 2019.
Score A/A- ($44.99. Available at Skyview Wine and Spirits, 5681 Riverdale Ave., Riverdale,  759-8466.)
Tulip, Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve, Galilee, 2011: This full-bodied, dark-garnet colored blend of 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 5 percent Cabernet Franc and 5 percent Petit Verdot was aged for 18 months in French oak. The bouquet is earthy with notes of cherries, pipe tobacco and leather, with an intriguing green element. Look for a flavor of cherries, currents, smoky oak and earth, with a light overlay of spice. Drink within the next four to five years.
Score A- ($38.95. Available at the Kosher Wine Company, 2052 Lakeville Road, New Hyde Park, L.I.,  352-1100.)
Tulip, Mostly Shiraz, Galilee 2010: While Shiraz may make up 85 percent of this cuvee, the addition of 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon has given this full-bodied, garnet-colored wine a truly unique flavor profile. On the nose the first thing to hit you is the smell of fresh pencil shavings, along with aromas of cassis and oak. The flavor has elements of cherries, cranberries, cassis and strawberries, with notes of smoky oak, fennel and pepper. An intriguing wine. Drink within the next four years.
Score A-/B+ ($36.89. Available at Wine Chateau, 85 Central Ave., Metuchen, N.J.,  946-3190.)
Tulip, Just Merlot, Galilee, 2011: This youthful, fruit-forward, bright garnet-colored Merlot has flavors and aromas of blackberries, cassis, cherries and oak. While lacking complexity, this wine is both approachable and well made. Drink now until 2016.
Score B/B+ ($26.97. Available at Gotham Wines & Liquors, 2517 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10025  932-0990.)