Tulip Winery: Where Grape Vines and Human Dignity Bear Fruit

February 7, 2013 4:06 am 2 comments

From left to right, Eli Sternzis, Roy Itzhaki (owner) and Dedi Ashkenazi at Tulip Winery. Photo: Courtesy Roy Itzhaki.

Since he was a kid growing up in the town of Kiryat Tivan, Roy Itzhaki would regularly see them in the street, on their way to work, in coffee houses, as free as anyone else in the village to live their lives.

Though they live with a range of intellectual disabilities, these residents of the nearby residential center at Kfar Tikvah were as much a part of the community as the statue of war hero Alexander Zaid in the center of town.

So, nearly a decade ago, it seemed completely natural to Itzhaki to invite them to join him in a bold venture he was launching. That’s when the 25-year-old IDF officer, fresh out of uniform, did something many considered crazy: he opened a winery.

Itzhaki recalls the well-meaning industry expert’s warning back then. “You seem like a nice young man so I’m going to give you some free advice. Don’t go into the wine business. Your chances for success are nil.”

“He was right in many ways,” an older (35) and wiser Itzhaki says with a laugh, twirling the stem of a wineglass—filled with water. “It’s a bruising business: high pressure, high stakes and nearly impossible to break into. On paper our chances were nil.”

But having grown up in a family crazy about wine, and living in a part of Israel where wine grapes grow in abundance, Itzhaki forged on. First, he rented out grape arbors in both the Galilee and the Judean Hills, then his father the civil engineer led the renovation of an old cow shed into a tasting and sales room, and finally his mother suggested the name Tulip. The first year’s yield: 7,000 bottles.

From the very start, the disabled workers were part of the fledgling winery’s team. Their home was the deserted kibbutz of Gvao’t Zaid, which had been transformed into a residential center for those with mental disabilities. It got its start in 1964 when Dr. Zigfrid Hirsch, a British philanthropist and Holocaust survivor, began rounding up mentally disabled people from across Israel, determined to give them the chance for a life of maximum normalcy and productivity. The result was Kfar Tikvah, Hebrew for “Village of Hope.”

Today some 200 people with disabilities live in the village, and 30 of them work at Tulip. Itzhaki says he knew it was the right thing to do employ them, but he admits his workforce took some getting used to.

“I kept asking myself, ‘What can I expect of them?’” he says. “How can I communicate with them? But within a day or two, I fell in love with these people.”

Tulip worker Nathan Can’ani listens with rapt attention to his boss during the telling of this story, which is in fact his story too, and every so often he interrupts the flow.

“I like to put the bottles on the machine,” he says with a wide grin. “I like that job.” Now 64, Can’ani has been with the winery full-time since its early days in 2003.

Itzhaki says employees like Can’ani continue to amaze by dutifully performing “the repetitive work that would drive us crazy with its monotony—after two hours of it I would want to kill myself.”

“But eight hours later they’re still so happy, still interested in every detail of the job and still doing excellent work,” Itzhaki says.

It was in 2006 that Itzhaki first approached the rabbinate.

Roy Itzhaki (right) with Tulip Winery worker Nathan Can’ani. Photo: Courtesy Roy Itzhaki.

“I could see that the only way to grow in this market is to be kosher,” he says. “That’s what the better hotels and restaurants across Israel require and it opens up the lucrative kosher export market, too.”

Another potential jump in sales comes on Rosh Hashanah and Pesach, when Israeli employers traditionally give their employees a bottle of kosher wine, says Itzhaki.

Yet Itzhaki’s employment of the disabled presented a significant roadblock to going kosher. Jewish law requires that every person who touches wine in any stage of its production must be observant of mitzvot—but Itzhaki’s disabled employees were not.

When one kashrut expert toured the plant on bottling day, he quickly sized up the situation.

“He told me our wine could be kosher, but first I would have to let them all go and hire new workers in their place,” Itzhaki recalls. “I told him, ‘I’m sorry. Here’s the door. I am not firing these people.’”

Each rabbi Itzhaki consulted would lay out the same requirement. But Itzhaki was determined to obtain kosher certification. Four years and more than 20 rabbinic consultations later, Itzhaki finally succeeded.

After Rabbi Aharon Chaskal came to the winery, inspired by what he saw there, he arranged for Itzhaki to meet Rabbi Shmuel Vozner—a widely respected halakhic authority in the haredi world, known as a hardliner on many issues facing the modern Jewish world.

Vozner listened carefully to Itzhaki and said something that none of his 20 predecessors had: “There is a conflict between the mitzvah of halakha and the mitzvah of employing these people. It is such an important mitzvah that you are doing with these people, let’s find a way.”

Chaskal returned to Kiryat Tivon to review every single task of wine production. The news was good. Roughly three-quarters of the tasks could be done by the employees with disabilities, while the remaining quarter, which required direct contact with grape or wine, could be done by others. The winery was declared ready for koshering, and no disabled employees were let go. In 2010, the first bottle of kosher Tulip wine rolled off the conveyor belt.

As afternoon turns to evening at Tulip, goats bleat and peacocks shreak on the farm across the way. The grapes quietly soaking up the golden rays of Israeli sunshine are fated to become Tulip’s 2013 vintage. Nearly a decade after Itzhaki took risks for something he believed in, his company is primed to expand its North American distribution to markets beyond New York (next up: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami and Chicago), and Tulip wines are pulling down impressive scores with the industry’s toughest judges. In fact, in his Guide to Israeli Wines, the late Daniel Rogov used adjectives like “exceptional” and “sumptuous” and wrote that one variety of Tulip wine “almost gives you the feeling that you could eat it with a spoon rather than from a wine glass.”

“When we have Tulip wine on our Shabbos table we’re performing three mitzvot, at least,” says customer Anne Sendor of Sharon, Mass. “We’re blessing the wine on Shabbos; we’re drinking wine from, as we say in the Bircat HaMazon, ‘the good land He gave you,’ which further ties us to the land. And we’re also supporting what they’re doing, giving work to the special people who work there. Plus it’s just delicious wine.”

But Itzhaki isn’t drunk on praise from critics or customers. He credits the winery’s success to its employees.

“It’s them,” he says, gesturing at Nathan Can’ani. “Even using the best of everything, I’d have to honestly say they’re 100 percent of our success in a field everyone said was impossible to break into. They are the only possible explanation. I truly believe these people give the wine something else, what the French call terroir—influences. When you drink it, you drink Israel, you drink this region, you drink these people.”

FancyBaby™  was born in Marin County, California, in the bay area, but she grew up in South Central Los Angeles. From a young age, she was singing music she heard in her life, like Toni Braxton and Marvin Gaye’s classics. When she was 14,she moved to Seattle, where she heard the sounds of Jimi Hendri, and got into musical theater, in productions of Honk, Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof, and Hair at the Artswest theatre when she was 17.

In 2005, she went to  a five week program for people ages 15-25 at Berklee. She was 16 . She was already starting to think music was going to be her career.  But illness in the family kept her in LA until January 2009 when she finally transferred to Berklee from  Los Angeles Community College.

In the Boston area, FancyBaby™ overcame her fear of performing, and started taking songwriting more seriously. In 2010 she started experimenting with folk and country  songs, but by 2011 she had acquired the name FancyBaby™ and moved into more of a pop/rnb direction. She started doing songs with Young Illych in 2010, and most recently on the future single “Let Me Live My Life”. She has also collaborated a lot with Duane Henry, JTronius and Rox Ruger. Her single “Our Thang” is dropping February 14th. Follow her twitter at @iknowimfancy and check out her soundcloud.

2 Comments

  • What an inspirational story. Yashar Koach to Deborah Finebloom for telling us about it.

  • Hazel Jenkins

    To read a story like this is the best medicine for anyone. To read it on Tisha Ba’av gives us all hope because this is a very, very Israel story.

    I take my hat off to Roy, his family and his wonderful workers. We are planning to visit very, very soon.

    Sincerely,
    hazel

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Jewish Identity Sports LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    JNS.org – Influenced by his Jewish upbringing and a summer on a kibbutz, basketball coach David Blatt is embarking on his highest-profile challenge yet: coaching LeBron James, the four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player who has made waves for returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. After guiding Israel’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball franchise to its 51st Israeli league championship and 6th Euroleague title this past season, Blatt landed the Cavaliers head-coaching job in June. Just weeks later, [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    JNS.org – At the turn of the century, a young Jewish immigrant arrived in New York. So begins the history of many American Jewish families. It is 27-year-old Albert Allaham’s story, too, with a few unusual twists. Albert’s “century” is the 21st—he arrived almost 100 years after the massive waves of European Jewish immigration. Rather than coming from a small town along the Danube river, his shtetl was Damascus. His first American business was not a pushcart on the Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    Did you know that in the entire Bible, only one birthday is mentioned and it is that of Pharaoh? And did you know that according to some scientists, by accepting Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it is impossible to prove or disprove that the sun is the gravitational center of our solar system? In his new book, REBBE, best-selling author Joseph Telushkin reveals many surprising and sometimes shocking details as he chronicles the life and teachings of the charismatic Rabbi [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Mitzvos New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    JNS.org – Omelet sandwich: 5 shekels. Iced coffee: 5 shekels. Tuna sandwich: 5 shekels. Fresh-squeezed orange juice: 5 shekels. Cheese bureka: 5 shekels. There’s plenty more on the Cofizz menu, but you get the idea. Dani Mizrahi and Amir Amshalm, two Israeli men in their early 30s, asked themselves: Why not launch a take-out food joint in busy neighborhoods around Jerusalem where everything—and that means everything—goes for five shekels, or about $1.50. They’d seen the concept take off in Tel Aviv, where [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    The new FX Network drama Tyrant was shot entirely in Israel, just 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, Bloomberg News reported last Tuesday. Tyrant follows the life of an Arab dictator’s second son Barry, played by Adam Rayner, who reluctantly returns home to the Middle Eastern nation of his birth to join the family business away from his suburban life in America. The elaborate set production for the primetime drama included a crew of 300 and a reported cost of over $3 million [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Skokie, Il-born 25-year-old Erin Heatherton (Erin Heather Bubley) is rocking the modeling world. And in a new interview accompanying a cover spread for Miami’s Ocean Drive magazine, she says Jewish moms are “constantly trying to set her up with their sons.” Imagine that – who would have thought? “The moms, they’re doing what they do. It doesn’t matter what country they live in, what city – grandmothers, too,” she admitted. “But I’m probably going to do that too one day.” Heatherton was [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Israel First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    Some 15 Turkish university professors and lecturers will take part in a first of its kind seminar at Holocaust museum Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies starting next week. The trip is especially significant as Holocaust denial is rampant in the Arab world. A Palestinian professor was recently forced to resign after he led a trip to the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz. Participants in the week-long program at Yad Vashem will experience in-depth tours of the museum’s archives and [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music Guns N’ Roses Guitarist Rocks Solo Acoustic Version of Israeli National Anthem – Hatikva (VIDEO)

    Guns N’ Roses Guitarist Rocks Solo Acoustic Version of Israeli National Anthem – Hatikva (VIDEO)

    Ok, fans, question time. What do: Guns ‘n’ Roses shred-meister guitarist, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (aka Ronald Jay Blumenthal), “Hard Rock Hotel”, “Las Vegas” and Israel’s ”Hatikva” (The Hope) national anthem… all have in common? I know, you’re probably thinking, “Hmm, ‘One of these things is not like the other,’ would fit in here,” right? Um, no, turns out. Caught backstage by blogger Darren Garnick at the swanky Vegas gig in early June, Thal, acoustic guitar in hand, fretted out a sweetly melodic [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.