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...

  • Book Reviews Personalities How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    JNS.org – What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live? Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater 10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    Last month, my one-man show Hoaxocaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey with the generous assistance of the Institute for Political and International Studies, Tehran ran in the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won an Overall Excellence Award. The play has now been selected to run in the Fringe Encores Series at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center, for four performances which started on Thursday, September 11. Getting the play to the stage was not easy, however. Here are [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Phenomenon: Tel Aviv-based musician and “sampler” extraordinaire, Kutiman (aka Ophir Kutiel) has hit another one out of the park with “Give It Up,” a fully-functioning song in its own right, assembled from hundreds of ameteur and instructional music videos. The Jerusalem-born musical prodigy is best know for his diverse online musical projects. In the latest video, uploaded to YouTube on Sept. 12th, Kutiel thanked most of the musicians and individuals he chose to include in the meticulously-edited clip, which opens with [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    A recently released behind-the-scenes reel of Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings shows just how far the director has gone to portray one of the Bible’s most famous narratives. In the clip, which shows scenes involving up to 4,000 extras, the visionary director discusses what drew him to the biblical tale of Moses. “The Moses story was a massive challenge, which I really love. I wanted to explore the complexity of his character and I was stunned by [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    JNS.org – Since 2006, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable and satellite TV network has hosted “The Projected Image,” a month-long showcase examining how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed on the big screen. At last, after previously covering African Americans, Asians, the LGBT community, Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, and people with disabilities, the annual series is delving into Jewish film this month. “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film,” whose first segment aired Sept. 2, runs [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    The sight of young girls in pinafores and young boys wearing peyos – sidelocks – dangling over their ears is a sure sign that you have entered the enigmatic precincts of the Hasidim – the pious ones. Veteran New York Times journalist Joseph Berger’s new book, THE PIOUS ONES: The World of Hasidim and their Battles with America, takes the reader on a journey into the enclaves where various sects of Jews live a seemingly outmoded way of life in [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    JNS.org – Today’s comedy superstars, especially those whose careers are driven by television, may very well owe their success to pioneering Jewish entertainer Milton Berle. Born Mendel Berlinger in Manhattan in 1908, Berle became America’s first small-screen star. Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Television,” he influenced and helped promote the work of hundreds of younger comics. “Milton Berle was deceptively successful and very Jewish,” says Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, published the year [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    JNS.org – Idan Ravin’s friends chipped in to buy him a humble but life-changing bar mitzvah gift—a basketball hoop his father attached to the roof of his garage. Little did his friends know that years later, he would be the personal trainer of National Basketball Association (NBA) stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and Stephen Curry. Ravin’s new book, “The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Head of Basketball’s Best Players,” details his rise from a Jewish upbringing [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.