It all started when - prompted by intuition - I planted a small vineyard on a hilltop beside my home in the Judean Hills next to Jerusalem. The year was 1988 and four years later, we crushed our first Cabernet and Merlot in an empty stable next to the chicken shed (in retrospect we can say today that it was not a “garage wine” but a “stable wine”!) We aged the wine for 24 months in two Seguin Moreau new French oak barrels and by the spring of 1995 it was bottled. Everything had been done to the very highest standards and even the corks were the best that money could buy. A name was chosen – CASTEL – after a nearby Crusader fortress. A beautiful etching of the vineyard and the house by my friend the Jerusalem artist Arie Azene was used for the label and, with typical Israeli chutzpa, I called it a "Grand Vin" – just to let everyone know that a lot of effort had been put into making this wine. At this point in time, we had not yet thought of making a second wine. I coined an appellation by translating "Judean Hills" into "Haute-Judée.
Friends agreed that it was "a great wine", but friends being friends,
I was not convinced. When journalist Dallia Penn-Lerner kindly suggested taking a bottle to a real expert – Serena Sutcliffe MW, Head of Sotheby's Wine Department, London – I accepted readily as I felt that I had nothing to lose.
Her response was stunning...
Thank you for bringing over that fantastic 1992 made by Mr. Ben-Zaken. I tried it with my husband, David Peppercorn (also a MW) and we both thought it absolutely terrific. It is quite unlike other Israeli wines and
does not have any of those "cooked" and "herbaceous" flavours that I am afraid are prevalent in Israeli reds. This wine is a real tour de force, brilliantly made and very "classic". Please give him our congratulations.
I hope others take the hint and learn how to do it. I wonder if his vineyard is at some altitude. He also must have just the right clones and root stocks. Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to know this wine.
With all best wishes,
London, 15th August,1995
It was like receiving a fax from the Almighty!
When I planted the small vineyard next to the house and made the first vintages I had no ambition or dream to become seriously involved in the wine business. Serena’s letter changed all that. We have become friends and I always remind her that she is responsible for what has since followed. I like to say that she is the godmother of Domaine du Castel.
Since then, more vineyards have been planted, the chicken shed has become a winery and cellars were excavated in the rock below.
Ariel went to Burgundy for two years to learn about wine making, and my son-in-law Arnon Geva abandoned insurance for the more prosaic and wholesome life of a vine grower.
The stage had been set for a new future and great expectations.