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Wine and Churches of the Jerusalem Hills

As a recent Jewish immigrant to Israel and wine consultant, I tend to focus my own sojourns on sites that have more to do with the history of the Jewish people and the local wine industry. Yet, Christian shrines do  intrigue me and they have a significant place within the history of Israel and are an important part of the landscape in this land. Consequently, when I recently  had the opportunity to tour some of the Christian holy sites and wineries for Travelujah, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about Chrisitan holy sites in Israel.


castel winery

Domaine du Castel Vineyards; photo courtesy Travelujah


Within a fifteen minute drive southwest  of Israel’s ancient & modern capitol, Jerusalem, we  stopped first at the Church of John the Baptist in the lovely village  of Ein Karem. This ancient site is thought to be where Jesus’s most influential disciple was born and raised in the house of his parents Zachariah and Elizabeth. Initially a Byzantine church was built on the site in the fourth century as a tribute to St Elizabeth before being destroyed in the seventh century by conquering Muslim hordes from the Arabian peninsula.


Church of John the Baptist

Church of St. John the Baptist, Ein Karem, photo courtesy David Rhodes for Travelujah


The church would be rebuilt in the 16th century and survive under more tolerant Ottoman governors until today although signs of its ancient and older origins are evident to the trained eye or one listening to a trained guide. There is a vibrant neighborhood surrounding the church in Jerusalem’s outskirts so its a nice area to dine for lunch or, as we did, partake in some of Israel’s many amazing boutique ice cream and gourmet chocolate shops.


After soaking in the site and its tranquility, a welcome respite for anyone living and working in the hustle and bustle of modern Israel, we carried on to one of Israel’s most celebrated boutique wineries, Domaine du Castel, one of the first and one of the brightest stars in Israel’s recent renaissance of its resurgent wine industry. The Castel Winery, as its also called, was founded in 1992 by Egyptian born and European educated Eli Ben Zaken on what was then a family farm which raised chickens. The almost immediate success and recognition his wine was something special had him suspend his poultry production in 1996 and from then when he was producing about 2,000 bottles his winery now employs his two sons and daughter and now produces about 100,000 bottles a year of highly desirable and expertly crafted wine. It is  one of the most internationally recognized Israeli wineries producing principally three wines, two premium Bordeaux red blends and a Chardonnay and is often on most wine writer’s list as one of the top ten wineries in Israel and frequently mentioned as either the top one or two.  Having written hundreds of articles about Israeli wine, when asked, Castel is always one of the wineries I mention as a favorite and it has been a benchmark for other aspiring Israeli boutique wineries to emulate for the last twenty years.


One such aspiring boutique is the Nachshon Winery, in the Ayalon Valley, located on Kibbutz Nachshon. This winery is still in its early stages and is currently making about 10,000 bottles of year although the kibbutz, a communal farm, grows most of its grapes for Israel’s 2nd largest winery and its largest exporter Barkan. They’re still finding their way but are showing promise experimenting with both red blends, which made `Castel famous, and with single varietal wines such a Cabernet Franc, a promising Bordeaux varietal, that about 20 wineries have released in the last ten years as an alternative to more typical Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot offerings.


Another interesting stop in the region, Emmaus Nicropolis, is situated djacent to the ancient hot springs for which is was named (which

have since dried up).  

The site is considered by some to be where Jesus’s apparition was first sighted after he was to have been resurrected on Easter three days after his crucifixion on Good Friday. The sprawling grounds and church were a serene respite for anyone out in about in Israel the week before the week celebrating Passover, the celebration of ending 400 years of bondage in Egypt and the Jewish people returning to Israel after 40 years in the wilderness.


All in all, the excursion was a welcome reminder of not only what I and other Jews value about Israel, or why I and other wine lovers are applauding Israeli winemakers but why such a small country like Israel is on the minds of so many in the Western world, Jews and Christians alike.


If you go:

Castel Winery – +972 2 534 22 49  – visit by appointment

Nachshon Winery – Friday 09:00-15:00 and Saturday 10 – 5 pm  08 -927-8641

Church of St. John the Baptist in Ein Karem- Monday through Friday and Sunday 8:30 – 12 and 2:30- 5, closed on Saturday,

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David Rhodes is a local wine expert and writes regularly for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours, the leading Christian social network focused on travel to the Hoily Land. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.


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