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30 Minutes With: Victor Schoenfeld

Victor Schoenfeld has been the Head Winemaker at Golan Heights Winery since 1992, where he’s spent time studying and understanding the terroir of northern Israel, building a groundbreaking vine propagation facility, and ultimately making wine that’s considered some of the best in Israel and in the world. Not bad for a guy who dropped out of high school.


When we think of Israel, it’s rarely wine that comes to mind (it’s usually Bar Refaeli, if you’re wondering). The so-called “start-up nation” is widely known for its innovation and growth in the high-tech sector, not winemaking — until 2012, anyway, when Golan Heights Winery won Wine Enthusiast magazine’s New World Winery of the Year award, besting vineyards from powerhouse companies like Argentina and Australia. Announcing the award, the magazine highlighted Golan Heights Winery’s use of “state-of-the-art equipment like vineyard meteorological stations and electro-conductivity soil scanning to aid in its viticultural success”. No surprise there.

The man who accepted the award was Victor Schoenfeld. He’s been Head Winemaker at Golan Heights Winery since 1992, where he’s spent time studying and understanding the terroir of northern Israel, building a groundbreaking vine propagation facility (to provide disease-resistant vine clones to his vineyards and others in Israel) and ultimately making wine that’s considered some of the best in Israel and in the world. Schoenfeld is a California native who worked for several big guns in his home state and at the Champagne house Jacquesson & Fils before joining Golan Heights Winery.

Not bad for a guy who dropped out of high school. He told us all about that and more when we met him at the winery for their 30th anniversary celebration.

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Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. Well, from my winemaker’s point of view, I’d say how to confidently open a bottle of wine. Unfortunately, many find this very simple task intimidating. First of all, you need a good corkscrew. If I had to settle for just one, it would be a Pulltap double-hinged waiter’s corkscrew. This is the only one that you need and will probably last a lifetime. You can find a nice one for under $10; now that’s money well spent!

Men also need to know how to correctly and confidently open a bottle of sparkling wine. Check out this video for a tutorial. Practice on a couple of cheaper bottles in private before going public.

Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Professionally, accept a very serious job for which I was underqualified. I knew it was sink or swim and that the results might have far-reaching effects on my life. That was 22 years ago, when I took the job I still have to this day. Luckily, I swam. Little did I know this was the start of a long journey that would only get more fun and interesting as time went by.

Personally, wait for my wife. She had a medical emergency and was rushed to the hospital. I accompanied her the whole way up to the door of the operating room. They told me they would try to save her life, that it would probably take an hour, and then showed me to a waiting room. It took closer to one and a half hours. She lived. That last half hour was especially tough.

Q. What are you working on right now?
A. We’re about to bottle the barrel-aged wines from vintage 2011, are topping up the 2012 in barrels, and are getting prepared for the upcoming vintage 2013. Our goal is to make better wines every year. Being glorified farmers, we tend to be shoved around by nature at her will, which makes this goal always challenging. But we have been working on several projects with experts from around the world that are now coming together. This is an exciting time, and we really feel that the quality of our wines will be increasing even more in the coming years. One cool new toy for the upcoming harvest that should have an immediate and significant impact is optical grape sorting, which will replace very tedious hand sorting.

I couldn’t live without at least one of my six grills (if I get another one, my wife just may divorce me).

Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. I couldn’t live without at least one of my six grills (if I get another one, my wife just may divorce me). If I had to settle for one, it would be a Weber Performer, which uses gas to light the charcoal. Authentic and easy! There is nothing like food cooked over (or next to) natural wood charcoal.

I love to cook, which I find therapeutic. Making wine is a long-term endeavor, and if you are going to get a great wine in the end, you have to be very focused on all the endless myriad details of its making over years. With cooking, I see what high-quality products I can find, and get right to it, without recipes, going by taste. Cooking for family and friends is one of the major ways I express my love to people I care about.

Q: Who or what influences you?
A: Humble people doing extraordinary things. I have been lucky enough to work with a number of inspiring winemakers who exemplify this over the years. But really, inspiring people are all around. My wife, juggling the raising of two energetic boys with her medical practice; on top of that, she plays the “country doctor” in our rural hamlet, addressing the medical concerns of neighbors, their families and even (I kid you not) their pets. She is always ready with a moment and a smile. Or my niece and her husband, lovingly raising their kids, including a special needs child. Or my brother, a widower with four children, who, over a long tough period, somehow dealt with his wife’s cancer, their children and his own business, never giving in to defeat. These people are all doing the extraordinary, though they would be the last to say so. Cynicism and complacency are foreign concepts to them. To me, they are all true heroes.

The other big influence for me is geography: climate, soil and topography. Good wine should be an expression of a certain place, including the people involved in its making. I have been exploring — in many different ways — our wine growing area for over two decades. I feel as we become more intimate together, the wines can better reflect this spot on the planet. What’s for sure is this: I never imagined when I started that the potential for high quality wine here is so great. Today, I am more optimistic about the potential wine quality of our region than I was 20 years ago.

Q. What are you reading right now?
A. Haruki Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun. I am a big fan of Murakami. Literary fiction is my normal read, though I also get a couple of food magazines and like to browse our quite large collection of cookbooks.

Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. I dropped out of high school (though I later completed a university winemaking degree at UC Davis).

Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. Very, very tough. I love food (which includes wine). My outlook is that you have a finite number of meals in your life and it is a sin to waste them. That said, I don’t really have a single favorite food.

I guess I would pick one of the best restaurants on the planet and have a very long tasting menu. The menu would have to be varied enough to pair with it a long list of wines. I would like a group of close family and friends with me. The group should be small enough so we could all talk as a single group at times, but big enough for a bit of noise. I would certainly look for a festive atmosphere, a celebration of life.

Another possibility could be to dine at one of Japan’s best kaiseki cuisine restaurants and be carried to eternity on a cloud of exotic flavor and visual stimuli. Of course, while I would be happy to drink green tea (genmaicha preferably), sake and shochu, I would still have to insist at least on some great Champagne.

Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. To tell you the truth, I am doubtful I would listen to me. What would I tell myself? I don’t think I would like to know in advance that I was going to be extremely lucky in life, finding love and a career that I would trade with no other. I guess I would try telling myself to savor more of the road to reaching my goals, and to be a bit less focused on the final destination.

Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. As a good family man, a nice guy, a gentleman, a lover of life and somebody who made damn good wine that helped Israel become recognized as an outstanding wine producing country.

Learn more about Victor’s work at Golan Heights Winery at golanwines.co.il.

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