Harvesting World Class Grapes in Israel

Eli Gilbert Ben-Zaken, the founder of Domaine du Castel, one of the world's most prominent wineries, had a gut feeling that Monday was the perfect time to harvest his grapes.

"I imagine a lot of the smaller wineries are harvesting with a scientific method and not a gut feeling. But, we are definitely operating under a gut instinct," Ben-Zaken told ABCNews.com. "The decision of the day of the harvest is so important. It's irreversible and it's going to be what you're getting for the next two years."

On that gut feeling, about 45 students, Israeli soldiers and Thai workers woke up at 3 a.m. to handpick the ripe grapes at Ben-Zaken's kosher winery in the Judean Hills in Moshav Ramat Raziel, just west of Jerusalem.

The harvesters, who typically wake up at 6 a.m. and work until the late afternoon or evening, represent a broad swath of cultural backgrounds all coming together to produce the kosher wine.

"Today is special," Thai worker, Phuwanai Sriboran, 46, told ABCNews.com.

Having grown up in Thailand working closely with sugar cane and rice, Sriboran came to Israel three-and-a-half years ago to make more money for his family.

"I didn't only come to live on a Kibbutz and for the landscape and the view," he said. "I want to learn about the culture in Israel."

Wine From Biblical to Modern Times

Sriboran doesn't have to venture far from the vineyard to have a cultural experience. The winery is located on the same hills that produced wine in biblical times.

"The wine that was made here thousands of years ago was made to be drunk at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem," Ben-Zaken said. "I don't know exactly what kind of wine they were making, but to make a wine in the same area that is being spoken of in the Bible we can see such a strong link."

More than just a connection to the past, Ben-Zaken explains that Israel's ability to produce world-class wines also speaks to the state's modern, sophisticated culture.

"It's not just the wine itself that can be appreciated," he said. "It shows that this country is not just about suicide bombers and terror, but that it understands culture. It shows a different side of the country."

Global Hesitance Shrinking

While Ben-Zaken acknowledges that wine critics have been especially good for Castel wine, he hopes to see all Israeli wine receive global recognition. In 2003, he organized the first Israeli international wine tasting, bringing together 18 Israeli wines for the global community to try together.

"I feel like I am part of a team," he said. "I don't think Castel can do it by itself. I want to show the world that it's not a flop that just one winery can do it. Now they know it's not, and now they have something to talk about -- Israel."

By drawing attention to Israel's successful wine production, Ben-Zaken believes that the global hesitance to buy Israeli wine is diminishing.

"First, our reputation when we started producing wine was that there was a political prejudice," he explained. "Second, people were reluctant to buy Israeli wine because a lot of people say, 'desert' or 'camels' when they think of Israel, and they didn't know that we were growing grapes."

Tough Climate Good for Grapes

Vineyard manager Marc Sarrabia agrees that the Mediterranean climate could seem unforgiving. The clay land and lack of rain are not the best conditions for every farmer, he says.

But, in the case of growing grapes, he says it is for the best.

"From Shavuot until Sukkot, it does not rain at all. So, we are in perfect control of irrigation and nutrition," Sarrabia told ABCNews.com.

"In France, there are good years and bad years. It rains there in the summer and too much water dilutes the taste," Sarrabia said. "Even though it's more difficult because of the poor land in Israel, it's good for us that we can control everything."

The high-density planting encourages grape vines to compete with each other, which ensures high-quality grapes are produced, Ben-Zaken says.

Domaine du Castel is the only Israeli winery to use this "Old World" approach, which is favored by leading wineries worldwide.

Castel has been recognized repeatedly on an international level and is compared to the best French wines.

"We don't make our wines for the critics," Ben-Zaken said. "But, we are very proud that this is where we are. My goal is that I hope in 20 years time all the professional wine tasters will say in a blind tasting we know this wine style and we know where it's from."