He has three degrees from Hebrew University in Plant Sciences, and his doctorate explores the resistance of plants to drought and salinity. But what Dr. Shivi Drori of Ariel University really loves is wine. Yes, he likes to drink it too, but he especially loves researching it and learning all about it.
Dr. Drori’s research, conducted in the Mount Efraim and Binyamin regions, is considered revolutionary and is arousing much attention in Israel and internationally. The interest is because of its importance both scholastically and practically, and for a pretty fantastical reason too: his studies could allow us to drink the wine that King David once drank.
How does a person become a wine researcher? Why is the research conducted specifically in Mount Efraim and Binyamin? And which wines does a man who studies wine from morning to night love best? We sat down with Dr. Drori to talk about wine and research.
The Next Generation of Winemakers: Biotechnology Engineers
Dr. Drori, how did you become involved in researching wine, of all things?
At first, I wasn’t specifically focusing on grapes and wine. My doctorate was about mechanisms that help plants survive in conditions of drought and salinity. At the same time, I was also a farmer, and I have a winery. When I finished my academic studies, I decided to focus on the field of grapes and wine, which had always captivated me.
What’s so captivating about grapes and wine?
In the past, there were many grape crops in the Land of Israel, but there is very little research on the subject. I decided that it was important to academically research the topic, especially because the Land of Israel possesses unique temperature conditions in comparison with Europe, for example. There is also an entire history of wine here that was never studied seriously.
I need to understand this – there’s an academic degree in wine? Where do I sign up?
Wine studies are learned as part of the degree in Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. The first class just graduated recently. This is a four-year program that the students complete as biotechnology engineers with a specialization in wine. There are students who came to Ariel University specifically to specialize in this field, since it is a brand-new degree.
What do students learn in this intoxicating program?
They will learn botany in depth, and then specifically learn about vineyards: how grapes are grown and the optimal conditions for producing top-quality grapes. They will become familiar with all of the European and international varieties of grapes used in Israel. In addition, they will learn about wine technologies. Afterward, they learn about the chemistry and microbiology of wine, the analysis involved in wine tasting, equipment used for producing wine and how to develop innovative equipment.
Sounds very lab-based. Do they also get to work “in the field” at some point?
Yes. At the end of their third year, they will intern during the summer months at various wineries throughout Israel and outside of the country. We have an arrangement with a European university for our top students to pursue in-depth study of the international situation at wineries overseas. Of course, we also have the experimental vineyard.
“Why Specifically Here? Because the Ancient Grape Varieties are Here”
What’s an Experimental Vineyard?
An experimental vineyard is a vineyard that is set up for research purposes only. In it, we study grape irrigation, for example, and the affects of climate. We also have an experimental winery that produces wine for research purposes. The winery produces wine in very small quantities: between 2-50 kilo. The winery supports the research performed in the vineyard.
What kind of experiments do you do?
For example, if we want to check what impact increased or decreased irrigation has on the wine itself in a certain region, we can check that. Our experimental winery produces more than two hundred experimental wines. There is definitely a demand for this type of research. Today, there are a few other vineyards of this type in Israel.
Why was the first experimental vineyard established specifically in the Ariel region?
First of all, my research involves ancient varieties of grapes from the Land of Israel. In this region, there are many vineyards and many ancient grape varieties. In addition, the experimental vineyard was planted on Mount Efraim, on mountainous soil in terraced fields. It’s a region that is not utilized for agriculture today. The vineyard allows us to learn all about growing grapes in mountainous regions and climates. But above all: what could be better than studying wine that comes from the very same soil in which our ancestors prepared wine for the Temple?
The Ancient Wine Industry: Where Did All the Ancient Grapes Go?
Why does such an effort need to be made to find ancient varieties – are they no longer in use?
Yes, exactly. Today, if you look at the industry, the ancient varieties of the Land of Israel are no longer used. Instead, everyone uses European or other international varieties.
Why did the industry stop using those ancient varieties?
It seems that the Muslim prohibition against drinking wine influenced the growth of vineyards here. The wine industry came to a halt and those varieties were abandoned. They still grow wild here, in their natural environments, but farmers no longer use them. The focus of my work is to bring them back into use.
What needs to be done for that to happen?
First of all, those varieties need to be found and identified, and then we need to check which of them are suitable for producing wine. Not every grape can produce good wine. Today, we’ve already managed to identify about seventy grape varieties that are unique to the Land of Israel, and there are even a few vineyards in Israel that have already started making wine out of these varieties.
An Experimental Vineyard of International Caliber: “The New York Times and CNN Covered My Research”
Does your research interest people in this field around the world, or only in Israel?
If you Google my name, you’ll find an article about my research in the New York Times, which is as high as you can go in terms of popularity. CNN also covered my research on Christmas, which is definitely prime time.
Why do you think researchers worldwide are so curious to hear about your research?
The Land of Israel has a rich history of wine production, as well as a rich history for religious reasons. Many people would like to be able to drink the same wine that King David or Jesus drank. I can definitely understand the curiosity and interest.
What other interesting agricultural research is underway in Ariel?
We have many different studies going on. For example, we are studying the health benefits of wine. There are studies about irrigating vineyards in Israel: you need to make sure that you’re not irrigating too much, but still ensure that the grapes are good enough for wine production. We are also studying what can be done with the waste that is left over after the fermentation process, which is currently thrown away. We think that it can be used to produce dietary supplements that can assist with weight loss, and more.
All of these studies involve wine. Do you also study other produce?
We do spend a significant amount of time studying medicinal herbs and developing dietary supplements. For example, we were involved in a study to develop a supplement made out of Sarcopoterium spinosum (Rosaceae), for the treatment of diabetes.
“As the Start-Up Nation, Israel could be a Leader in Wine Innovation”
What will wine research look like fifty years from now?
We are learning, on one hand, about the ancient methods and grape varieties, while also working on the different effects that technology can have on wine, such as a wine robot, the wine smoking process and more. Israel, as the nation of innovation, could be an industry leader in wine innovation.
What will Ariel University look like in fifty years?
The campus in Ariel has doubled itself over the past ten years. I have no doubt that in fifty years from now, the faculty will grow significantly, as will the number of students. Today, it is the youngest university, and it’s just getting started.
To conclude – just between the two of us, what’s your favorite type of wine?
That’s a hard question, almost like asking which child I like best! I really like Pinot Noir, although it’s not very common in Israel. A mature Chardonnay that sat in the barrels for a nice amount of time is also good. I’m also fond of special varieties that have recently become more popular, like Dolcetto and others.
Why are Merlot and Cabernet so popular at bars and in shops in Israel?
The main reason is because they sell. Cabernet and Merlot are already well-known types of wine. But there are very interesting wines produced from other varieties. The public is slowly opening up to other options. I actually prefer blends – Cabernet or Merlot combined with other varieties, not on their own. The blends are more balanced. It’s good to experiment and look for those new and interesting tastes on the shelves.
Dr. Shivi Drori is an interesting person pursuing the best of both worlds – searching for the ancient grape varieties of our ancestors while always on the lookout for new types of innovation. It’s already too late for me to pursue a degree in wine, but I’m most definitely waiting for my invitation to taste King David’s wine…