BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) -- In a valley between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Palestinians are using native grapes to make fine wines at the site of an ancient church. And after decades of focusing on local sales, the Cremisan Winery and Monastery is offering visitors a unique experience that combines wine and history, stressing peaceful outreach amid the region's turmoil.
Italian monks began making wine at Cremisan in 1885, and archaeological evidence shows that wine was first made in the area thousands of years ago. The current monastery was built on the site of a seventh-century Byzantine church.
For over a century, Cremisan quietly offered modestly priced wine to Christians and Jews of the region. But sales fell off after the Palestinian uprising of 2000 and related Israeli security crackdowns, and the monk who had been in charge of winemaking for decades became ill. For a time the winery's future seemed in doubt.
About 10 years ago "there were lots of problems, truthfully," said Della Shenton, Cremisan's distributor in the United Kingdom. But things began to improve in 2008 when Riccardo Cotarella, one of Italy's most respected winemakers, made a long-term commitment to help Cremisan. Cotarella focused on the unique local grapes of the region -- hamdani and jandali white grapes, instead of chardonnay, and red wine made from baladi asmar, not merlot.
"Now I see a tremendous difference," Shenton said. "I've seen the quality improve enormously." Last year the famous London restaurant Ottolenghi -- co-owned by an Israeli and a Palestinian -- chose Cremisan's Star of Bethlehem hamdani-jandali blend as its wine of the month, and the same wine drew praise from Jancis Robinson, author of "The Oxford Companion to Wine" and other books.
On a mid-September afternoon a tour bus with visitors from England arrived at Cremisan, and some Norwegians arrived by cab. All were greeted by three young Palestinian Christians who are working to preserve the historic winemaking culture, which employs many local people.
One of the English visitors was impressed. "It's smooth and it's dry, and it is a quality wine. It's surprisingly good," said Andrew Strachan.
A key part of Cremisan's long-term plan was turning the winemaking over to local Palestinians. Winemaker Laith Kokaly, 29, from the nearby community of Beit Jala, said his grandfather made wine at home, and many local Christians have a similar heritage. Fadi Batarseh, 24, from east Jerusalem, is now Cremisan's agricultural specialist, and another young man from Bethlehem is helping with marketing. Kokaly and Batarseh each spent three years in Italy studying winemaking, with support from Cotarella and the Silesians.
Visitors to Cremisan also get a glimpse of what the region looked like in ancient times. Stone terraces, vineyards and olive trees that are hundreds of years old line the hillside, and one garden features ancient wine and oil presses that were found nearby.
The winery also dispels some preconceptions about the Middle East. Local Palestinian Christians and Muslims work together in the vineyards and have for decades, and Cremisan's longest-serving employee is Muslim (he doesn't drink). The winery profits help fund programs for orphans and other local youth.
But Mideast politics have intruded, too. Church groups around the world opposed an Israeli plan to expand a separation barrier across the end of the valley, saying it will cut 58 families off from their ancestral farmland. After years of dispute the case went all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, and construction started in August. Israel says it is needed for security.
The winery workers are focusing on peaceful outreach. They now have an American distributor for the first time, a new gift shop, and a new Facebook page (Cremisan Wine Estates) with phone and email contact information.
If You Go...
CREMISAN WINERY AND MONASTERY: Located a 15-minute taxi ride from central Jerusalem and less from Bethlehem (negotiate fares in advance, and check security in surrounding areas during times of turmoil). Cremisan can also help arrange for pickup from area hotels. The gift shop is open Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., and on Saturday it closes at 11:45 a.m. Most of the wines cost about 33 Israeli shekels, the equivalent of $8 to $9. Cremisan also produces aged brandy, altar wine and olive oil.
Individuals or groups who want a full winery tour should call at least two or three days in advance. By request groups may also be able to meet one of the Silesian monks at the Monastery to hear about their mission.