(First published in Norwegian 11 Sept 2008)
By Erik Hagen
On the lists of Norway’s state-owned Wine and Spirits Monopoly (Vinmonopolet) you can find Gamla Cabernet Sauvignon red wine from 2004. The wine is the only Israeli wine on the list. It is supposed to be good with cattle, lamb, and cheese and is supposed to be produced in Galilee. On the state store’s shelf it is nicely marked with a waving Israeli flag.
“Could you help by telling me where this wine is from?” Norwatch is at the cash register in a state store in Oslo.
“It is from Israel,” the registry lady answers helpfully.
But the wine is actually not from Israel. It is from Syria – that part of Syria that was occupied by Israel in 1967.
The Golan Heights are occupied by Israel. Neither Norway nor other countries have recognised the annexation, which is contrary to international law. Israel has let its own citizens settle on occupied land, remain there for generations, and start trade and industry in areas that have belonged to people who have been driven away from their place of origin. In this manner the conflict over the Golan Heights is becoming constantly more deadlocked and constantly more difficult to resolve.
The wine at the state store was bottled precisely there. The photo below, obtained from Google Earth, shows the wine plant on the Golan Heights.
A few years ago, when it became known in the Swedish media that Sweden imports such wine, there was a stir.
Now Norwatch has discovered that wine from the same producer can be found at Vinmonopolet’s stores.
“The Wholesaler Is to Blame”
Halvor Bing Lorentzen, communications leader at Vinmonopolet, said that they have had the wine for a few years and that it can be obtained from the so-called order catalogue – a selection of 9000 products that are not available at their stores but which customers may order.
He pointed out that some stores stock the wine on their shelves if there is local interest in it.
“The wine is from Golan. Is it correct to call this Israel?”, Norwatch asked.
“There is no doubt that Golan is an area occupied by Israel. But we use the information the wholesaler has provided,” Bing Lorentzen said.
He further related that the wine is listed under “other red wine” in the order catalogue. Here it is listed with wine from other small wine countries, such as Brazil and Switzerland. But here too it is labelled “Galilee, Israel”.
“Does Vinmonopolet have a responsibility to its customers to label correctly?”
“Yes, even though it is the wholesaler who has labelled it as Israeli, we also have a responsibility for the contents of the lists.”
The wine is kosher – that is, prepared by means of special Jewish dietary practice.
The communications leader does not know whether there are other kosher wines that Vinmonopolet could import instead. “It is possible that they are to be found on the market but that they have not been offered to us,” he said.
The product is from a village called Katzrin, on the Golan Heights. Both the grapevines and the production plant are located in the area that was occupied in 1967.
These higher areas have a lower average temperature than other parts of the region, which makes it easier to raise good grapes precisely here. The wine producer on the Golan Heights has thus grown to become the most important exporter and producer for Israel.
True, not many bottles find their way to Norway. On Vinmonopolet’s web pages it can be seen that they have altogether 50 bottles in stock, spread around at six stores, from Kristiansand in the south to Trondheim in the north.
Figures from Statistics Norway confirm that the import of wine from Israel generally has been very limited. From January to July 2008 the total registered import of wine from Israel amounted to 2250 euros. In 2007 it was 4870 euros, whereas in the period 2004-2006 it fluctuated between 2000 and 3200 euros yearly.
Swedes Erased the Problem
Vinmonopolet told Norwatch that they can not exclude the possibility that they will now consider the same solution as in Sweden.
The Swedish state-owned wine and spirits monopoly (Systembolaget) also carries wine from the same producer at Golan. But in Sweden they have arrived at an unusual way of solving part of the incorrect labelling. The country of origin has quite simply been removed.
In contrast to all other wines that Systembolaget sells, the Golan wines are labelled without country of origin on the lists and shelves of the state stores. And the wine district is classified as “other origins”.
At Systembolaget, in other words, all references to Israel have been removed from the wine lists’ entry of the actually “Syrian” wines. This has also been done in the Internet lists.
See the two Golan wines imported by Sweden here: Yarden Mount Hermon Re d and Yarden Chardonnay.
In 2006 Systembolaget had stated in their lists that the wines were from an “Israel-occupied Syrian area”, but after a storm of protest from the wine’s customer group in Sweden, they chose to solve the problem by removing all reference to the production country.
“Most have more or less silently accepted this solution. We did this so that everyone would be satisfied,” Bjõrn Rydberg, press secretary at Systembolaget, told Norwatch.
Vinmonopolet’s Bing Lorentzen brought this up as a possible solution to the problem for Norway.
“This could be something we should consider. But as of today the product is labelled as coming from Golan.”
The importer for Scandinavia is Amka Vinimport in Denmark, and the distributor is Vectura AS.
Norwatch has this week written that it is possible that the importers can be exempted from customs duty on goods from occupied Palestinian areas if they are labelled as being Israeli. Even though the Gamla red wine is incorrectly labelled as Israeli, no cheating on customs is involved. The import of wine to Norway is in fact duty-free, no matter from what country or area in the world it is imported.