Gold in the glass

Gold in the glass

Local entrepreneurs start agave operation in the Negev

ON THE COVER:  Academic horticulturalist Ana Valenzuela, who specializes in agave, stands in Ben Gurion University’s Sde Boker campus garden with a species of locally grown agave. (Negave Estates)
ON THE COVER: Academic horticulturalist Ana Valenzuela, who specializes in agave, stands in Ben Gurion University’s Sde Boker campus garden with a species of locally grown agave. (Negave Estates)

It’s not as if many people would look at an agave plant growing in the desert and think “I know! Let’s cut down the plant, take out the heart” — that’s the piña — “cook it, do some other stuff that I haven’t figured out yet, and we’ll have tequila!”

It’s safe to say that few people would do that.

But somehow, a very long time ago, in Mexico, someone did figure out how to make the spirit known as tequila from an agave. The romantic origin story — and maybe it’s true — is that a bolt of lightning struck an agave, hit the piña, and cooked it, and a bolt of metaphorical lightning, mirroring the physical one, gave observers a very smart idea.

By law, the spirit called tequila can come only from a few places in Mexico.

But agave plants can grow in other deserts. There are other deserts in the world, other places with similar — but not exactly the same, never exactly the same, and that’s a good thing because that allows for the magic — soil, aridity, light, mystery, and other specifics and intangibles.

From left: Fitz Haney, Amanda Parness, and David Niewood, on a visit to Mexico, stand by a pile of harvested agave piñas that are destined for cooking autoclaves at Casa Aceves’ distillery. (All photos courtesy Negave Estates)

That means that while a spirit formally labeled tequila must come from Mexico, other spirits made from the heart of the agave, but instilled and distilled with the specifics of its own place of creation — its terroir — can be made elsewhere.

It can be made in the Negev.

That information came as welcome news to a group of six entrepreneurs and funders, all friends, who either belong to Kehilat Kesher in Englewood now, or used to belong there before they made aliyah. They’re all fervent Zionists, lovers of Israel, and they’re also fond of good food and fine wines.

The group decided to develop an agave business in Israel’s Negev, very close to the border with Gaza. When the state of Israel was recognized in 1948, there was an agave business there, the brainchild of the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. After initial success it had withered, but still it’s clear that the Negev is a good place to grow agave.

The group founded the company it calls Negave Estates about a year ago; it’s growing plants, building a distillery, and plans to release its first batch of spirits —  with plants grown elsewhere, because it takes at least five or six years for the first agave plants to be ready to yield their hearts — next year.

Hamas’ acts of medieval brutality on October 7 happened very close to Negave, but it only strengthened the founders’ resolve to keep going.

American, Mexican, and Israeli Negave-makers Jeremy Kaufthal, Amanda Parness, Antonio Lopez, Ana Maria Romero Mena, Mike Ward, and Jose Aceves stand together in Jerusalem.

Recently, three of Negave Estate’s founders — Amanda Parness and David Polinsky, who both live in Englewood now, and David Niewood, who lived there for two decades but moved back to his native Israel — talked about the company on Zoom.

Ms. Parness, who grew up in Teaneck, spent decades working in private equity before she started her own firm, “which focuses on helping small companies,” she said. “This company couldn’t have come about without her know-how that she got from working with hundreds of startups, maybe even thousands of them,” Mr. Polinsky said.

Mr. Polinsky is a lawyer and financial expert who’s also worked with dozens of startups and specializes in biotechnology and food service, among other less relevant fields. “David is a polymath and a serial entrepreneur,” Mr. Niewood said.

Mr. Niewood, whom Mr. Polinsky calls the driving force behind Negave Estates and is a dual American/Israeli citizen who now is living in Israel, is using his vast experience in business to make sure Negave Estates moves forward. He’s a founding board member, and he’s also the CEO.

“David is one of the greatest entrepreneurs I’ve come across,” Mr. Polinsky said. “His unbelievable passion is what got me inspired.” There are two pressing reasons to be involved with Negave Estates — “support for Israel and love for tequila. And David’s passion for it is incredible.

David Niewood, left, hosts members of the Negave team and its advisory board at a restaurant in Jerusalem.

“He eats, breathes, drinks everything to do about Israel.”

Negave Estates is a startup that has had to start from the very beginning.

Israel doesn’t allow plants to be imported to Israel, so the company is working from plant tissue that comes from Mexico, Ms. Parness said. That’s legal. The tissue eventually becomes seedlings, and then they’re planted.

“We’ve been really fortunate in getting some great experts on our advisory board,” she said. They include Ana Maria Romero Mena. “She’s known as the nose of the industry; she’s a former sommelier who has created a lot of prizewinning tequilas,” Mr. Polinsky said. “The incredibly influential tequila taste wheel is hers, and we were incredibly lucky to get her.

“She’s a master teacher of tequila makers; she’s a grandmother, approaching her late 60s, and she’s been working for decades,” Ms. Parness said. “This is a very technical process. And there are many environmental issues. There are toxic byproducts when the leaves are burned — the carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere. We are trying to act responsibly and sustainably,” so they’re working with scientists to find ways to contain those byproducts. Also, the agave plants in Mexico are cloned, so it’s a monoculture. That’s hard to sustain. The Israeli program hopes to change that.

“Fitz” — that’s Fitz Haney, another member of the board, the former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica who made aliyah from Englewood a few years ago — “and I were in Mexico, and Ana Maria’s students kept coming over to talk to her. To learn from her.

Members of the Negave team are at a vineyard of the winemaker Domain du Castel, near Jerusalem.

“She is Catholic, and deeply religious, and she told us, ‘I was praying the rosary last year, asking God if I was on the right track, and then you came with this project in the Holy Land.’

“She had never been in Israel before, and then the combination or the spiritual power of being in the birthplace of Jesus, plus the scientific work, plus the work on sustainability — that combination makes it very attractive for her and her team.”

“We have been able to attract Mexican thought leaders and we’ve given then a blank canvas to work with, as well as the opportunity to work with the technical and scientific resources we have in Israel,” Mr. Polinsky said. “That holds a lot of appeal for them.”

Making the agave spirit is a longtime project, Mr. Niewood said. “It takes anywhere from five to 12 years for the plant to mature. You want to get the largest piña, with the high concentration of sugar.” It’s unlike other spirits, which are mostly grain-based. In some ways it resembles wine, in that it’s intensely influenced by terroir — by the place where it’s grown, although it’s very different from wine in that vines produce grapes every year, while agave plants can give their hearts only once.

“Every crop is a one-time thing,” he said. “And then the land will rest for a year. We are starting with 100 dunam and we’ll get to 1,000.” (A dunam is about 1,000 square meters.) The agave plants in the ground now will yield drinkable spirits in six or seven years, he added; they’ll be harvested in about five years, and then “we will take it, cook it, macerate it, squeeze out the juice, and let the fermentation start. You get it up to about eight percent alcohol by volume, and then it is distilled down to the final spirit.

Negave advisory board members meet with the faculty of Ben Gurion University in Sde Boker.

“It sounds simple, but it’s not. There are so many variables that influence it.”

“We look at viniculture in Israel as a precursor and validator of what we are doing here,” Mr. Niewood said.

The connection with wine is not just historical. In an unusual although not unheard-of move, Negave is going to age its produce in casks that have been used for wine.

There are three kinds of tequila and agave-based drinks, Ms. Parness, Mr. Polinsky, and Mr. Niewood said. The first, blanco, as white as its name implies, is not aged more than 59 days, and might not be aged at all. Reposado is aged, at times in casks, and Añejo, the old spirit, is allowed to lie in a cask for at least a year, possibly longer. The older the spirit gets, the deeper its yellow becomes; Añejo, particularly if it is aged in a wine barrel, will be a deep, lovely amber.

Although a blanco doesn’t need a hechsher — a certificate of kashrut — the other two do, particularly if they’ve aged in wine vats. Negave will use only barrels in which kosher wine has been aged; it hopes to get them from vineyards in the Negev. The spirit will have a hechsher.

Mr. Niewood, like his business partners, is passionate about the project.

Negave’s seedlings are hardened in an Israeli plant nursery near Maale Adumim; they’ll be planted in the Negev later this year.

“We will make it from ground to glass, and it will come entirely from the Negev,” he said.

It is, though, a work in progress. Just as the front end, the ground, now is being farmed but is not yet ready to yield a usable crop, the glass part isn’t ready yet either. Designers still are working on the bottle, which they hope will convey the essential high-end inherent Negev-ness of its contents.

Negave is “artisanal and regenerative, which is more than sustainable,” Mr. Niewood continued. We’re going to use solar power — I would argue that the Negev is an underutilized solar resource – in fact, it’s one of the best in the world.

“We have the opportunity to contribute to commerce in the Negev.

“There is a real opportunity here to create something that is uniquely Negev, that has every right to coexist with everything that’s happening in viniculture and the culinary field in Israel. We think we can be a leader in how we grow it and how we distill it and in the quality of the liquid.

At Yitzhak Carmy’s home in Mishmeret, Negave advisory board members, founders, and investors toast the future.

“We’re shooting for one of the finest quality liquids. We want every Israeli to be proud of it. And our effort couldn’t come at a more important time in terms of trying to rebuild the area that’s been hit so hard.”

Since the war began, although he’s still putting a huge amount of time, thought, and energy into Negave, Mr. Niewood also is “taking occasional breaks to drive soldiers to and from different bases,” Ms. Parness and Mr. Polinsky said. “He’s been driving soldiers up and down through the country from October 7.

“He loves to drive. He drives uncontrollably fast. It’s probably not the safest place for the soldiers. They’re probably quite happy when they get to their bases, to be like, ‘Thank God I got here. I was scared out of my wits.’”

But seriously, “David has been volunteering, literally nonstop, driving soldiers in multi-hour drives up and down the country.” He’s a true environmentalist and shows it by the car he drives. It’s an electric car.

An electric Mustang.

Moving on…

Negave’s maestra, Ana Maria Romero Mena, stands in a Domain du Castel barreling room.

The other two founding board members are entrepreneur William Kuluva and Yitzhak Carmy, an Israeli who is also a founding member of Moshav Mishmeret, a large-scale fruit and vegetable exporter, and a rancher.

Jeremy Kaufthal, also of Englewood and Kesher, is Negave Estate’s first full-time employee, and he also has a great depth of experience to bring to the company.

He began his working life in an advertising agency, where he worked on large accounts, including Johnny Walker and Smirnoff, but he left that to work with Michael Dorf, the founder of Manhattan’s City Winery. “Food, wine, and music were the love of my life, and Michael told me about his vision for City Winery, which combined food and wine and music. And it also sounded super interesting. So I told him that I would do anything to be part of it.”

Mr. Kaufthal stayed there for a year and a half. “It was a startup environment, and I was doing a little bit of everything. Then I spent every day with the wine maker, tasted hundreds of wines, learned a lot about winemaking, developed my palate, and got to taste serious wines.

“My love for wine continued to grow.”

Next, Mr. Kaufthal went to Royal Wines, and stayed there for 11 years. “I became their fine wine expert for a few years. At the time they hired me, they were a little more rough around the edges in terms of fine wines than they are now. Now, many people on the team know a great deal about fine wine.”

Founding member Amanda Parness and world-class expert and advisory board member Ana Maria Romero Mena are in Israel together.

Mr. Kaufthal finds it easy to transfer his love for wine to a developing appreciation for tequila and agave drinks, and because he shares his wine background with Ms. Romero Mena, he particularly enjoys working with her.

He appreciates Negave Estates’ romantic vision for its product.

“It’s all evocative of the Negev,” he said. “Of the desert, and of the magical spirit of the desert. It’s the Negev specifically, but also more general desert imagery, so that people who haven’t been to the Negev but have a spiritual attachment to another desert can feel it as well.”

Negave Estate’s not-tequila-spirit drink, its agave-derived amber liquid, includes many goals, desires, and dreams. It’s about sustainability and the even more ambitious objective of regeneration; it’s about terroir, the specific but intangible characteristics of the Negev. It’s about the romance of the Negev. It’s about the combination of the agave and the Negev, as its name — Negave — makes literal. It’s about drinking to hope — and working hard to make it happen.

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