2013 Kosher Wine in Review and my thoughts on what is ahead
Well it is 2014 (and a month) and it is time for me to close the loop and give my take on the state of the kosher wine world. Clearly, the vast majority of the kosher wine is coming from Israel and that is not about to change anytime soon (excluding the mad love for all things Bartenura Blue Bottle (BBB) from Italy).
As I stated last year here and here – things are changing and evolving in Israel, for both the good and the bad. In many ways things are improving, but the issues from last year have persisted and in some cases are being further accentuated – more on that below.
My travels around the world, along with articles from the mainstream press, and trade rags continue to highlight the main issues that face the kosher wine world today – and yes I am not afraid to say them out loud:
- We have far too much poor kosher wine out there
- There was a post this past year that created quite a stir, in a not positive manner, within the blogosphere and twitterdom, about how kosher wine is not worthy of a place in the upper echelon of the wine world (with or without the kosher moniker). Please read the comments, especially those by Craig Winchell, Rob Meltzer (the author), and Adam Montefiore.
- In my opinion, Meltzer’s overall approach and content is very far off base. The wines from Yatir, some from Yarden, Flam, Clos Mesorah, Capcanes, some from Herzog stand up well in the trade rags, this blog, and other places – in regards to the “wine world” as a whole.
- Further, his mishmash of facts is so far off base with regards to mevushal and other such things – it is sad. To make things worse, his selection of wines were a very poor cross section of the kosher wine world.
- Now with all that said – his main premise – the ECONOMICS of the kosher wine world is spot on! Now before I get hate comments – yes there have been vast improvements in the kosher wine world over the past few years. Especially, with the names listed above and others, but the vast majority of kosher wines out there would never find their way to my table – and that is the problem. This is not a discussion of snobbery, truly it is not, this is a discussion around what is good and what is not. Sure there is a fair amount of subjectivity in this area, but sadly, the vast majority of wines in the kosher wine market exist – because we let them be there. If they were not purchased – they would cease to exist, which would be good for all of us. The hope being, that in their place one would find wines of higher quality for the same price, like those that exist in the non-kosher world.
- When I stand in a Supermarket in Israel or a kosher wine stand in the average wine store in New York or in Chicago, or Los Angeles – the clear majority of the wines there, are wines I would never drink or cook with! This needs to change – the quality must improve and we the consumers are the only ones empowered to make that change a reality. Vote with your dollars and feet and walk away from the poor quality wines and buy the better wines.
- The kosher wine consumer is improving his/her palate – as they find that drinking wine with a meal is not the same as being an alcoholic, and that there is another drink other than Scotch. However, with respect to them, they have not stopped buying those poorer quality wines yet. In other words, they have yet to move up the quality wine chain to better and better wines.
- Again, this is based on my interactions with the vast majority of people I meet in stores, wine conventions, wineries, and email. This is NOT a slight; it is just that they have yet to move along the evolutionary wine palate path.
- The sooner they move up the chain the sooner wineries will be forced to stop creating wines of inferior quality for the price.
- Which brings me to the last issue – and maybe the BIGGEST issue facing the kosher wine industry as a whole – PRICE! There is a reason I hammer on QPR (Quality to Price Ratio) on my blog. Why? Because when faced with a wall of wines at a supermarket – the consumer will fall to price or varietal to make his/her decision, unless they have learned about what they like. To add to the issue – this is a two-pronged problem. The low-end wines are vastly low in quality and the many of the higher end kosher wines are not worth the bottles they are in.
- This is an issue that continues to plague the kosher wine industry as a whole. Sure, you can get a great wine at 40, 30, or even 20 dollars. But what about a very good wine for 10 dollars – I can count them on my hand! And only when they are on sale (AKA Passover wine sales).
- The sad fact is that given the few quality wines at the sub-20 dollar level, even with Passover sales, the new kosher consumer, who is on a budget, is forced to either vote higher or buy the lower quality (albeit cheaper) wine. This sad fact may well be what is driving up the sales of poor wines.
- When I was stuck in the snowstorm in Jerusalem, the local store that was open had a wall of wines and I could find only ONE wine there that I would have drunk. The worse fact was that even these poor quality wines were all 12 to 20 dollars each! Man, talk about a double gut shot. Prices in Israel are not that much cheaper than their counterparts in the states. Which is a great fact for us Americans, but the wines are still not priced to their quality and that is the issue.
- Look at the Wine Spectator 100 for 2013, the top 100 wines that the staff at the WS tasted in 2013. The vast majority of those wines scored in the ballpark of a 95! Most of them were below 50 dollars a bottle. Go ahead; find me 100 kosher wines that you would score a 95 that are also at or below 50 dollars – heck say 60 dollars!
- To start – I cannot find 50 kosher wines I would score that high for that price, sure I will get hate mail for that comment, but the fact is quality is still not there. The WS has yet to score a kosher wine at that level anyway, but they find wines from all over the world at far lower than 50 dollars and still apply high scores.
- The late Daniel Rogov did not bestow those numbers on kosher wines from Israel or the world, that often either. Sure, many wines received a 93, but a 95, not many at all.
- Go ahead, write down 100 wines you think deserve a high score and ones also priced reasonably. Please do not think 150 dollars for a bottle is reasonable. Sure, there may be reason for the price – but reasonable it is not, unless you are a hedge fund manager. So, most of the kosher French wines are off the list. Many of the higher end Israeli wines are off the list, like Katzrin and Flam Noble (not yet released). So, where does that leave us – a nice list still, headlined by Yatir, Yarden, Gvaot, Castel, Tzora, Adir, Bustan, Recanati, and others from around the world (Capcanes, Four Gates, Hajdu, Herzog, Shirah, and others). There are wines from other wineries that also make the list – but in the end, does it matter, the list will not fill 100 wines, not even close.
- In the end – this is a quality and price issue, that to many is not an issue, I understand that. It is this sad fact that allows the wines to persist and be made. Wines with inferior quality and high prices, justified by “kosher is expensive” reasoning. If Israel and California are not careful, they will find themselves staring at a deluge of kosher wines with higher quality and lower prices from other cheaper regions. Unfortunately, for the kosher buying consumer – that has yet to happen – but it is only a matter of time before it is accomplished, as I am not the only one who realizes this.
- There are a few kosher wines that can stand with their non-kosher counterparts and be judged as equals – many from the list I stated above. What is needed now is not a kosher wine revolution, but rather a kosher wine quality revolution.
Here is my list of thoughts on the world of kosher wine for 2013 (beyond the QPR issue):
- Thankfully, the 2012 and 2013 vintages from Israel are very solid, and therefore many of the wines from these vintages will show an improved QPR across the board. A rising tide lifts all boats.
- Vineyards in Israel are deep into the next great vineyard rotation, for a few reasons. First, many of the older vines are dying or are being attacked by virus. Also, wineries are realizing there is more in the wine world than just Cabernet and Merlot. The Rhone, Spanish, and Portugal varietals are taking over the new vineyards and that is a very good thing. Look for more wines including; Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Marselan, Touriga National, Roussanne, and others, including some very original and unknown plantings that may come online soon.
- Family owned wineries, with external support will continue to grow, as it is the most economical manner to make and release kosher wines.
- More and more small wineries are coming to the US, under the umbrella of the big 5 (Royal Wines, Allied Importers (adding Gvaot recently), Happy Hearts, Red Garden, The River Wine). Also, bigger names that have been lost to us (Tabor and others) are returning again to the US. Also, the Israeli wineries that are exporting to the US are doing so in a far timelier manner than in the past. It is not uncommon for me to be in Israel and see a newly released wine on shelves and then see it on US shelves some 2 months later – so keep an eye out for newer vintages all around. Remember, 2012 and 2013 for the most part will eclipse the past few years’ quality wise, though there are exceptions to that rule (like Teperberg).
- Sadly, with the two plus year anniversary of Daniel Rogov’s passing – no one has stepped up and taken over the mantle of wine writer for Israel. The single man and his knowledge has been lost, much like the much of the wine world is moving from a few famous names (E.G Robert Parker and others who have had a bad past year in the wine trade rag industry). So where does that leave us? The vintages of Rogov’s last book are quickly fading, even for the higher end wines (that are released slower). So, go to wine events that are popping up and decide for yourself what you like and what you dislike, read this blog, subscribe to Yossie’s newsletter, or join the kosher wine forum.
- If I had to give a color or fruit that best describes the 2010 vintage in Israel – it would blueberry! Yes blueberry! No, I am not talking about Malbec or Syrah or Petite Sirah. What I am talking about is all of those and more shockingly, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot! Try it out and see for yourself. When I asked the wine makers about it, they said that the growing conditions of 2010 hot and then cool led to the blue flavors. This theme continues, as I taste more and more 2010 wines.
- Sadly, the mevushal experiment in Israel has taken a turn for the worse. More and more importers are “asking” wineries to make mevushal wines for them, and it is not pretty. Shiloh Winery continues to excel, along with Herzog, and Hagafen. However, there are Mevushal wines from Psagot and that was not pretty, along with Tzuba, and Bravdo. It is a shame, as Shiloh has many wines in their mevushal portfolio, and they are a much better option than many of the newly created mevushal wines coming out of Israel or Spain. For now, stick with Herzog, Shiloh, Hagafen, and Elvi.
Another aspect of this direction is the fact that wine labels are getting more and more muddied with the same wine being made mevushal and not. It harkens back to the original 2004 experiment by the Herzog Winery with their now discontinued M Series. It was discontinued because it was so darn confusing to wine consumers, and because of the complexity of keeping so many wines active inside an already very large winery, was just too daunting. Unfortunately, this is now happening again, with more and more imported wines, across many wineries, across a few importers. What happens next is not clear, but I do hope that clearer labels are created in the future. Keep an eye out, and before you reach for your favorite wine, make sure it is what you want (mevushal or not).
That said, if you have the chance to taste the new 2012 Capcanes Peraj Petita (Mevushal version) – please do so, what a great and wonderful mevushal wine. The wine will be made in both mevushal and non-mevushal options. For now, it is going to be my go to mevushal red wine, along with the Weinstock Petite Sirah and the Weinstock Cabernet Franc.
- If you must pick a single varietal that shines in the Shomron – it would be Merlot. All the Merlot wines we tasted from the Shomron (whether made from a winery in the Shomron or wineries that source their grapes from the Shomron – like Teperberg) – the winners were always the Merlot! If it is the cooler weather the higher acidity – who cares – it is great wine!
- Quality kosher white wines are finally coming from Israel, California, and Spain! Tabor Roussanne, many great Sauvignon Blanc wines, a few good Viognier, many great Gewurztraminer, and a few very good Rieslings. This is just a follow-up to my white and rose wine posting.
- Israeli wines continue to be created with an overripe styling, sometimes called sweet, sometimes called new world, or overripe. Sadly, the 2009, 2010, and 2011 vintages exasperated this issue because of the climate issues, thereby creating the potential for overly sweet and overly ripe wines.
Still, a major factor in this is not just a climate-based problem, but also a consumer problem. If a winery has a few thousand wines to sell (in your high-end line or winery overall), then the winemaker can decide what style he/she will create based upon what they like. However, when you have to sell a million or 500,000 bottles of wine, you cannot make what you like but rather what the consumer likes. Unfortunately, there is the rub. When I was at a wine tasting recently, they poured some old wines that had clearly gone to the other world, they were port-like in nature, oxidized and sweet. The vast majority of the people at the tasting loved the wines and thought they were fantastic, saying “this is how I like my wines”.
With a consumer base that consists of people who love big, bold, and sweet wines, what else can we expect to find from the bigger kosher Israeli wineries.
Another angle is that overripe, aggressive, and uncontrolled wines are as subtle as a 2×4 across the face, which make for great wines gateway wines for the uninitiated.
The hope is, that we all grow from our wine experiences, with people looking for more varietals than just Cabernet Sauvignon and hopefully wine styles – other than just syrup-like wines. A few great examples of Israeli wineries that are creating controlled wines; Teperberg, Flam, Gvaot, Ella Valley (for the most part), Adir, Yatir, Castel, Tzora, Dalton, Recanati, and others. Also starting this year, I will be labeling wines that I find over the top in their new world style with the moniker of (Sweet/New World). This is not to mean the quality is poor, but more a definition of what style this wine is taking.
- The top kosher bubbly continues to be made by Yarden, both on a price and a quality level. Sure there are crazy expensive Champagnes that may be as good as a Yarden Rose Brut or a Yarden Blancs to Blancs, but why? The value and the quality of Yarden sparkling wines is just too – to need to look elsewhere.
- The 2009, 2010, and 2011 vintages in Israel are going to be a hard row for many wineries. Some have navigated them well so far, but many have failed. Keep this in mind when you want to buy your favorite Israeli wine from one of these vintages. Buy one and if you like it, keep on buying them.
- As I stated here already, something is afoot with the shipping of wines from Israel to the states. The new 2010 Carmel Sumaka Cabernet, and many wines from 2009 as well, are showing poorly compared to their Israeli labeled twins. The issue with the US labeled wines is that the wines taste aged and cooked in comparison to the directly/hand delivered wines from Israel. The Sumaka Cab started my concern, but tasting the 2009 Carmel wines in the US and then in Israel proved to me that something is clearly afoot. Look for another new label for me, (Israeli Label ONLY).
Now many will not care and will find them enjoyable, as they like sweeter red wines. However, I do not find them enjoyable at all, and it does affect a winery’s brand, in my opinion.
Finally – these are the best wines that I enjoyed this past year – used loosely and in no particular order:
- 2008 Covenant Solomon Cuvee – special blend made for Premiere Napa Valley Auction
- 2004 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2005 Domaine Roses Camille
- 2005 Chateau Leoville Poyferre
- 2005 Malartic-Lagraviere
- 2011 Capcanes Flor de Flor
- 2010 Doamine du Castel Grand Vin
- 2010 Flam Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2010 Midbar Orange Wine
- 2009 Yatir Forest
- 2012 Capcanes Carignan
- 2004 Yarden Katzrin
- 2003 Chateau Leoville Poyferre
- 2004 Domaine Chateau De La Tour Clos Vougeot
- 2009 Elvi Wines Clos Mesorah
- 2009 Four Gates Cabernet Sauvignon
- 1999 Chateau Guiraud
- 2001 Chateau Guiraud
- 2007 Yarden Blanc de Blancs
- 2013 Yarden Sauvignon Blanc
- 2012 Tzora Shoresh White
- 1987 Les Forges, Cotes de Beaune, Meursault
- 2008 Yarden Rose Brut
Here is hoping to you all a year full of great wine, great adventures, and great success!