My kosher wine 2015 year in review

Well, it is another Gregorian year and though there has been many new things going on in the world of the kosher wine world, they are all small in comparison to the larger fact that not much has changed.

Sadly, my issues from 2014 have not changed and in some ways they are getting worse. But lets start at the beginning and get to my issues next. So here is what I thought about 2015, in terms of kosher wine overall.

Economics

The economics of kosher wine continues to be a serious issue. When I get excited by a SINGLE very good kosher wine that exists below the 10 dollar range (other than maybe Baron Herzog Cabernet and Chardonnay which retail for more) – you know we have issues. Here is a list of non-kosher wines from Wine Spectator and from Wine Enthusiast. They show hundreds of options while we have THREE max, why? I have heard all the answers – and trust me the kosher supervision is not the reason!

I do not need to harp over the number of horrible and undrinkable – let alone unspeakable wines that exist in the kosher wine aisles that are not worthy of the glass they reside in. They all cost more than 10 dollars. In the end, the issue cannot be denied and it needs to be fixed. Quality exists (more below) at higher prices, but what is needed is lower prices and higher quality. You can always create great wines at 100 dollars – that is really not a hard thing to do, even if it looks that way sometimes. Great grapes from Napa, Montsant, or even places like Ben Zimra and others locations in the Upper Galilee, can be had for less than 6K a ton. Napa is the highest cost, with Montsant and Galilee costing less. Still, even at that cost – you get 50 cases at 100 bucks a pop = which comes out to 60K. Sure there are costs, including humans, and space, and the such. My point being the cost of making great wine is not hard. The real head knocker is making very good wine at lower costs.

That is where Terrenal has made a living at making very good wines, not great, not A rated, but very good wines at low cost. The sad fact is that unless there are great sales or just really cheap wine stores, the list of kosher wines under 20 dollars are even still limited, and that is what is really hurting the kosher wine world in my opinion.

Quality

Which takes us to the next subject – QPR (Quality to Price Ratio). I scream when there is a new good wine that is worthy of the QPR moniker. Elvi Wines is a perfect example of a winery made to build QPR wines. Same goes for Netofa Winery, Yarden/Gilgal Whites, Tabor white and rose, Capcanes, Terrenal, Volcanus, Goose Bay whites, Tura, some French wines here and there, and a few others. In terms of pure quality, ignoring price, then the list grows to most of Cali, most of Israel’s whites and rose, and for a few red from Israel’s superstars; including wineries like Matar, YatirFlam, Castel, Tzora, GvaotRecanati, Dalton, Teperberg, Tura, Carmel Winery (Israeli labels), Ella Valley (for the Franc), Adir, and some others.

Yes, my list of top wines for Passover continues to expand, but so do the number of wines available – and there is the rub. While the list continues to expand from 100 to 120, the number of wines available are in thousands – and there lies the issue. The percentages are not in the favor of the average guy on the street. I listed lots of wineries above, but in Israel alone, there are some 200+ kosher wineries, with more popping up weekly!2015-16.jpg

2015-2016

2015-2016 change represents the new year 2016 three-dimensional rendering

Take Capsouto for example, here is a brand new winery that create two great wines – a rose and a blanc that came out of nowhere. Maybe others knew about his wines, but I did not hear of them, until it was on the store shelves. He has a red that is now available in the US, but I have not tasted that yet, and more wine to come as well.

My point being that sadly, of much of the wine I did taste, Jacques Capsouto’s story and success is not the norm. So there is a need for education and continual discussion about why some wines are really good and why others should not be on the buy list, which I and others are trying to do.

Kosher wine consumer and their choice

As stated, there are thousands of kosher wines released every year into the market – and while we do not all get to taste all of them, the majority of them are not for polite company – to say it nicely. Still, when the consumer walks into the store – he/she continue to be inundated with these wines and the knowledge is not there for these wine buyers.

Nothing has changed in that fact since the passing of Daniel Rogov in 2011, and while many have tried no one can take his place, IMHO. In his stead – the wine shop owner now is in charge of helping or pushing his/her wines onto the consumer. To that point, I think the real change will come from shops like Gary Landsman’s new wine shop in the East Village; Taste Wine Company. The shop is lined with dispensing machines that will allow the consumer to come in, taste wine, and hopefully leave with wine – but ALSO and more importantly IMHO, leave with more knowledge about wines from different regions and varietals than when they came in.

The Taste Wine Company does not cater to the kosher wine market – and I brought his shop up as an example, but there are other wine shops within NYC that do have wine tastings on a fairly frequent basis. Which brings me to the next real issue – which is educating the consumer – versus being told which wines they will like. Please do not think I am taking a shot at Mr. Rogov – heaven forbid, in the 2000s, he was a lighthouse in the sea of ignorance – when it came to kosher and non kosher Israeli wines. We all leaned on him and his knowledge, and with that I hope we all learned and became more educated for it. However, with the number of kosher wines growing 3 to 4 fold since those days – I think it falls on us to become more knowledgeable about what we like and why!

I have been having conversations with wineries more and more, and as they talk to me about their wines, along with how the wines are distributed (more on that below), they all come back around to the issue of education. Of course they bring it up as a way to separate themselves from the crowd and to let their wines shine more – against a wall of competing wines. However, I find the idea a MUST-have for wineries going forward, educating the world about their wines, and allowing the consumer to see if they like their wines and why.

As the market grows, I think opportunities like the KFWE and Sommelier in Israel are must see for wine consumers to gain a better appreciation for what they like, dislike, and can appreciate in the wines on the market today.

Israel and wines

As much as I hate to sound like a broken record, nothing has changed in this area, for the most part. In many ways it has gotten worse. Wineries in Israel are still caving into the LCD (Lowest Common Denominator), and are not taking cues from wineries like Tzora, or newcomers like Capsouto. There are even wineries moving further off field to accommodate the sweet and over the top wine public.

What can I say, Israel is the clear world-wide leader when it comes to white wines and rose, in terms of sheer volume and quality. Five years ago people would have laughed at you if you would have said that out loud. Now, it is defacto and growing stronger by the year. More wineries are making very good to awesome whites and rose wines, and where Yarden has fallen back far afield in the world of quality red wines, they dominate the world of kosher wines in terms of bubbly and many of their whites.

The concept that the fall in Israeli wine quality was somewhat related to the poor seasons is now officially history. The 2009/2010/2011 vintages may not have been great, but the best of the wineries made great wines with them. The 2012 and 2013 vintages have all been exceptional and the wines from the great wineries continue to excel, while red wines from the rest of them are just not improving. The 2012 and 2013 vintages taste really ripe to me in many wineries and even the better wineries that were doing well in the past seem to be falling over themselves to cater to the LCD, IMHO.

Still I am ever the optimist and I hope that the consumer will one day wake up and start demanding different wines. Until then, I am happy that the elite wineries are still producing great reds and the vast majority of Israeli wineries are producing great whites as well.

Shmitta 2015

As I have spoken about in the past, Shmitta is back and many more of the wines from Israel in 2015 were made using Heter Mechira instead of Otzar Beit Din. The reason for this is simple – no matter how much effort the Rabbis and wineries put into making Shmitta wines more acceptable to the Hareidi community, it just does not work. Please do not send me hate mail, I have no issue with people who drink Shmitta wine, God forbid, what I am saying is that the Hareidi community did not accept the wines made with Otzar Beit Din anymore than they did the wine made with Heter Mechira, and as such – the vineyard managers went with the simpler approach – Heter Mechira. So, please talk with your local area Rabbi about how to handle these upcoming 2015 wines, as there is a difference in how they need to be handled, but again let the Rabbi decide that for you.

So, where does that leave us in the US? Well, if you drink Shmitta wines – then you will have very little selection of the 2015 whites and roses here in the states, in the next few months. Yarden will most probably ship some of their whites, and maybe some of the other distributors will buy some whites or Rose as well, but they will probably only be the smaller more boutique ones – which import very niche wineries, but only time will tell.

If you do not drink Shmitta wines – then please be careful when you go to Israel as there will be 2015 whites and Rose wines all over the place – and rightfully so, so just a FYI.

Distributors

Well what can say on this subject – the big keep getting bigger and the rest are not. Teperberg Winery is now being imported by Royal Wines, the biggest kosher wine importer in the world, adding another large quality winery to their portfolio.

The real question though is – does anyone care who imports the wine? Does it matter? Well, that depends. I still believe there is an issue with wine imported from Israel – and to be fair maybe this is more of a broad issue in terms of wine quality when consumed in country verses out of country? This requires a more controlled and closer look, but for now I will try to buy the wines from Israel that I want to keep for longer periods and instead bring them home by hand.

The other issue that comes up in terms of the kosher wine distributors – is do they sell the winery’s wines as well as the winery can? Do they facilitate an environment of good sales for the winery or are distributors just a sales channel for the wineries, handling the logistics and such of getting the wines to the states and the rest is up to the wineries to sell their own wines here?

Where this matters is, will you learn about wines like Capsouto that are flying off the shelves and yet few even know they exist? Is it the winery’s job to market the wines and do tastings and get the attention of the wine shops and consumers, or is it the distributor’s job? Again, I am constantly wondering why it is so hard to find Netofa wines and Elvi wines at most wine shops in the midwest or west coast – THERE IS NADA! Save for the Cask in Los Angeles, there is little here in terms of those two wineries and others. I can buy as much Barkan as I would want, if I wanted to.

Royal does hold its annual KFWE – which is really the only distributor driven wine event in the kosher industry. They do this for the very reason I am stating – which is to have a place where consumers can come and educate themselves on what they like and do not like. In the end, there is a need for more education and marketing and whether that is the job of the winery or the distributor – it needs to be done and done better than it is being done today.

West Coast and Midwest

So, according to the Pew Poll, roughly 79% of all Orthodox Jews live in NYC/NJ and its surrounds. The rest are distributed lightly between the South (9%), the midwest (7%), and west (5%)! So, it is no surprise that when you are looking for good kosher wine – you buy it from stores on the east coast (like the list of online stores to the right and others).

Still, there are many thousands of religious Jews on the west coast and where do they buy their wines? The Cask? Western Kosher? Really – that is it?? Come on guys – where do all the wine drinkers in LA buy their wines? Trader Joe’s? I do not know as I do not live there, but from what I hear the pickings are slim outside of the Cask, Glatt Mart, and Western. Three wine stores for all those Jews? What about the rest of the religious Jews scattered west of the Mississippi? Kosherwine.com used to be the man – but that is really just JWines now, and is a large east coast player. To be fair they are one of the few online kosher wine retailers that have free shipping for cases of wines, and while their wines cost far more than east coast players, if you add in the free shipping to California, they are in the game. Which is why they are still on the right side – for my list of wine shops.

So, who is to blame on this? Is it the lack of kosher wine consumers? Is it the lack of kosher wine purveyors that should be promoting wines and educating the public? Herzog Winery is not to blame – that is for sure! They have a calendar of wine and foodie events that would make me think of moving to Southern California just to be closer to the food and wine mecca that is Herzog Wine Cellars. They also host the KFWE west coast version, so Herzog/Royal is doing their best – even if it is for their wines, to educate the kosher public about great wines that are available.

I do not know. Wineries ask me this question every time I visit them. They want to know why the consumers in Cali are not buying their wines more? I always ask back – before you start asking about the consumer – what about wine availability? There is little to almost no availability for great wine on the west coast – there just is not! Now, to be fair, Southern Wine says they can get about any wine that Royal imports, but not so much for the other kosher wine importers.

So, before we start beating on West Coast consumers and their lack of wine consumption, I think we need to first address the chicken and egg problem here that feels more like a three-way stop gone bad than a consumer failure. First we need to address the lack of availability, then we need to address the lack of wine shops and their purchasing, or lack there of, and then we can also in parallel address the kosher wine consumer.

I say this in all seriousness, because as a kosher wine consumer on the west coast it annoys me to no end that I need to pay absurd shipping rates and the such for wines that should be available here – for reasonable prices on the west coast.

Clearly Southern is too big to care about any kosher wine importer other than Royal, so what the West Coast needs is a small-scale kosher wine distributor – to handle the rest of the kosher wine importer’s west coast affairs! Anyone out there want to take up the challenge?? Dan Kirshe – do you want to get back into the game??

Mevushal Wine

Well, in terms of mevushal wine – the kosher wine world has not gotten any better. Royal has been pushing hard to get good mevushal wines for affairs and restaurants here in the USA. Why? Because the OU and the rest of the Hareidi supervision entities demand it. In Israel, France, and the rest of the civilized kosher world – this is not an issue at all. But in the USA – we need to be more religious than them, be more AMERICAN and show we are bigger and badder. The cost for that is that we all need to suffer a bit, and honestly when I go to a restaurant I just get beer. The restaurants lose out and so do we all.

Well, Royal and Allied have been pushing hard and the outcome is a very good example of hit and miss all over the place. The Capcanes Peraj petita that was mevushal in 2013 was very nice – making the almost inaccessible 2013 more mellow and round, which in this instance was OK indeed. I wish I could say the same for the rest of their attempts. IMHO, most of the other mevushal options from Israel were not up to snuff. Again, this could be transportation or the mevushal process. I loved the Shiloh wines that were mevushal in Israel, but not so much here.

Clearly, the winners in the mevushal game are and will continue to be Hagafen and Herzog. They get it and it shows. They manage the process and the transportation just fine, though it helps that they are both of the west coast – and not halfway around the world.

Terrenal is proving that the issue of shipping and mevushal are not a deal killer, as does the mevushal wines from France from Royal and others. So, I think we are at a crossroads here. I strongly feel that this whole entire mess needs to be cleaned up – grown up style. The wines from Israel must be handled with more care then they are currently – and the mevushal process needs to be done earlier in the process like Hagafen and Covenant are doing today.

Israel’s love for Rhone and Spain

As I stated in previous years, the real winners in Israel’s drive to create great wines are either going down the Noble varieties and caring deeply for their terroir or processes. Or they are moving towards varietals that mimic Israel’s hot climate, like Netofa Winery, Recanati’s Mediterranean Series, and Syrah being planted liberally all around Israel.

The red wine revolution is slow for sure, as it requires immense education. Say Touriga Nacional to the average wine drinker – and they may get Port correct. Say dry red Touriga and they are lost. The average joe who walks into a wine shop wants ONE thing and ONLY one thing – Cabernet Sauvignon. Stand at any wine table at the KFWE or other such events and the vast majority of requests to taste are either Cab or sweet white – AHHH!!!

Blessedly, white wines are already such an uphill battle – that they are ripe for education and it is there that the real revitalization of Israel’s grape crop is occurring. Recanati has Roussanne, Marsanne, and wonderful usage of Colombard. So does Mia Luce, which is no surprise of course, as Kobi is an associate winemaker at Recanti. Tabor Winery is killing it with their Roussanne and Riesling. The list goes on – as I already posted here.

In the end, look for Rhone, Spain, and Portugal to continue to be Israel’s guideposts to their revitalization of their red and white wines.

Conclusion

So where are we after another year in the world of kosher wine? The answer, as I led off this post, not much has changed. The hope is that we will continue to see great white and bubbly kosher wines abound – from Israel, Spain, Cali, and Italy. Further we will have to deal with yet another Shmitta, and overall the quality of wines need to improve, while we find a way to lower the costs.

I may be asking for too much – but wineries have proven it is possible, now it is up to other wineries in the kosher world to learn and adapt and improve.

My hope for next year is that we get more great wines for under 10 to 20 dollars – RETAIL! I also hope we find a way to work out the Shmitta issues for 2022. Enough is enough – we have another 7 years to finally get the Hareidi community behind a real shmitta option. And if I am asking for too much – can we fix this stupid mevushal problem already? Either remove the need or improve the options – because what we have now is dated at best.

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Posted on January 3, 2016, in Israeli Wine, Kosher Wine, Wine, Wine Industry and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Hi, David, been awhile,

    Just read your thoughtful comments, and agree totally. I am a drinker of wine below $25-30 as I have not the wallet to cultivate a taste for more expensive wines. I would add two comments.

    1. I have friends over all the time, modern Orthodox, not heavy frum — forget yeshivish and chasidish. For the regular non wine-afficianados I always serve a wine they haven’t seen,. I used to keep it below $20, and now I am pressed to keep it below $25 a bottle. They just love the stuff, but are NEVER interested enough buy it for themselves. When they reciprocate invitations I only see the plonk about which you complain.The exceptions are three/four families in the neighborhood for whom I pull out my best stuff since they reciprocate in kind. It seems that key issue on the part of most people is simple lack of interest to start with — oddly enough, in a socio-economic profile where you would expect such interest. So education is indeed a long steep uphill battle.

    2. If Herzog is the biggest kosher producer-AND-distributor in the world, how do you expect any effort on their part to invest in education/advertising beyond their own wines? And the poor wineries in their portfolio who are not wealthy enough to do any of their own advertising in the US are just stuck with Herzog placing their wines on shelves and no more. Back a ways I was close to one of the early backers of a winery in Israel, who used Royal as their importer and who barely gave him the time of day. When he was ready to switch importers/distributors they came up with a substantially larger order for his wine. He was simply too small for them to take account of him — until he was ready to leave. Maybe things have changed since then, but I don’t see how it could be otherwise.

    Those are the two matters that always stand out for me in these discussions.

    At any rate, good to hear from you, if only through the newsletter. Be well and be cool,

    Isaac

    • Hello Isaac!

      In terms of the first one – I totally agree and sadly that is what the situation is for a large percentage of the folks – but we all hope that some of our madness is rubbing off. Secondly, I agree with the winery story and they are not with Royal any longer. That said, Royal cannot possibly push anything more than a cursory amount – they would just explode. The real responsibility lies on the wineries and their in country promoters. I think there will be a very large biz for folks who can be setting up pourings for any winery that wants more hands on promotion in behalf of that entity. The need is there and so is the desire from the wineries, even if they do not all admit it openly.

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