2016 kosher wine 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 2015 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 2016, in terms of kosher wine overall.
We have too much wine out there for the official kosher wine buying populace. How do I know this, because the amount of wine being dumped on the non-kosher market for a pittance in countries that no one visits is absurd. Wine is being dumped all over the place, and it is not going to get better anytime soon. Why? Because wineries are still popping up all over the place, and they are making really average wine.
Which brings me to the same issue, but in more detail. We have lots of horrible wine out there. Yes, I know I am a broken record, get over it. The kosher wine market in Israel and California needs to get better at making wines for a decent price. But I would be happy with just good wine – for a not decent price.
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.
Again, besides the price, the overall quality of the wines are just not acceptable. The good news is we have lots of wine, but sadly the quality is not there. We need to raise the quality and then work on lowering the price.
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, 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, Flam, Castel, Tzora, Gvaot, Recanati, Tura, Carmel Winery (Israeli labels), 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!
So, sadly nothing has changed with another year, just more wines I would not drink and the prices are going up, not down.
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. Wineries need to go out and visit wine stores and wine events and talk about why their wines are unique, special, tasty, and different.
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 nice 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.
Worse, is that while 2014 was great for whites – it is starting to show that the reds from the 2014 vintage is not doing well at all. They are falling apart already, including some from the top wineries. Truly sad.
Even worse, 2015 was a complete disaster – the number of wines I would buy from the 2015 vintage in Israel is very little indeed. We have Vitkin coming online – which does excite me, to see what Vitkin can do in 2016, without a horrible vintage and a full kosher lineup!
Also, with the 2014 and 2015 reds from Israel showing so poorly, I would not stock up on any red from Israel from the 2014 or 2015 vintages.
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.
As I have spoken about in the past, Shmtta is back, though it is now slowly driving away from us. The decision in 2015, for the vast majority of wineries, was to go with 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 Shmita 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 Shmita 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.
Thankfully, we all survived the Shmita season with great French roses and California whites. The 2016 vintage from Israel is looking MUCH better, from what I have tasted so far. The reds from 2015, like the reds from 2014 are not wines I would buy at this point. The only true red I found acceptable from Israel in 2015, that I have tasted so far, are Tzora’s wines. Still, they are not reds I would stock for long term.
If you do not drink Shmita wines – then please be careful when you go to Israel as there are still many 2015 whites and reds in stores – and rightfully so, so just a FYI.
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.
Also, who will win the hand of Vitkin? Most people’s money is on Royal, but only time will tell.
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, whose job is it to promote the wine? 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? Glatt Mart? 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??
The French Wine issue
The amount of French wine coming our way from the 2014, 2015, and 2016 vintages is insane. I am not even talking about a single distributor here, I am talking across all of them, there is too much French wine being made for the kosher wine buying populace.
These will not, for the most part, hit our shores for another two to three years, and there will be a TON of it! The difference is, that while in the past there were far too much of the same label, here there will be smaller batch sizes, but far too many of them, for the current demand. That is where we find ourselves today. We are staring into the abundance of 2015 and 2016, behind a rather shallow 2014 vintage, in comparison. What will be the outcome of that is really not clear at this point. A lot of that depends on where the actual world economy goes. It also depends on how resilient the Millennials are going to be. For now, they are the lifeblood in this recent uptick in economic futures. Will they keep spending? The theme says they will. Also, the real question is – is there too much kosher wine out there? Forget France for a moment. Look at the number of 70+ dollar bottles of wine out there. Way too many! Really, too many, and then throw in the wines coming online from France and you have to start wondering. Add into that, the price of the 2015 and 2016 French wines, an average of 25% increases, for each year compounding, and these costs are sunk costs, there is no way to get out of them, and you start to see the concern.
So, am I exaggerating the issue? Is my concern a siren call or a child crying wolf? Only time will tell, and one that I truly hope will not sting as badly as the last decade. The sting was the impact that caused the drought of great wines for some 7 years, especially the miss of the 2009 vintage (yeah there were a few including Chateau Tertre Daugay Grand Cru, but not epic like the 2009 Leoville Poyferre). The hope is that we will not see that happen again. The smart producers are the ones who create controlled number of wines, with small/niche number of bottles. Why? Because they can weather the impending storm, if it does indeed come. Of course, if you also have a large portfolio of kosher or non-kosher wines to buffer you, then you are OK. Those producers should come out of whatever is coming our way, beautifully. If however, producers created a bunch of wines, at escalating Bordeaux vintage costs, I hope they have 6 to 7 years of money to stick around. Some, from what I have seen and heard so far, may well not have that kind of backing, and it may not end well for those negotiants.
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 liked 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.
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. Thankfully, we are on the end of the shmita 2015 mess, and overall the quality of kosher 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! Next, we need to get kosher wines to the west coast – in larger quantities. I also hope we find a way to work out the Shmita issues for 2022. Enough is enough – we have another 7 years to finally get the Hareidi community behind a real shmita 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 useless at best.