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Kosher’s Quality Tipping Point

Posted on  | March 1, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Golan Heights Winery’s Odem vineyard, which has been certified organic since 1998

Wine has its share of seasonal and occasion-driven wines—Champagne for celebrations and rosé for summer pop quickly to mind. But perhaps no type of wine is more seasonally pegged than kosher wine. As Gary Lansdman, Royal Wine Corp.’s director of marketing and PR, notes, “The eight week or so period, starting about two weeks ahead of Purim [February 23rd this year] and ending with the close of Passover” is always the biggest selling period for kosher wines.

However, the time has never been better to promote the modern reality of this very traditional wine industry segment as this is the time when eyes naturally veer toward the kosher section. Gotham Wines on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is a destination for kosher wines, yet Wine Director Costas Mouzouras notes, “Passover always brings a big demand. It is a holiday that even non-practicing Jews will serve kosher wine for their seder.” And as Martin Siegmeister, brand manager at Allied Importers, points out, this is also “the best time to introduce new products.”

While kosher wines are a familiar sight in the Manhattan, and perhaps even in Miami, the five Broudy’s Liquors in northeastern Florida are more typical of the rest of America. Supply of kosher wine in Jacksonville and St. Augustine area remains primarily a function of seasonal demand, spiking around Passover, the high holy days and to a lesser extent Hannukah. However, based on proprietor Barry Broudy’s experience, the industry has already done a pretty good job of narrowing one perception-reality gap: the notion that kosher wines are sweet by default.

Broudy sees two basic types of kosher-wine buyers: “The one type says, ‘I just want something kosher that’s not sweet,” and then they tend to buy on price. But we also have people who are actively looking for better wines that are also kosher.” The latter group has the right attitude in his mind. He notes, “These may be religious holidays, but holidays are still about getting together with family, and enjoying good food, wine and company. It’s not much different than Thanksgiving in that sense, and people are smart to want to drink something good.” One trend that surprised him in 2012 was demand for sparkling Moscato, specifically Bartenura’s, which sold well at $18.99.

Israeli Vis à Vis Kosher

No doubt it is easy enough to take a “this, too, shall pass” attitude toward kosher wine rush during March (Passover this year begins March 25th), but recent advances are creating an opportunity to close the next perception-reality gap, encouraging Americans to embrace kosher wines as quality players in the mainstream wine arena. The fact that most Americans mistakenly assume that all Israeli wine is kosher can be used as a springboard not only to clarify what makes a wine kosher, but also to present both categories as wine first—and kosher-or-not second.

Yes, most Israeli bottlings reaching the U.S. are in fact kosher. But the majority of wineries in Israel—there are more than 250 today—are actually not kosher. For Joshua Greenstein, executive VP of Sales & Marketing for the Israel Wine Producers Association (IWPA), one vital message that needs to reach consumers is simply that kosher wine is based on a regimen of supervision, not on its origin; nor is it a function of wine being “blessed.” As Gil Shatsberg, winemaker at Recanati, points out, kosher is a certification process, not unlike organic and Biodynamic wines earning their designations through certification. Even more important to the awareness message: Israeli and kosher wines alike are riding the same wave of rising quality that is seeing improved wines made and enjoyed the world over.

Recanati and Golan Heights Winery, both based in Galilee, are leaders in the Israeli category. Golan Heights (makers of the Yarden label) was recognized as the 2012 New World Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine. Head winemaker Victor Schoenfeld, who travels the globe selling his wines, says “The wines sell well in Japan and Northern Europe. In Japan, whether the wines are kosher never comes up.”

Yarden’s Chardonnay from the Odem Vineyard, fermented and aged on its lees for seven months in French oak, would please most any Cali-Chard lover. The Cabernet Sauvignon is full-bodied, well structured and also a perennial best seller. Recanati has excelled at both value and high-end wines. Their spicy yet fruit-laden reserve level Petite Sirah-Zinfandel (SRP $26) is stellar and sports a new label picturing an actual vine in the vineyard. The Special Reserve Red (SRP $53, not made every year) avoids being lumped into the Cabernet crowd by including Merlot, Petite Sirah and Syrah in the mix.

Shopping Patterns

Mouzouras at NYC’s Gotham Wines has noticed trends on both the winemaking and wine-buying sides. “Ambitious winemakers are more adventurous with their blends,” he notes, and rosé is “finally picking up, as more consumers realize that pink wine doesn’t indicate sweetness.” He has also noticed “a lot of single vineyard designations for red wines.” Mouzouras proudly notes that at Gotham, Israeli wines have their own section and are as “often recommended even though the consumer is not looking for a ‘kosher’ wine,” he says.

Royal’sGary Landsman notes with a degree of frustration that many stores lump Israeli and kosher wines together, often in the back of a store. Selling Israeli wines on their merits year-round is hard “when stores don’t divide by region.”

Allied Importers’ Siegmeister has been impressed with the “Mediterranean” wines coming from Israel. “There has been success with Shiraz and other Rhône varietals along with some Italian varietals,” he says. “Interestingly, I usually get the best response to these wines from mainstream buyers.” Landsman notes as well that tasting consumers on several regional wines showcases the world-class quality of Israeli and kosher wines.

In the big picture, Passover is a mixed blessing for kosher and Israeli wines; the calendar draws attention, but not for long. Now that wine-minded Americans no longer expect all kosher wine to taste like grandpa’s sweet, foxy Manischewitz, the next step in expanding awareness and beyond-holiday sales is to continue to emphasize the wines’ pure quality and expanding stylistic spectrum.

Who Knew?
Kosher Wines Catch Mainstream Trends

In gauging the prospects for increasing kosher wine’s acceptance beyond seasonal peaks and beyond Israel connection, it’s worth noting that diversity—in conjunction with quality—is certainly helping expand awareness. In short, kosher wines are more than ever reflecting the trends and tastes that Americans are already embracing.

Take Moscato, for example. Bartenura—which has enjoyed a successful extension into a sparkling version—is beloved by a growing throng of Americans who know it comes in a blue bottle but have no idea it’s kosher. Royal Wine Corp., importer of Bartenura, is also at the leading edge of the sweet red trend, with Jeunesse, whose jammy, easy-drinking style is a far cry from the heavy Concord-based wines that have become cliché.

As in mainstream wines, new products and makeovers are important to category’s vitality. Toward this end, Admiral Imports has had several important introductions of late. Abarbanel is sporting a brand new label, with prominent batch numbers emphasizing craftsmanship as well as their French roots. The trio includes old-vine Beaujolais Villages from Châteua de la Salle, a medium-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon and a 50/50 Cabernet-Merlot (the latter two are both from Languedoc and are mevushal). Admiral’s award-winning Israeli import, Tishbi, has since 2012 become more clearly delineated into an Estate range and lower-priced Vineyard Series. Sweet Layla, an Italian Moscato, features a radiant guitar label that will have shoppers humming Eric Clapton before they even stop to wonder whether it’s kosher. Finally, as the importer of Iceberg Vodka, Admiral will be introducing three new “Icefusion” flavors in March: Crème Brûlée, Chocolate Mint, and Cucumber.


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