W hen onathan Hamami was 15, he browsed the wine bar at his uncle’s house during Shabbat dinner and asked his mother for a taste of Bartenura Moscato. One sip and he was hooked.
“Ever since that day, I couldn’t wait to purchase my own bottle,” Hamami, who manages a Westin hotel cafe in Dallas, says. “Every time I go out to a restaurant, I literally ask the waiter, ‘Do you have any Moscato Bartenura?”
That was a decade ago, when the selection of kosher white wines, let alone Italian ones, was modest. And while Bartenura Moscato did appear at last month’s Kosher Food & Wine Experience NYC here, its competition has become much more robust.
Nearly 2,500 guests flocked to the Feb. 13 event at Pier 60 at Chelsea Piers to sample more than 400 varieties of wines and spirits, as well as dishes from 30 kosher restaurants, caterers and food companies. After parading down a red carpet at the venue’s entrance, attendees entered a glass-paned ballroom on the Hudson, wineglass in hand, and moved from table to table, sampling the varieties of libations on offer.
The kosher wine industry has taken off in the past five years as kosher drinkers have become more sophisticated and begun pairing wine with food. Sales have increased 15-20 percent annually, says Gabriel Geller, director of public relations for Royal Wine Corp, which sponsored the event. Kosher wine consumption in the U.S. now outpaces general market consumption, on a per capita basis: Americans drink eight to 10 liters per capita annually, while the kosher crowd consumes 15 to 20. It helps that wine is an integral part of Shabbat and holiday meals. If the number of superior kosher wines continues to expand, Jews may well catch up with the Italians or French, who consume 60 liters per capita annually.
Wines introduced at the fair included the first kosher Chianti Classico “Gran Selezione,” a designation awarded the finest Chianti, produced at Tuscany’s first fully kosher winery, Terra di Seta, and a sauterne from Château de Rayne Vigneau in Bordeaux. “I think it’s superb, really delicious,” said Yossi of Yossi’s Wine & Liquor in Borough Park, Brooklyn, of the new sauternes, to be priced at $130-$150. “There are so many layers. Even while it’s in the mouth I’m getting so many flavors.”
Throngs advanced upon California-based Covenant Wines. Heshy Jay, an event planner, called Covenant’s Blue C rosé “delicious.” The rosé, as well as three other Covenant wines — Blue C Viognier, Blue C Red Wine Adom, and Covenant Israel Syrah — are made in Israel. The company began producing wines in Israel in 2013 after scoping out the terrain two years earlier. “The topography reminded me of California,” said founder Jeff Morgan. “I thought, ‘How cool would it be to make wine in Israel, too?’” He called the syrah a “game changer” that proved he could produce wines in Israel on par with his California varieties. It retails for $75.
Jay said he was surprised by how much Israeli wines had improved. Indeed, Wine Spectator magazine devoted its October 2016 cover story to Israeli wines and listed more than 20 that rated at least 90 out of 100 points. And more of the country’s wines are selling overseas.
Jezreel Valley Winery and the boutique Vitkin Winery, which became kosher last year, just entered the U.S. market. Israel’s Shiloh Winery is counting on refined palates to support its new Heroes Edition 2014, a collection of Cabernet Sauvignons harvested from three vineyards in the sixth year of the seven-year shmitta cycle. The three wines are only sold together; the price is $200 for one bottle of each.
Hugo Shu, a business developer, said he had never tried Israeli wines before and was impressed by their quality, particularly the 2011 Shiraz from Psagot Winery. “It smells very nice and lasts a long time” in the mouth, he said. Since 2012, seven Psagot wines have been awarded 90 to 92 points out of 100 by Wine Enthusiast.
Israel Zwick, who works in medical billing, raved about the selections from Spain. Ramon Cardova and Elvi Wines, two fully kosher Spanish operations, presented at the fair. The former plans to introduce a new rosé this spring, hopefully in time for Shavuot. Elvi introduced its newest red, white, and rosé wines for everyday drinking under its Viña Encina label, each priced at $9.
To bring more first-rate European wines to the kosher market, Royal’s France-based subsidiary, Royal Wine Europe, partners with wineries on the continent to create limited-batch kosher versions. This can be a hard sell. “They don’t need the business,” Geller says. “Their wines are in high demand and always sell out.” There is no financial incentive, he adds, and some wineries don’t want the intrusion of outside staff. (For a wine to be kosher, it must be made by Sabbath-observant men.)
Some partnerships are one-time deals; others occur with regularity. Château Giscours in Margaux, France, has produced a kosher wine with Royal yearly since 2014 and sporadically since 1993. Château Fourcas Dupré introduced its second annual batch of kosher wine at this year’s fair, a 2012 Bordeaux priced below $30. Vintner Guislain Pagès felt proud that his family history had come full circle; his ancestors in Tunisia produced kosher wine a century ago.
As the quality of kosher wines has improved, even the long disparaged “mevushal” label is redeeming itself. (Some Jews consider wine no longer kosher if served by a non-Jew. To get around this, kosher wine would be cooked, or, “mevushal” in Hebrew, sapping its flavor.) Today, producers of mevushal wine either flash pasteurize it or use the “flash détente” method of heating grape juices and skins before fermentation. California-based Covenant Wines and Hagafen Cellars use the latter method on their mevushal wines.
“Across the board, wine that is mevushal is no longer significantly inferior to non-mevushal wine,” Geller says. Shiloh Secret Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Psagot Edom, both mevushal, in 2012 were given 91 and 90 points out of 100, respectively, by Wine Enthusiast magazine. Jay called Joseph Zakon Winery’s Petite Sirah, also mevushal, a “hidden gem.”
For all the new kosher wines out there, some drinkers prefer the comfort of the familiar. Hamami says that to this day, Bartenura Moscato is his go-to pleasure. “It’s such an amazing wine,” he says. “You can use it in so many ways — for lunch, for Shabbat dinner, for desert.” And he’s not alone. DJ Khaled featured a bottle in a 2011 music video and tweeted, “Livin that @moscatolife with Bartenura on set,” making it the darling of hip-hop fans.