Over the last few years kosher wine consumers have seen a steady stream of Italian wines enter the U.S. market. This should come as no surprise. Italy is, after all, one of the historically great Old World wine-producing nations, and perhaps the most complex and difficult to learn about. As Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson put it in their “World Atlas of Wine,” “Italy has the world’s richest variety of individual wine styles, distinctive terroirs, and indigenous grape varieties.”
Most kosher Italian wines range, however, from a seemingly endless array of “budget” or “value” driven products to a tiny handful of higher-end wines. There are, in fact, only two exclusively kosher wineries in all of Italy, both in Tuscany, and both are excellent. They both also make for first-rate travel destinations (judging by social media and travel site reviews). They are (1) Azienda Agricola Le Macie di Maria Pellegrini, aka “Terra di Seta” (the label name), situated in Castelnuovo Berardenga, in the province of Siena (production began in 2001, and they went fully kosher in 2008), and (2) Cantina Giuliano, in Casciana Alta, in the Province of Pisa (production began with the 2014 vintage). Terra di Seta currently has four wines imported to the U.S. by the Royal Wine Corp, while Cantina Giuliano has three wines imported by Allied Importers USA.
“The problem with Italy,” notes Shai Ghermezian of Allied Importers USA, “has always been that most kosher Italian wines are ‘private label’ wines or have otherwise been produced in non-kosher wineries under contract for export to Israel or the U.S., and under an importer’s branding label.” So most kosher Italian wines are brought to market without drawing much attention to the winery, estate or winemaker involved in its production. Bartenura and Borgo Reale are brands and not wineries, for example, so their wines can theoretically be sourced from various producers as desired.
“There is still an education gap regarding Italian wines,” observes Ghermezian. “This is true for the non-kosher market also. Most consumers like to drink familiar, pronounceable wines and varietals; wines they are used to already. Most Italian wines are simply unknown to most American consumers.”
“In the U.S. kosher market, at the moment,” agrees Daniele Della Seta, owner and winemaker at Terra di Seta, “there is not enough knowledge of the huge world of Italian wine. … It is not easy [for kosher consumers] to focus on what to expect when tasting an Italian wine.”
Italian wines can seem, after all, quite complicated. “Without including the international varieties, from north to south there are about 500 different kinds of native grape vines,” Della Seta notes, “and their cultivation in a certain area is the result of trials and trials done by the people living there over generations.” This variation and regionality led ultimately to Italy’s established regulated system of appellation designations — some of which, as in Chianti, were first set down 300 years ago. “These rules and designations are not easy to understand in the foreign market,” he adds, “and the kosher market is lagging behind the traditional market.”
Della Seta offers one significant illustration: “Chianti and Chianti Classico are two different regions in Tuscany with different histories, different terroirs, different regulations, but similar grape variety percentages. In the traditional [non-kosher] market, especially in Europe, these wines are well known, so they have different target audiences and different prices. In the U.S. kosher market, except for a few experts, nobody knows about these differences—this causes confusion.” Indeed, “sometimes,” he adds, “my wines not only are compared with some other [non-Chianti Classico] kosher Chiantis, but also with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines, Barolos, etc., something incomprehensible for an Italian wine producer.”
Eli Gauthier, owner and winemaker at Cantina Giuliano, sadly concurs that “the kosher market doesn’t really know Italian wine at all.”
A big part of the problem, thinks Gauthier, are the “high-volume export-driven kosher runs of Italian wines” that tend towards a middling quality and a vague internationalization of what “Italian” wine has to offer the kosher consumer. “I hear all the time from U.S. retailers,” he notes ruefully, “that ‘people are not looking for what you are making’ or that ‘nobody comes in asking for a Vermentino,’ for example.”
It can be exasperating. “First, they’ve never heard of this grape varietal,” observes Gauthier. “They don’t have any idea of what it should taste like, or what foods it might go with.” Yet Vermentino “is what the locals near me drink along the coast; this is one of the local popular white wines that Italians in coastal Tuscany drink with their fish or antipasti or just as an aperitivo [to stimulate their appetites]; this is why I wanted to make it — and, indeed, mine is the first kosher Vermentino.” It is, he notes simply, “an example of one of the authentic tastes of Tuscany.”
Fortunately, says Gauthier, there is a healthy change afoot: “Kosher consumers have a sense that they are missing out on something, so there is now a slightly greater interest. People have heard about how prized and how interesting and diverse Italian wines are in the non-kosher world — so there is now a great desire to learn about and experience quality and higher-end Italian wines in the kosher market.”
Part of this shift, says Gauthier, is due to “kosher tourism to Italy, and especially Tuscany. … It has really helped with this. This is still a small percentage of kosher consumers, but it is a healthy development. Tremendously helpful.”
Daniele Della Seta is also fairly optimistic. “I’m confident,” he says, “that soon the kosher audience will learn to increasingly distinguish the differences between wines in general, and in particular the Italian ones.” He has noticed, for example, a “big change” just “in the last few years in the kosher palate during the [various] wine tastings” he has participated in to promote his wines. Also, “the social media” kosher wine groups are providing “excellent help in this way.” Mostly, however, what kosher consumers need is more experience drinking wines with their meals — the lifeblood of the Italian diet.
“In the Italian tradition,” notes Della Seta, “wines must be drunk at the table. It means that for Italians wine-pairing is very important, and there are Italian wines for every occasion.”
Della Seta agrees, as well, that tourism is very helpful in this cultural education. There have been thousands of American kosher consumers visiting his winery in Tuscany since 2012. They are “enthusiastic to taste our wines” and they are clearly “ready to have new wine experiences to increase their wine sensibility.”
He explains to visitors about the Chianti Classico region, its rules and styles: “This is something new for the U.S. consumers. Showing them our estate vineyards and the land where vines are growing, they understand the reason why and how the wine can transmit its own, personal, territorial expression during the tasting.” These tastings are combined with food, of course, enabling the wine to “tell something more to the consumer” and making for “a more complete wine experience.”
Unfortunately, this direct experience-driven approach to sales is not readily achievable in the United States, except for domestic wineries. Travelling the U.S. to conduct tastings and promote their Italian wines can perhaps offer Americans a bit of familiarity with the Italian experience, but divorced from the local context, and the local cuisine, and necessarily limited by time and budget constraints, only so much can be accomplished.
“The market for kosher Italian wine,” suggests Gauthier, “is bound to stay quite small and quite limited, for a while at least, to the more entry-level, volume-driven export wines.” As he sees it, “there is no real demand for anything else.”
Part of the problem is the tricky issue of Israel. “When it comes to the U.S. kosher market,” explains Gauthier, “my competition—in a sense—is really Israeli wine.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Gauthier was very quick to add. “I love Israeli wines, too … Italian wine is simply different.” Or as Daniele Della Seta put it, albeit in a slightly different context, the Israeli style of French or international wines “is still influencing the Jewish palate all around the world.”
So, while the popularity of quaffable, budget-friendly kosher Italian imports diminishes overall consumer knowledge of Italian wines, argues Gauthier, it is the American-Jewish affinity for Israeli wines that represents the more remarkable hurdle.
Driving his point home, he explains, “the difference between a coastal Chianti and a Chianti Classico is not only unknown to most [kosher consumers], but when they want to spend that kind of money they are looking for a familiar Israeli cab or an Israeli red blend.” Entry-level wines, he notes, “compete on a price level, but quality kosher wines have this additional hurdle.” In Europe, at least, “direct sales allow for us to directly educate consumers, to tell our story.”
Happily, both Della Seta and Gauthier agree that the surest path for the growth of the kosher Italian market is, at least, a pleasurable one: consumers should drink more Italian wine with food, and expand their experiences. This is, if nothing else, eminently agreeable homework for the rest of us.