Erica Landis knows her wines. She’s worked at Stew Leonard’s Wines of Springfield for six years now, and in the 1990s she logged five years at a winery in Pennsylvania.
Over the years at Stew Leonard’s she has sensed a trend among the shop’s kosher wine buyers. “I’m seeing more and more Thursday and Friday-afternoon shoppers — young moms and loosened-tie dads ready for Shabbat,” told NJJN.
“The desired price range seems to fall into the $12-$15 bottle range,” Landis continued. “Barkan [Israel] and Bartenura [Italy] being very popular in that range. And for ‘splurgier’ bottles, the wines from Montefiore and Teperberg [both from Israel] are some of my favorites. They rival any great California producer.”
Kosher wines are winning accolades in the wine media and winning fans like Landis’ customers in greater volume than ever before. That’s no meager achievement for an industry that a generation ago meant the syrupy sweet stuff of Shabbat dinners and seder tables.
Even in regular wine stores the change is evident. Asked about her customers’ kosher wine-buying habits, Landis said they tend to come back with the same stories and confessions as any other oenophiles.
As one consumer who declined to give her name put it, “I grew up thinking sweet Manischewitz was what wine drinking was all about. I liked it — in very small quantities. I still like that stuff, but as an adult, it’s been fun discovering all these new options. Now, for my husband and me, having a good bottle of wine with a meal has become a fairly regular part of our lives — a very nice part.”
Writing in Wine Spectator magazine last fall, journalist and wine connoisseur Kim Marcus described an extraordinary blooming of the kosher wine production, most dramatically in Israel. While kosher wine production there goes back to ancient times, the country now produces 10 million cases a year — and a significant percentage is of high quality.
After a recent trip to Israel, Marcus did a survey of the country’s wines. Marcus said that of 120 wines he tasted, 30 scored 90 points or higher on the magazine’s wine-quality scale — the best year yet.
One of the largest kosher wine suppliers in the U.S. is Royal Wine Corporation, which is headquartered in Bayonne. Marcus credits Royal with doing more than anyone else to replace the “checkered image” of kosher wines with one of quality.
Gabriel Geller, the corporation’s wine education manager and director of advertising and public relations, put that growth in perspective: “Over the past 15 years, the number of kosher wines available on the market has reached over 3,000,” he said. “That’s more than 100 percent growth.”
The kosher vintages come not just from Israel, he pointed out, but from “some of the best wine-growing regions in the world, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Golan Heights, the Judean Hills, Priorat, Rioja, Chianti, Napa Valley, Sonoma, Paso Robles, Yarra Valley in Australia, New Zealand, etc.”
Royal’s roots go back almost nearly 170 years, to the founding of the Herzog family winery in Czechoslovakia, which supplied wines to Emperor Franz Joseph. It was seized by the Nazis and the family was forced to flee, but they settled in New York City and the head of the family, Eugene Herzog, found work with Royal. He bought the corporation in 1958. While headquarters have remained in the New York City area, the company also owns two highly respected producers, Herzog Wine Cellars in California and Kedem winery in upstate New York.
Geller, who is 31, has strong rootstock of his own: He started working in the wine business in Switzerland when he was just 16. From there he went on to become a wine consultant, working with the export business and the hospitality industry in the U.S., Europe and Israel. For a while, he owned his own wine store in Israel. “As well,” he adds, “I run the largest online kosher wine forum with over 5,000 members.”
Geller has witnessed and helped fuel the transformation of kosher wine. “The kosher wine consumer has,” he said “been educating himself and always wants to try more types of wines, more varieties, different regions, different styles. A Pinot Noir from Oregon or from Pommard. A Champagne-method sparkling wine from Napa Valley or a genuine Champagne from France. A Mediterranean blend from Israel, a great growth from Pauillac, a super Tuscan…”
Not only Orthodox Jews are buying these wines. Non-observant Jews are choosing to buy Israeli wines to support the country and — well, because they’re good. Non-Jews are buying them, too.
As Geller put it, “These wines are of the same quality and are made using the exact same winemaking methods and processes as their non-kosher counterparts. For instance, Bartenura Moscato, a kosher wine from Italy, is the world’s best-selling Italian Moscato. It compares in price with most non-kosher Moscatos, and so do most kosher wines.”
One local purchaser, a Maplewood resident who isn’t observant, says she got tired of her husband’s outdated prejudice against kosher wines. “He prides himself on having a fine palate,” she said. “If I came home with a bottle that had a kosher stamp, he wouldn’t touch it. I knew better. One of the distributors had given a case of wines to our office, and we had them with our annual Chanukah party. I really liked them. So when we were given an Israeli wine as a gift, I poured him a glass without showing him the bottle or saying anything. Guess what — he thoroughly enjoyed it. He still insists most won’t be that good, but at least now he’s willing to try them.”