In early 2006 I received a call from Martin Davidson, then the head of press relations at kosher wine giant Royal Wine Corp., asking me to attend a kosher wine tasting the company was hosting at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. As I was living in Washington, D.C., at that time I was not sure it was worth taking a day off work, and paying for train tickets, just to go to a wine tasting — but Davidson talked me into coming.
That evening, during the first Kosher Wine Experience (it took them a couple of years to really build up the food aspect of the event and add “food” to the title), about 300 of us sampled wine from Royal’s impressive portfolio. It was a good wine tasting, but I never would have imagined that it would turn into the international phenomenon that the Kosher Food and Wine Experience has become.
Today, Royal Wine hosts annual Kosher Food and Wine Experiences in a growing number of cities: New York, London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Miami and Los Angeles — each with sellout crowds of often over 1,000. According to Nathan Herzog, Royal’s President, “Chicago is the next city we are looking at for a KFWE … [not to mention bringing] mini-KFWEs to Minnesota and Atlanta.”
Herzog believes the growth of the KFWE is related to the overall growth in the kosher wine market. “We are raising the bar. It’s like a little kid who starts walking. He walks two steps then six, then 12, then he starts walking like an adult. … We see the evolution, the revolution, [of kosher wine and KFWE] the same way it used to be that the [high-end] cabernets were $60, then $100 and now $200. … Everybody is looking here to find out what’s new in the world of kosher wine.”
At this year’s New York KFWE, which was held on Feb. 5 at Chelsea Piers and drew some 2,500 people, wine highlights included an exceedingly broad selection of 2015 Bordeaux, the best Bordeaux vintage in a decade, including the first kosher release from Chateau Lascombes, Margaux (one of very best wines I’ve ever tasted). “When kosher wine producers contract with grand cru wineries, we do it a year in advance, sometimes three years in advance,” explains Jay Buchsbaum, Royal’s executive vice president for marketing, “so we are exceedingly fortunate to have so many wines from such a stellar vintage.” (In all, there were 1,300 bottles of wine to sample at this year’s KFWE.)
Other wine highlights included an excellent new sparkling rosé from Hagafen and a delightful new vintage of Alexander Winery’s Amarone-style Amarolo. Some of the food highlights (35,000 plates) included fresh foie gras, sweetbreads pate, smoked veal tongues, a broad selection of charcuterie both fresh and dried and veal bacon brittle for dessert.
KFWE can be an exhausting whirlwind of travel for the exhibitors. “I just came from London” (where the KFWE was held on Jan. 31), said Yehuda Nahar, co-founder and winemaker for Jazreel Valley Winery, when we spoke at the New York event; “and tomorrow I head to L.A.,” where the KFWE took place on Feb. 7. This is Nahar’s second year showcasing his wines at KFWE, and despite the grueling travel schedule, he finds the events very worthwhile. “KFWE is a very unique opportunity to meet all the relevant people that deal with our wine — the wine shop owners, retailers, sommeliers from restaurants, clients and fans. Everybody is here. It’s a unique opportunity to concentrate everything you do all year long into one day. That is why we do it.”
For the food vendors, KFWE can be a valuable way to promote themselves to the local market, as well as get a sense of the food trends by looking at what their competitors are offering. Caterer and pop-up restaurateur Ari White, of the Wondering Que, recalls that in 2011 at his first KFWE, he “signed four weddings out of that gig alone.” White says that KFWE is a great way to reach out to the kosher “foodie” market. “On a local New York level, this is probably the single biggest [kosher] foodie event of the year.” When wine and spirits are added to the food at KFWE, White says the event can be summed up as “the biggest, craziest kiddush of the year.”
Why is KFWE so successful? Jay Buchsbaum believes that it comes down to one simple factor: “Jews want to enjoy the same earthly delights and earthly pleasures that everybody else does. This is an opportunity for them to do that — for $100 to $150 at the most; this is an opportunity to spend the evening with the finest food and wine.”
As for KFWE’s future, Buchsbaum says, “We’ve been pondering how long this will continue. Won’t people get bored? — Well, apparently not. I’m guessing that as long as we keep upping the bar we will always sell out.”