Is The Kosher Label A ‘Golden Handcuff?’
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Is The Kosher Label A ‘Golden Handcuff?’

Israeli vintners discuss the benefits and pitfalls of typecasting.

It’s a bit like being a sophisticated teenager and having to sit at the kid’s table for the Passover seder. Or like a composer who has written a work he thinks is serious and having it end up in the “Light Classical” bin.

It’s the “kosher shelf.” And it’s the bane of many Israeli winemakers’ existence.

By most estimates, kosher wine has come a long way since the industry first began making serious table wine. And in Israel, the quality of the wine being produced has taken dramatic leaps in the last generation, according to industry observers. So looking at the current state of the Israeli kosher wine market, a question arises: Is it good for Israeli wines to be looked at as merely kosher when those winemakers are trying to make fine wine?

“Israel is producing the best kosher wines in the world,” says Adam Montefiore, the wine development director of the Carmel Winery, Israel’s largest wine producer, “and Israel offers the greatest variety of kosher wines in the world.” There are fabulous kosher wines to be had from elsewhere, he readily concedes, but there is nothing in particular to make them compelling beyond the kosher market, all things being equal.

“A kosher CA [California] wine has to compete with every CA non-kosher wine,” he says, “while an Israeli wine isn’t just kosher, for it also represents the Eastern Mediterranean wine region, the area of the world where the culture of wine was born in ancient times.” After all, he argues, “‘kosher’ isn’t a region, and Israel isn’t an island, but a country that, in wine terms, represents a proper wine-producing region — the Eastern Mediterranean — which includes Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, and Lebanon.” Israeli wine that is kosher should be proudly so, he maintains, for Israel is the Jewish state and “kosher” is the Jewish dietary code, but “in fact the ‘kosher’ designation is totally irrelevant to the quality of the wine.”

Yet being relegated to the kosher shelf remains a problem, he notes, largely “because people confuse ‘kosher’ with ‘kiddush’ [sweet, sacramental wine]. But Israeli wines also offer the best chance for a crossover from kosher to non-kosher.”

Placement on the shelf is no small thing for vintners. “Before we became kosher, the wine stores didn’t know where to put us — especially in the U.S.,” says Eli Ben-Zaken, founder and winemaker of the prestigious Israeli boutique winery Domaine du Castel. “But look, you want to be on the kosher shelf too so that kosher consumers can find your wines.” He says it is simply a reality to be accepted: “We strive to make good wines that happen also to be kosher, but we do want the kosher drinker to know where we are and [to] be able to find us. Ideally, you want to be on two shelves — kosher and Israeli — but that might be asking too much.”

To Gil Shatsberg, head winemaker at the Recanati Winery, one of Israel 10 largest producers, the kosher shelf is “a sort of a golden handcuff — it’s golden, but it is limiting.” He notes, however, that since Recanati is “working with an importer like Palm Bay, where we are the only kosher wine in their portfolio, it allows us to really market the wine to the general wine consumer, to the non-kosher market. It’s obviously an uphill battle, but we’ve thus far some had very good successes — including [having our wines in] Michelin-starred New York restaurants. We obviously aren’t neglecting the kosher market, as it remains most important — but we try not to be bound to it.”

For Ed Salzberg, chief winemaker for the Barkan Winery, Israel’s second largest producer, the kosher shelf issue, “if it ever was an issue, ceased being of importance a long time ago.” He maintains that Israeli wines are sold in Western Europe and North America as “kosher” because, “this represents who buys most of them — Jews who support Israel.” He believes that “as Israeli wines have become much better, the public buying them has become much more sophisticated about what it wants.” Citing the countless medals and consistently good reviews that Israeli wines have garnered, he suggests that “the public buying kosher wine expects a good product.”

Salzberg continues, “Someone who normally doesn’t buy kosher wines, but who has tasted or heard of a particular wine will find it” easily enough. The notion that it would be good for Israeli wine producers “to be on the same shelf as [non-kosher] New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Australian Shiraz or Argentine Malbec” is, to Salzberg, “debatable.” On balance, he suggests, “Israeli wines get more shelf space as ‘kosher wines’ than they would get as [just] another third-world producer.”

Victor Schoenfeld, head winemaker of the Golan Heights Winery, is far less sanguine about the idea that non-kosher consumers are willing to explore the kosher section to find a good quality Israeli wine. “Like Sasquatch,” he says, “maybe there have been some sightings, but nobody knows if she or he really exists,” and “anyway, this consumer does not exist in any kind of volume.

“I completely agree that it benefits kosher Israeli wines to have a ‘built-in’ niche market,” says Schoenfeld, “but being relegated to the ‘kosher shelf’ outside of Israel is a very mixed bag. … My view is long term and I think about what will ensure long-term vitality for the Israeli wine industry.”

Consider, he notes, that “Israel has no competitive advantage in making low-cost wine. Real estate, energy, labor, etc., costs are not low in Israel. We will never be able to compete long term with countries that have lower costs and thus have a decisive competitive advantage in producing low cost wines.” Further, he says, “the added cost to make wines from these low-cost countries kosher is not that high. Low-cost wines around the world are basically a commodity, and low-cost kosher wines will be the same, if it’s not that way completely already.” Taking the longer-term view, “the Israeli wine industry has to produce high-quality, high-value wines in order to flourish.”

As it stands, Schoenfeld contends, “The international kosher wine market is not big enough for Israeli wines to sell exclusively there and succeed.” Israel needs, he argues, “to become a niche market in the general wine market,” and “if we have the quality, we don’t have to compete in the difficult mass market. If we become a recognized, well-regarded niche, that will spell success for our domestic industry. And I believe this is happening and may even be slowly snowballing.”

“There is a sea-change going on,” says Jay Buchsbaum, vice president of marketing and director of wine education for Royal Wine Corp., the largest producer, importer and distributor of kosher wines and spirits, “though I think it’s only at its beginning.” He notes that “more and more non-kosher restaurants are adding Israeli wines to their lists, more and more stores are putting in ‘Israeli wine’ sections, or putting them in what they call ‘other’ or ‘Mediterranean’ sections, not necessarily just in a ‘kosher’ section. Indeed, “some of the smarter stores,” he notes, “are putting the Israeli section right next to the kosher section, so that the kosher consumer can still find it without the retailer having to give it space in both sections.”

Tempering this optimism a bit, however, Buchsbaum notes that these positive developments are “only a fraction of what they could and should be, and I think at some point it’ll become de rigueur, and all Israeli wines will be in Israeli sections. But right now it’s only a fraction.”

Notes Hal Cashman, portfolio director for the Recanati Winery with Palm Bay International, its U.S. importer: “I was with our New York sales team yesterday, and they sell Recanati wines like any other fine wine they would sell, like Brunello or Barolo. … The fact that it’s kosher isn’t something they need to bring up anymore.”

“We’ve made our most headway in New York,” Cashman notes, and “there are now sommeliers out there that are recognizing Israeli wine — Recanati in particular, but others too. They are breaking through, and that’s really our goal. This past year has been fantastic.” He notes, for example, that “the Recanati Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee 2012 was named one of the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2014. That’s one of the industry’s posters for ‘Who’s Who’ in the wine world. So it was really a vote of confidence for Israeli wine in general, and obviously Recanati in particular, to get on that list. It’s a statement that says: ‘Israel is making wine that ranks up there with everyone else on this list.’”

He readily concedes that “it’s been and will continue to be a battle; I think people have life-long memories of drinking Manischewitz at Passover; it’s part of their upbringing and memories, but it is slowly changing.”

Royal’s Buchsbaum notes that kosher wine typecasting “is really unfair these days because Israel has now become a properly recognized region for production of quality wines. In fact, Wine Enthusiast has just rated over 30 different Israeli wines above 90 points [out of 100], some in the mid-90s, and a whole bunch more in the high 80s.”

For Gabriel Geller, a Jerusalem-based Israeli wine expert and industry consultant, “this issue is mostly a problem with the distributors and retailers outside Israel who automatically put the wines in the kosher section. The wineries can’t do much about it except those who use non-kosher importers, such as Tzora and Recanati, who will feature them as Israeli or Mediterranean wines. Other wineries simply do not try hard enough to have their wines sold outside kosher stores and restaurants, with a few exceptions here and there.”

Golan Heights Winery’s Schoenfeld agrees. “We have not done nearly enough in the U.S. to market ourselves.” He argues, “the U.S. should be Israel’s natural target market as it is a high value, open-minded, growing market that has relatively positive views of Israel.” However, he notes, “Because the United States has such a well-defined kosher market, it represents more of a challenge to break free of it.”

But to Schoenfeld, the goal is very clear: “Israeli wines need to break out of the kosher market for the long-term health of the industry, and to do that, we have to exist on the non-kosher shelf and compete as quality wines at a logical price from an interesting Mediterranean appellation. There is no sense in deluding ourselves that we can successfully exist only in the kosher market. And even if we could, I don’t think we should. I think Israel is making more and more interesting wines, and I am convinced we can also make great wines. Our wines continue and will continue to reach ever-higher levels of quality. Of course, we have our challenges, but so does every wine producing area in the world.”

Lewis Pasco, winemaker of the Pasco Project and consultant to the Beit El Winery, notes wistfully that it’s not just the kosher wine industry that has changed dramatically. “The kosher consumer has come such a long way just since I came to Israel in 1997 and began producing kosher wines. Now, the kosher consumer is not just looking for a good wine, but for a great wine, and at a good price. And, what’s more, they now have a lot to choose from. We’ve all come such a long way — and Israel is obviously at the forefront of creating and defining what makes a ‘good’ or ‘great’ kosher wine.”

For Pasco, “the ‘kosher shelf’ is no longer the nasty thing that it used to be. … So, sure, our wines get typecast or relegated to the kosher shelf — but there’s now an awful lot of good stuff there; it’s not just plonk anymore.”

editor@jewishweek.org

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