A Viable Crystal Ball (2016 Preview)

This week’s Crystal Ball newsletter is my attempt to provide some insights into some of the major trends I expect the kosher wine world to undergo over the course of calendar year 2016.  While many of the changes described below has been occurring at a somewhat glacial pace for a while now (and “predicted” in prior Crystal Ball newsletters), the pace of change has picked up dramatically and I believe that 2016 will be a year in which the changes occur fast enough to be recognized by all.  In order to maintain an acceptable level of brevity, I won’t be discussing topics which were prevalent in 2015 and covered in my 2015 “Lookback” newsletter even if I expect them to continue to be relevant in 2016 (e.g. the resurgence of French wines, lack of conflict-free information and the return of mevushal).

While many in the industry abhor change, it is a good thing and the way of the world.  Instead of being afraid of it, people in the industry should embrace it and learn to use it to their (and out) advantages.  To quote a particularly beautiful piece of writing by one of my all-time favorite wine bloggers – Alder Yarrow: “The wine world is a funny place. So many people act like they have a monopoly on tradition, deliberately ignoring the continuity of human experience while glorifying the past.  That’s not to say that things always improve in the inexorable march of progress, but those who idealize an unchanging moment in history blind themselves to one of life’s great lessons: impermanence.”  I look forward to 2016 being a year where we experience much positive and needed changes within the glorious world of kosher wine that we love so much.

So please join me on the third leg of my annual trifecta as we peer into the kosher wine world’s crystal ball and see what the coming year (um, nine months) has in store for us.


The Year Wine Explodes

Over the last few years I have often spoken about the growing popularity of wine among mainstream kosher consumers.  Alongside the surging interest in culinary pursuits (i.e. eating), more and more kosher-keeping folk are incorporating wine into their daily lives.  For some this manifests itself with a shift from using semi-sweet red wine or sparkling Asti only at Kiddush to leaving the bottle on the table (and consuming it) throughout the meal, for others it is a shift to “real” wine and for folks who have been enjoying wine with their Shabbat meals for years, wine has found itself on their weekday tables more and more often.  A similar trend is occurring in the non-kosher wine world but for different reasons.  For the wine world at large, this is partially a result of wine ceasing to be elitist, driven in part by a growing cadre of younger wine writers and educators whose views on who “should” be drinking wine is refreshingly different that prior generations.  Among kosher consumers the change is primarily driven by a rising awareness about wine and a growing interest in learning more about it and consuming more of it.

Having something of a front row seat to the phenomenon by virtue of this newsletter, I have seen this growth manifest in a growing interest in wine in general evidenced among other things, by the rapidly growing rate of subscription increases to these weekly missives.  While growth has been surging over the last few years, I believe that 2016 will be the year in which is reaches epic proportions.  Wine events have become increasingly prevalent in all walks of life and the number of charity events where wine plays a primary or supporting role is exploding.  Wine producers, importers and distributors have all recognized this and the number of new wine-related projects in the works is simply astounding.  From the numerous new French offerings currently on the market (and in various stages of production) to new Australian and Italian wineries coming on line and the various niche projects for which the internet is enabling significantly more access, we are experiencing the “Golden Years” of kosher wine production, with plenty more growth ahead of us in the year(s) to come.

However, all this popularity and growth comes at a price and must be managed properly in order to derive the most benefit from it.  Read on for some of the reasons it isn’t completely a Rosé-tinted view.

Drek, Plonk and more Drek

With so much more consumer interest, it comes as no surprise that the number of available kosher wines continues to grow at a rapid pace.  In addition to the extreme difficulty this causes in limiting my annual Pesach Wine Buying Guide to a manageable number of recommended wines, a far more important negative is the astounding amount of bad wine that continues to be produced across the kosher wine producing spectrum.  In today’s day and age, with winemaking knowledge, technology and expertise widely available, there is simply no excuse for so much bad wine.  Despite going from approximately 500 “relevant” kosher labels being produced annually a decade ago to more than 2,500 these days, the ratio of good to bad has not significantly changed, making wine purchasing a perilous endeavor for the casual kosher wine consumer (a rapidly growing market, as discussed above).  To be clear – when I refer to “bad wine”, I am not talking about wines I personally don’t like due to an aversion to the winemaking style or varietal characteristics.  I am not even referring to genre of wines that I don’t hold in high regard such as sparkling Moscato or semi-sweet red wines.  I am referring to an objective standard of flawed and/or poorly made wines where the winemaking (or winery “hygiene”) is sufficiently flawed as to render the wine “bad”.

As such, the difficulty in navigating these treacherous waters continues to grow, making the next point even more important.

The [Extremely] Lowered Bar to Entry

With wine again taking a page form the culinary playbook where the bar of entry to qualify as “expert advice” has sunk so low as to be exceptionally embarrassing, the proliferation of choices has led folks to search for wine wisdom in every available nook and cranny, many a time throwing their own palates and common sense to the wind and lemming-like following any piece of information or recommendation they come across.  In a reversal from 2015 and earlier, more and more information (if it can be called that) about wine is coming online from a wide variety of sources.  In the 2015 Lookback newsletter, we discussed the increasing need for caveat emptor with respect to kosher wine buying, as much of the information is from sources that have at least some skin in the game.  I expect the wine world to undergo the same experience currently occurring in the ever-expanding the world of kosher culinary writing and restaurant “reviewing” where anyone who knows how to eat crème brûlée has become a source of information of where the best can be found and eating out a lot and consuming substantial amounts of food seem to be the main criteria for assuming the mantle of a restaurant and/or food critic.  As such, look for 2016 to be the year in which we will see a new type of wine writing being added to the mix – that of the “everyman” critic.  While truly a magnificent thing and easily one of the most important developments to occur since I was born, the internet has allowed this phenomenon to flourish and we, as consumers, have exacerbated the problem by granting anyone whose information becomes available online with instant credibility instead of demanding at least a modicum of knowledge, expertise or critical eye (not every wine, dish or restaurant can be “the best you have ever had” or even “terrific”).  Relying on information simply because it is available is a dangerous way to make decisions on where to spend your wine-[or food]-allocated hard-earned lirot.

As someone whose primary motto is “the wine you enjoy is the best wine for you”, I believe that the surging interest in culinary and oenophilic pursuits is a great thing and welcome anyone with interest to “join the club”, whether with respect to drinking and enjoying the wine, writing about your experiences with it and especially providing others with valuable information about the wines.  That said, I would suggest to any budding wine writer to take the responsibility of making recommendations to others seriously.  Spend some time acquiring basic knowledge about wine, the wineries about which you are writing and most importantly – the wines you are recommending.  As this mostly means drinking and comparing a lot of wines – it’s not a terribly difficult thing to do!

The “Good Old Days”

The proliferation of available kosher wines, including the near-weekly influx of new labels from new or “renewed” [to the kosher wine world] wine-growing regions like Australia, Washington State, Italy, Chile and others (not to mention an array of new labels from stalwarts Israel, California and the reborn France) will also cause consumers to revert back to certain habits of yesteryear.

A decade ago, when the number of available kosher wines and kosher wine enthusiasts were both significantly more limited, most wine lovers had their “go to” wines to which they returned over and over again, buying multiple cases at a time of individual wines and enjoying them on a regular basis until the subsequent vintage was released and the pattern repeated itself anew.  While for many this list included the most prominent wines of the era including those from Château Giscours, Léoville-Poyferré and Smith Haut Lafitte, Herzog Special Reserves, Hagafen Cabernet Sauvignon, Yatir Forest, Binyamina Cave, Castel Grand Vin; even those drinking more affordable wines had a few wines they consumed on a regular basis and that was that.  Once in a while people would try a new wine or two, but as a whole, people were loyal to their brands with very limited experimenting.  Over the last decade as wine’s popularity grew and awareness about its sheer awesomeness grew, kosher wine consumers became more comfortable venturing out of their comfort zone and trying new things.  Over the years, this took on a life of its own and people soon became obsessed with only tying new wines, losing interest in tried and true wines that had provided value, quality and consistency for years including the vaunted Cabernet Sauvignon in the Yarden series of the Golan Heights Winery.  Wineries started coming up with new labels, designs and even gimmicks to try and retain consumer loyalty and interest in their already very good wines (an issue I discussed often on these pages, especially when referencing some tried and true wineries that cannot seem to get the respect they so richly deserve, like Dalton).

However, label fatigue has started to set in (no doubt helped along by the ever-increasing numbers of bad wine discussed above), and I expect 2016 to see a large number of consumers yearning for the “good old days” where a few wines and wineries provided the bulk of their drinking, while still being interested in new wines and wineries as they come to market.  As it is nearly impossible these days to try every available kosher wine (believe me – I try), consumers will stop chasing every new product and instead stick with their favorite wines and wineries.  As a result of this trend, wineries should spend extra time building up and retaining a loyal consumer base, as wine customers today are likely to be customers for a longer duration in the past, once again providing sufficient ROI (return on investment) for the winery to make such an investment in its customers.  In a similar fashion, the same is going to be applicable for kosher wine stores that invest in the knowledge and expertise of the folks selling their wine (not to mention more carefully curated selections) – consumers will notice and become loyal.

However, expertise, knowledge and customer service are not the entire story.  The antiquated wine industry has finally started to adapt to the change and the kosher industry has a little catching up to do, which leads to the next topic.

Next Stage of Growth

As more and more consumers see the light and shift from enjoying wine only with their Shabbat meals to enjoying it daily, the “problem” of leftover wine has risen to the top of the list for many (if only indicated by the sheer number of weekly emails I receive in this regard).  While the Coravin is a magnificent tool and a perfect solution for those struggling with this mystifying [to me] phenomenon, not everyone can or wants to spend $300 for a gadget that allows you to enjoy a glass a wine from any corked bottle without opening the bottle (or having any detrimental impact on the remaining wine) – and that is before you have to order replacement argon capsules…  For those uncomfortable with my usual suggestion that solves the problem as long as the wine is consumed within a day or two (i.e. pouring any remaining wine into a small plastic water bottle and gently squeezing the bottle until the wine reaches the top [thus eliminating any air which will cause the wine to go bad quickly]), the demand for half bottles (containing 375ml or less of wine, equal to 2-3 glasses and perfect for a couple wanting to enjoy wine without going what they would consider to be overboard).  I expect to see many wineries bottling a number of their wines in smaller formats, despite the fact that they are not economical for the winery (as the separate bottling line and packaging materials add additional cost while the wine remains the same).

Another area is in whine buying and shipping.  As the antiquated prohibition-era wine rules continue to fall (with plenty more work ahead of us in this regard), the g-d of retail – Amazon – has gotten into the wine game and carries over 10,000, making acquiring your day-to-day vino as easy as Prime.  However, the number of kosher wines available on the site varies but it always ranges from miniscule to none, an issue I expect change over the coming year as more and more producers appreciate the efficiency and ease it provides their consumers and the ability it provides them to extend their reach and sell more wine.

One additional required change might take a little longer.  With millennial wine drinking (or lack thereof) taking up much of the wine industry’s time and efforts, we have seen more and more integration of technology and wine especially in the arena of social media and apps.  It is rare that a week goes by without my receiving an email announcing the launch of a new wine app guaranteed to change my life forever.  However, even for rare quality apps or other technological advances (the majority of which are in the area of buying wine); they are of little use to the kosher wine consumer.  Cellar Tracker (the best method of tracking one’s personal wine collection) is one of the only applications that does provide information about [a certain number of] kosher wines and even there, the information is far from perfect with confusion reigning in a number of areas including numerous entries existing for the same wine and vintages being used interchangeably.  The many available wine apps that are intended to provide wine buying advice and coherent and consistent information about the wines contain a minuscule number of available kosher wines, for the most part those that are ubiquitous in nearly every wine store – typically the lowest end wines from Barkan, Recanati and Herzog).

[A Hint of] The Holy Grail

One of the holy grails of the kosher wine industry has long been the recognition by the general / non-kosher wine world that kosher wine is a meaningless term.  While kosher consumers require wine to be made in a kosher manner, for the most part such requirements can be achieved with zero impact on the winemaking itself (a topic for a future, stand-alone, newsletter).  I reiterate to anyone who will listen (and quite a few who won’t) that kosher wine is nothing but wine that happens to be kosher, similar to Hershey Kisses, Heinz Ketchup and other products whose kosher certification is meaningless to the world at large and matters only to the select few consumers for whom such certification is a requirement.  With the abundance of available kosher wines continuing to penetrate mainstream wine media, we are starting to see more and more kosher wines finding their way into non-kosher restaurants (as Israeli or Mediterannean wines) and wine stores (where they are labeled geographically instead of under the “kosher” sign) which results in some of our favorites wines being “discovered” by non-kosher consumers.

While I believe that the vast majority of the kosher wine market will continue to be kosher consumers for the foreseeable future, this is a great development and one I expect to pick up significant steam during the course of 2016.

God’s Year

2015 was a very challenging vintage year in Israel (at least for most of the wine-growing regions) which will obviously impact 2016 in a number of ways.  After somewhat typical growing conditions through August, a massive dust cloud descended on much of the country, lingering for over a week and covering everything in a thick layer of sand and grit.  Following this delightful occurrence, Israel recorded one of the hottest Septembers in its history, where much of the fruit literally baked on the vines.  These two occurrences combined to make for a very challenging harvest with yields down nearly 50% for some wineries.  Other wineries struggled mightily to coax their fruit to sufficient levels of ripeness.  During a harvest in which timing took on a heightened level of importance, 2015 will likely be a vintage in which the importance of having a quality winemaker surpasses that of quality vineyards.

Another “issue” that made growing grapes in 2015 especially challenging was the fact that it was Shmitah year.  In addition to all its usual and inherent difficulties, the fact that, unlike the prior two Shmitah vintages which were great ones for Israeli wines (2001 and 2008), it was an exceptional difficult harvest heavily exacerbated the problem.  Adding wood to the fire was the increased adherence to the rules of Shmitah by much of the kosher wine consuming public and the increased stringency in Israel in legislating those rules.  2015 was easily the year in which the largest number of wineries produced no wine whatsoever.

All of this is going to lead to a shortage of white and Rosé wines this year (the red wines form the 2015 harvest won’t, for the most part, be expected to hit the market until 2017), as many of our mainstay Rosé and white wines are sourced from wineries whose importer is Royal Wines which don’t import Shmitah wines.  That list includes Tabor, Castel, Flam, Netofa and Matar, among many others who typically provide much of the white and Rosé wines we consume.  Obviously this will be a boon to the Californians producing white and Rosé wines like Herzog, Hagafen, Covenant, Hajdu, Shirah and Four Gates but for those that prefer Israeli wines – let the fight for the white and Rosé wines of Tzora, Golan Heights Winery, Recanati, Dalton, Jezreel Valley, Kishor, Bat Shlomo, Lueria and others begin!

Yossie’s Corkboard

Before we sign off, I wanted to mention some expected developments for Yossie’s Corkboard expected during the coming year.  First I wanted to thank you all of your for your continued interest in this newsletter, including the many new subscribers that continue to sign-up on a daily basis.  The growth in this newsletter’s subscriber base continues to be a testament to the growing interest in kosher wine and the desire for more and better information about this God-given product we all love so much.  As most of you know, in addition to this weekly missive I am also active on Twitter were I provide interesting tidbits on a daily basis on the goings on in the wine world with the added benefit of being required to do so in 140 characters or less.  If you don’t already, I would appreciate you following me @yossieuncorked as well.

As the concept of getting together with friends on a regular basis to enjoy some great wines continues to become mainstream, I expect many more RCC (Rosh Chodesh Club) groups to come online this year, joining already existing long list of global “franchisees”.  As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out if I can be of any help is facilitating such gatherings.

Lastly, I continue to come across interesting and good deals on various wines from time to time which I am always happy to share with those interested.  With the newsletter not being the proper format for such information, I have a separate “Wine Buying Group” email for such items – please let me know if you would like to be added to this list.