Following on last week’s newsletter with my best wines of 2014, this week’s newsletter takes a good hard look at the past twelve months of the wonderful world of Israeli and kosher wines (“KIW”) and discusses some of the trends and occurrences that I have witnessed over the past year (along with some color commentary and analysis). Obviously this newsletter is a precursor to next week’s in which I will peer into KIW’s crystal ball and make some predictions for the coming year of 2015 (which is a Shmittah year for Israeli wines). As we are taking about the world of wine, things move along at an only-very-slightly faster than glacial and many of the trends and occurrences discussed in connection with 2013-2014 are still very relevant for 2014-2015 (including some trending overlap between the annual summaries and Crystal Ball newsletters).
More & Better Wine; Oenophile Growth
A positive trend that has been relatively consistent for the last few years is that more and more kosher consumers are “getting into” wine (this general trend is the main driver behind many of the trends discussed below and in next week’s Crystal Ball newsletter). While Israeli wine consumption has unfortunately remained relatively stagnant, US kosher wine consumption is on the rise and most Israeli wineries realistically view much of their potential future growth in the export market, the largest and most important of which is obviously the United States. In Israel, the rise in popularity of Scotch and other spirits (to some degree driven by the reduction in [still egregiously high] import taxes) has eaten into wine’s potential growth, while US kosher consumers have been drinking Scotch for decades with wine a relatively latecomer to the kosher booze-fest. As a side note, despite the importance of the US market to the Israeli wine industry, the Israeli obsession with Chul is spilling into the wine industry, with wineries touting the multitude of countries to which they export. I mean seriously – who cares that you sold four cases of wine to Tanzania and 100 bottles are now in the possession of some importer in Uzbekistan? Even selling to Costco in Japan isn’t all that important and none of these occurrences should be touted as important events…
Happily, this increasing desire to consume good vino is being meet with creativity, experimentation, innovation and growth and we are rewarded with new wines and wineries all the time (well, not always rewarded, but they are always there). In what may be characterized as “first world problems”, the proliferation of wines can actually wreak havoc with one’s decision making process, leaving the consumer with too many choices and not enough tools (beyond this newsletter of course) to sift through what is worth spending hard-earned cash on and what is not. Thus, an unfortunate byproduct of this embarrassment of riches is that consumers sometimes revert to the tried and true and miss out on some of the most exciting wineries, wines and varietals. Another “negative” of all these wines is that it makes this writer’s job even more difficult. If in past years, one could theoretically taste every new kosher wine from every vintage, every year; these days it is a nearly impossible Herculean task (compounded by the different labels for the same wine discussed last year). While I make a valiant attempt to taste all the new wines including visiting almost every kosher winery every other year, in recent years I find that I invariably miss a few here and there (though I still managed to taste nearly 1,500 wines in 2014 with still too many not being worthy of included on these pages).
An easily identifiable area of growth is the Mediterranean varietals. While I have been touting Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Carignan as potential “soul mates” for Israel’s terroir for years (in addition to Viognier and Petite Sirah), recent years have seen a number of additional varietals join the fold, many of which show great promise. Among others, this list includes Grenache, Marselan, Roussanne, Marsanne, Chenin Blanc and Mourvedre, with Recanati and Domaine Netofa leading the charge in this regard (among the kosher wineries). Given the success California-based Hajdu has had with Grenache Blanc, I hope to it added to this list in the near future.
Another great phenomenon resulting from wine’s popularity growth is the increasing number of wine bars and tasting rooms that typically offer a large number of wines by the glass (usually from special dispensers that prevent oxidation and allow bottles to be “open” for a much longer than usual time) and allow the consumer to sample a multitude of wines in a single setting. While nearly all such Israeli options offer plenty of kosher wines (and many even have kosher cheese and/or meats), none of these places are certified kosher, preventing the kosher wine lover from truly experiencing these locales in the manner in which was intended. Hopefully Israel will have a quality kosher option in the near future (in the US It will unfortunately take much longer, mainly due to the stranglehold certain bodies have over the industry preventing the option of having non-mevushal wines served at kosher certified eateries (another topic to be copied in depth soon)) with the ability to enjoy the terrific wines alongside the incredible cheeses Israel has to offer. In addition to these “static” wine tasting opportunities, there has been an incredible growth of “wine festivals” providing tasting opportunities up and down Israel over the course of the entire year. While many of these are private tastings or limited to the “trade” (like the top notch Sommelier Expo) and the sheer number of events (coupled with high participation cost to the wineries) reduces the number of wineries participating at many of these festivals (in addition to limiting the wines poured to the lower and mid-range wines for the most part), there is usually plenty of wines to go around and some great festivals with a very reasonable entry fee in which many wines participate. Most of these festivals recognize that not everyone is a wine lover and that usually also provide some vittles besides the now-usual olive oil, chocolate and jams in order to satisfy the “other half” of the couple or group that somehow has better things to do with a lovely Israeli evening than sample 10 or 20 fine wines. Some of the better events include the Judean Hills Wine Route Festival, Avi Ben’s summer festival in the Israel Museum and the kosher-only “Wine Jerusalem” festival put on by Jerusalem wine store A.A. Pyup.
However, this growth of wine consumers carries with it certain quirks that need to be recognized. While the vast majority of kosher wine consumers are Orthodox Jews, the recent explosion of oenophiles has come from the more stringently observant Orthodox, a previously untapped market with money to burn. However, much of this market prefers mevushal wine (for many reasons to be discussed in a future newsletter) which, usually, results in a lesser wine than its non-mevushal counterparts and the wine importers are having their wineries create more and more mevushal options (a trend discussed in last year’s missive and which continues today). Another unfortunate aspect of the exploding growth of kosher wine consumers is the reversion to the “palate mean”. By this I am referring to the unfortunate aspect of wineries catering to these consumers by producing “new world” wines with lots of oak, sweeter fruit notes and less acid and subtlety (I don’t really blame them as they are a business and need to sell the wines they make, merely bemoaning the impact on the wines I enjoy). While this philosophy has guided the Golan Heights Winery successfully for over 30 years, most wineries don’t have the ability, vineyards, technological expertise or discipline to create well-made wines with the riper fruit required by such a philosophy (and even the Golan Heights Winery suffered more than many from the two hotter/riper than usual vintage years of 2009 and 2010). While a number of wineries have maintained their philosophical independence and continue to create wines for the more sophisticated consumer (like Flam and Recanati), others have either continued with the sweet and ripe or worse, abandoned the subtle and gone back to that style of wines after making great strides in this regard (you guys know who you are). Just to be clear, I am not talking about a stylistic preference for slightly riper and sweeter wines. There are many terrific wines out there with higher than average AbV, more fruit forward flavors and plenty of oak that are well balanced and simply delightful – these are great wines (even if a certain snobbish oenophilic crowd treats them derogatorily). I am talking about wines without proper balance (or structure), where riper fruit and oak-aging become a liability (the recent off vintages “exposed” many wines and wineries for what they really were – lesser quality).
Another happy development has been the return of kosher French “runs”. In past years the kosher consumer has been able to avail himself of premium kosher French wines that were typically made in limited runs. Some of the more famous names included Château Pontet-Canet, Château Léoville-Poyferré, Château Smith Haut Lafitte and Château Guiraud. While these wines were never the “same” exact wine as their non-kosher counterparts and nearly always carried a substantially higher price tag, they tended to be top-tier wines with great aging ability. As most French wine are blends, comprised of varietals that ripen at different times and across a number of weeks or months, the time frame in which a Château has to make a kosher wine is limited by the dates when the traveling mashgichim are “in town” (they travel throughout France’s wine-growing region visiting the different Château to ensure that the winemaking process is done according to Jewish law) and thus limiting both the varietals and the specific grapes the winemaker has to work with (if the “regular” version is comprised of 3-5 varietals picked from a multitude of plots, some of which are allowed to spend more time on the vine than others, the kosher version is limited to less varietals and those grapes which were picked within the time frame the mashgichim were on hand). These differences obviously result in completely different (if not necessarily inferior) wines (watch out for shelf-talkers quoting scores from renowned critics – many times these are for the non-kosher version of the wine which bears no resemblance to its kosher sibling). The Château does have a reputation to maintain and will typically ensure that it is satisfied with the quality and style, but that is different than it being the same wine). After a lot of overpriced production for the highly vaunted 2005 vintage sat on the shelves (coupled with a backlash against the French in general), the various producers sat on the sidelines for a number of years but have happily returned to the fold and vintage years 2011-2013 are looking very promising, with an increasing number of options – both new friends and old (some of which were mentioned in my “Best of 2014” newsletter).
The Rich get Richer
Despite the massive influx of new wines and wineries discussed above, the hard cold fact remains that, as in life, the rich get richer while the poor remain, well – poor. By this I am referring to the fact that the “top” wineries producing kosher wines are perennial contenders for the best wines produced each year with only a few outliers making the list each year. While there is certainly healthy competition and always room for newcomers (like Domaine Rose Camille) and more recent perennial participants (like Tzora and Gvaot), you can usually count on the Capcanes Peraj Ha’Abib, Yatir Forest, Covenant’s Cabernet Sauvignon, the Golan Heights Winery Katzrin and Elrom Cabernet Sauvignon and the Castel Grand Vin (with Flam’s newly kosher wines joining the club) to be on that list. Similarly to Israel’s political players, kosher wineries don’t seem to be able to take the long view and only the bigger and/or richer wineries make the investments necessary for long-term growth and improvement while others go for gold immediately and almost always crash and burn.
Growth of Wine Tourism
With the population of kosher oenophiles on the rise, parallel growth is evident in the tourism business; that is wine tourism. While I have been fielding winery visit-related questions for years, over the course of the past year I have answered far more such questions than ever before. Most of the questions relate to visiting wineries in Israel (the locale of the vast majority of kosher wineries) or California (with six kosher winery options), an increasing number of folks are making efforts to visit kosher wineries (or wineries producing kosher wines in addition to their non-kosher production) around the world including those located in Australia, Spain, South Africa and of course France. Wineries have recognized this increasing trend and are happily putting more time, effort and funds into their hospitality options including food (usually cheese and light fare, as only a few wineries like Tishbi, Adir, Gush Etzion and a few others have “real” restaurants) and lodging, while also arranging for a wider range of activities for the whole family, including those still in the dark who don’t like wine (yes, every family has one J).
Wine White Wine Rising
As discussed in depth in newsletter #271, recent years have seen a welcome increase in the consumption of white wines among kosher consumers, especially in Israel. With its Mediterranean climate this probably should have happened years ago but better late than never. While there are still plenty of professed white wine-haters out there, they are slowly coming around (and even if they don’t, it simply means more terrific whites for the rest of us) and the kosher wine industry is rising to the occasion with more quality and innovation than ever before. 2014 was especially blessed in this regard as it was the year that the wines of the incredible 2013 vintage (especially for Israeli white wines) appeared on the market, with some of the truly delightful wines including both white wines of Tzora (Judean Hills and Shoresh), Carmel’s Kayoumi Riesling, the Golan Heights Winery’s Yarden Sauvignon Blanc and Dalton’s Viognier (for a more complete list see #171 and my website). Alongside the increase in quality white wines from Israel, there are also an increasing number of good options from the other top kosher wine producing regions around the world including California (with Herzog, Hagafen, Four Gates, Shirah, Covenant and Hajdu all producing some great options), Spain (where Elvi’s InVita remains a delightful option), New Zealand (Goose Bay) and others. While there are some nice white wines coming out of France, there are far less options than in the past (both qualitatively and quantitatively); hopefully the “rebirth” of kosher French wine production (discussed above) will include some more quality white wines again.
The Hardship of Travel
Two of the issues reference above – the poor 2009 and 2010 vintage years and increased wine tourism to Israel, combined to highlight an issue I have been discussing for quite some time. While it is universally acknowledged that wines don’t usually taste the same once they are exported from their country of origin, a number of factors unique to Israeli wines have combined to make this taste differential more noticeable than with other wine-growing regions. In addition to the experiential reasons behind this phenomenon (i.e. you were on vacation and happy when you tasted it), the basic reason stems from the fact that wine is a living thing that us impacted by a multitude of things that occur when it is transported (heat, cold, temperature changes, vibration and sunlight to name just a few), before getting into things going “wrong” during transport and storage (traffic, strikes at the port, electrical failure, storms at sea and others) and I am not even going near the issue of shipping in climate-controlled containers (a/k/a “reefers”). Just try and get an answer about which wines are shipped how and you will be served with such story-telling it boggles the mind (if every wine claimed to be shipped in a reefer actually was, Israel would be the largest consumer of such containers in the region). While this is an issue for nearly every importer and wine-exporting region, Israeli wines have garnered more attention in this regard than others for one simple reason – there are more people to notice. Despite Israeli wines [relatively] tiny consumer base, the number of consumers who get to try the same wine in their country of origin (Israel) and export (the US) is far greater than nearly any country in the world. This is due to the quirky phenomenon of Israel being a Jewish country that enjoys ever-increasing numbers of visitors from around the world, more and more of whom enjoy wine (whether at the winery, at a wine store or festival or at a restaurant) and then go home to seek out a wine they enjoyed, only to find it tastes very different. I am sure French wines suffer from some of the same issues but how many folks taste the kosher wines of Château Léoville-Poyferré at the Château and also back in the United States? A minuscule number, especially when compared to the Israeli numbers. I also believe that the recent growth in folks noticing this issue was exacerbated by the 2009-2010 riper vintages, where the wines has less structure to maintain the trails and tribulations of travel (and were destined for earlier drinking and less ageability to begin with, before contending with the quickening of their maturity brought on by travel).
I have been conducting side-by-side tastings for years of the same wine – one version bought in the US upon release and stored professionally with the other purchased in Israel and “self-imported” in my luggage. While the difference between some wines is noticeable right away, the real difference is a few years in, with the US-labels nearly always shower greater maturity and being less enjoyable. I don’t know the root cause for the difference or whether there is actually anything to done in this regard (I am hoping with most 2009 and 2010 vintages behind us, the issue will be less noticeable than before), but the facts speak for themselves and it is definitely something to think about (as opposed to the unfortunate blanket denial practiced by many wineries and importers). Obviously I am speaking about trends and in general, as many wines are in no way impacted by this issue, and 2009/2010 certainly produced some world class wines who ranked among my Best of” in 2013 and 2014; including those from Castel, Gvaot Yatir and Flam.
The Decline of the Pen, Lack of Strong Israel Advocate & Strong Headwinds
With time, the influence (and memories) of Daniel Rogov continues to fade and the Israeli wine industry remains without a literary driving force. Despite the multitude of Israelis writing about wine in Hebrew (and a tiny number in English), with a number of them garnering decent readership, none of them have managed to assume the mantle of the all-powerful Israeli wine writer (despite many, sometimes desperate, attempts by a select few). For the many reason we have previously discussed, this will never happen and many of these reasons (lack of sufficient financial support, industry size, laziness, different market and industry than when Rogov started out) are inhibiting even a leader of the pack to emerge. In addition to the lack of internal gravitas from which the industry suffers, this translates into an unfortunate lack of national champion for the Israeli wine industry on an international level. While Israeli wines continue to garner prizes at international competitions and wine accolades from serious wine magazines; and Mark Squires, writing for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, continues to deepen his knowledge and understanding of Israeli terroir and its wines (resulting in increasing coverage and higher scores), the lack of a strong and recognized advocate for the industry is one of the multitude of factors holding back mainstream acceptance of Israeli wines (and the holy grail of being labeled, marketed and sold as Mediterranean wines instead of kosher), something sorely lacking.
With the ever-increasing importance of export facing off against the increasingly challenging aspects of the high cost of Israeli wine, Israeli wine could use a promoter now more than ever. Another exacerbating factor are the increasing calls for “economic disengagement” from Israel as a whole and the idiotic BDS movement, with the inane left-wing vitriol against wines and wineries from Judea and Samaria rising to unprecedented levels. The worst part being that a substantial amount of negativity is coming from within Israel’s own boundaries (there are a number of great eateries in Israel which refuse to stock wines made in the Judea and Samaria region). This is a problem that we should help fight by voting with our wallets (an issue made easier by the fact that so many of the Shomron region wines are awesome).
General Wine Developments
As with every industry and every passing year, there were many changes in KIW. This included ownership changes (Castel, Tulip) with many others on the block (including Binyamina which continues to suffer from upheaval more than most). A number of wineries stopped kosher production (including California’s Agua Dulce), others became kosher (like Midbar) and others closed up shop, some officially and others “unofficially (becoming “Zombie Wineries”). Covenant Wines opened its new facility in Berkley and added two lines of mevushal wines to its expanding portfolio – Tribe and Mensch, while Pelter’s new kosher winery – Matar – took roots. Many new wineries are being imported into the United States including Jezreel Valley which continues to gain ground (along with Montefiore whose 2012 wines show marked improvement); with nearly every other non-imported winery looking for importers as well.
2013 was also loaded with personnel changes at many of the wineries including Psagot, which gained the hyper-talented Yaakov Oryah as a winemaker (stay tuned for some special whites from one of Israel’s acknowledged white wine experts) and Dalton, which bid farewell to the talented Naama Sorkin (who will be managing one of the winery’s vineyards going forward) and welcomed US-trained Guy Eshel as her replacement. Ella Valley continues to undergo personnel and managerial changes, hopefully holding on to the delightful Lin Gold through the turmoil, with many other changes that are going to impact the wines going forward.
As membership passed 4,000 readers in 2014, I wanted to thank all my loyal readers for their support and hope that you continue to enjoy these missives. With work continuing to grab most of my time, it has been hard to maintain the desired once-a-week schedule, but I continue to try and will certainly do better in 2015. The calendar year of 2014 saw a few initiatives being added to the list of various Corkboard “Add-ons” (which already included the Leket Wine Club (now unfortunately defunct) and the wine buying opportunity group, among others). These initiatives included a 25-course wine pairing dinner, the proceeds of which benefited Leket Israel, with wines from my private cellar and the mouth-watering courses prepared by the incredible Epic Bites. There will be a few similar culinary adventures this coming year, so please let me know if you are interested in these types of events.
The other major occurrence this year was the entrenchment of regular meetings of the Rosh Chodesh Club and its major expansion both domestically and internationally. The Rosh Chodesh Club (“RCC”) was the product of a minor problem I have been faced with for some time. On any given occasion when selecting wines to enjoy, I find myself putting many wines back in the cellar as a result of feeling that they would not be “proper for the occasion” or “properly enjoyed or appreciated by the folks with whom I was intending to share them”; leading many true treasures to languish on the shelves of my cellar waiting for “the right time”. One welcome solution to a similarly-driven problem from a few years back, was the invention of “Open that Bottle Night“, by the then wine editors of the Wall Street Journal, in which once a year, folks opened that special bottle of wine that never seemed to get enjoyed, effectively creating that “special occasion” everyone seems to be waiting for. While I have a fair amount of friends, the number of folks with whom I regularly socialize that are “wine nuts” is relatively limited. As a result, I decided to start the “Rosh Chodesh Club” in order to provide a monthly opportunity to get together with like-minded individuals who would appreciate the wines I have been saving. The idea is that, once a month, true wine lovers with great cellars get together to open, enjoy and share some really good wines in a relaxed, friendly and intimate environment. Over the last two years the group has enjoyed some truly remarkable wines (and some amazing food), sharing them with like-minding individuals with a true appreciation for the special stuff being opened. As Charles Caleb Colton stated “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and this past year saw the successful launch of three franchises (in Los Angeles, Westchester and Israel with at least two more in the works). To the extent you would like to start a Rosh Chodesh Club in your area, let me know and I would be more than happy to help out in any way I can (including by bringing together like-minded folks in your area and helping out with the logistical ideas / rules that have helped make these events so much fun).
As a reminder, I am fairly active on Twitter, where I provide current information on trends, wines and wineries throughout the day, including many informative articles beyond the scope of this newsletter. If you don’t already do so, I’d appreciate you following me there, where I also respond to specific requests for information and recommendations. If you enjoy reading the newsletter, please help spread the word by recommending it to friends, family and colleagues who you think may enjoy them (as opposed to forwarding them along). Folks can sign up directly on my website or you (or they) can email me and I will add them directly to the distribution list (stay tuned as we will be shifting from Google Groups to Mail Chimp (or a similar service) in the next few weeks). As always, please let me know any questions or inquiries you would like to see covered on these pages. With the continued lack of alternative English-language information about Israeli and kosher wines coupled with the increasing interest by the kosher consumer, I expect the subscriber growth of the past year to continue and look forward to continuing to share this journey with you.