The Year that Was (2105 Look Back)

#310 – January 9, 2015

Following on last week’s newsletter showcasing the Best (and most Interesting/Exciting) Wines of 2015, this week is Part II of my annual Trifecta, which looks back at the 2015 year of kosher wine and outlines a few major trends kosher wine underwent over the last 12 months. Despite living in a heavily interconnected world, where data can travel at light [if not warp] speed, the wine business remains somewhat of an antiquated business with changing trends sometimes occurring at a near-glacial pace. The impactfulness of a number of these trends is wide reaching and can take some time to be reflected. As a result, a significant number of items discussed this week were also showcased in last year’s “lookback” newsletter. One interesting item to note is that the primary trend of the past year – expansion of the kosher wine consumer base, has been trending upwards for a few years and is expected to continue. Additionally, this macro-trend is at least partially “responsible” for nearly every other item discussed herein.

In addition to the significant items discussed below, other important trends that occurred over the last 12 months include the rise of smaller/independent producers and distributors (some of whose portfolio only includes one or two wines / wineries). While Royal Wines continues to grow voraciously, the expanded consumer base and need to provide much more marketing assistance that previously (due to heightened competition for consumer dollars) has opened the door for hard-working upstarts to penetrate the market and fight for shelf space for their wines. Another issue was the complicated 2015 vintage in Israel where freakish dust storms and late fall heat waves wreaked havoc with winemakers harvesting plans. As the impact of this won’t be felt until 2016, a more in depth discussion of this will be in Part III of the Trifecta.

With so much going on I have tried to be as concise as possible, sometimes sacrificing more in-depth analysis for a shorter newsletter [with people reading all the way through before they give up].

Looking forward to sharing the wonderful world of kosher wine with you during 2016 [and beyond]!

Have a great week and Chodesh Tov,

Explosive Growth

After consistent growth over the last few years, 2015 saw a huge leap in the number of kosher consumers turning their attention to wine. As their level of culinary sophistication increased, kosher consumers have woken up to the wonders of wine and are incorporating wine into more and more aspects of their lives. With wine already a de facto requirement for every Shabbat meal, it has been gratifying to see wine incorporated into many more parts of the kosher consumer’s lives. While the road is still long to having wine with every meal, many more restaurant tables have a bottle of wine on them than ever before. The number of charity events that are wine driven has exploded and the desire for a “good bottle” has taken on a life of its own. This exponential growth was evident in the (1) 30% growth in this newsletter’s subscriber base, (2) expansion of the Rosh Chodesh Club to multiple locales around the globe, (3) voracious attendance at the various KFWE events (use THANKSAGAIN for $25 off, the largest discount that will be available) and (4) rapid growth (to nearly 2,000 members) of a new Facebook group, dedicated to kosher wine (which also played a significant part in the prolonged death of Rogov’s old wine forum).

As mentioned, almost every significant trends discussed in depth below is at least partially driven by this consumer base growth including the increasing number of available wines (closing in on 3,000 annually), proliferation of “special” wine projects and the drive for quality wines at decent prices.

Label Proliferation

The most directly correlative result of an increased consumer based in the proliferation of kosher wine offerings being created to service increasing demand. As the number of annual kosher wines has grown from 500 to nearly 3,000, consumers are faced with an increasing plethora of wines from which to satisfy their craving. With more and more folks getting in on the kosher wine game, we are currently in a place where supply far outstrips demand (from a pure numerical perspective). Wine producers obviously bemoan the surplus while it provides a huge boon to the kosher wine consumer, albeit not without creating a few new challenges of its own.

Together with increased sophistication, the kosher wine consumer continues to demand new and exciting wines from around the world and producers are scrambling to meet this need. While Israel continues to hold a steady lead in the sheer number of kosher wines, California and France are no wallflowers with hundreds of kosher labels under their belt (although most of France’s cheaper kosher wines remain within the borders of the EU) and more quality wines are coming from well-known wine growing countries such as Spain, Portugal and Italy along with Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Germany, Hungary, Canada, Romania, Georgia, Moldova, New Zealand and Australia (the quality (and quantity) of wines from which seems to have deteriorated recently). The one top ten wine growing not [yet] producing a kosher wine is China, (number nine in 2015 annual production) although I’m sure it won’t be long before some creative entrepreneur changes that as well (and I am hoping to see some kosher Greek wines too). All of this increased diversity has created a problem for the burgeoning oenophile, which wines are worthy of my attention, palate and most importantly – hard earned lirot. That question leads us to our next topic…

The Pen is not “Mightier”

Despite the growing number of different kosher wines being produced every year, many of these wines have limited availability. Some are only sold in certain countries (e.g. the United states, Israel and France), others are made in extremely limited quantities or only for private wine clubs or projects (more on that below) and others are hamstrung by their relevant importer and/or distributor who focuses only on a certain area. This results in a far lower number than the aforementioned 3,000 different wines being available to the average consumer on a regular basis. However, even with this numerous limiting factors, the first world problem of having too many choices looms stronger than ever for the kosher consumer and help is needed.

Even five years after Rogov’s passing, there remains very little unbiased and conflict-free information about kosher wines. There are a number of wine writers in Israel covering Israeli wines but most write in Hebrew and the focus is Israeli wines, which includes many non-kosher Israeli options and excludes the large number of high-quality kosher wines being produced everywhere else. Last year it seemed like hope had arrived and two capable Israeli wine-related individuals took a stab at putting together a mini-book of Israel’s top wines (different from Rogov’s comprehensive guide which listed ALL wines). However, these individuals unfortunately allowed their [misinformed] political views to tarnish their journalistic integrity and decided to exclude any wines from Yehuda and Shomron, not only limiting the quality of wines chosen (given the incredible wines sourced from those regions) but also somewhat deceiving the public by implying that their guide covered all Israeli wines. As an aside, Rogov was also significantly to the left of Israeli politics and refused to visit wineries located in those areas, BUT he would taste any wines brought to him and professed to judge them solely on their merits [based on many of the scores given to top tier wines like Gvaot, he succeeded in doing so, most of the time]. Thankfully this blemish on the Israeli wine world will soon be corrected, as four Israeli wine journalists bonded together to try and publish a comprehensive guide to Israeli wines. This guide is expected to be published in April and will endeavor to include all Israeli wines which will be blind tasted, scored and ranked (although, unlike Rogov who made it his business to visit nearly all the wineries, they will only be reviewing wines that are sent to them). My understanding is that the guide will also be translated into English, so stay tuned.

As discussed in prior Trifecta newsletters, the lack of regularly scheduled information (especially in English) has significantly increased the importance of retailers (and to a lesser degree, sommeliers [or whomever is selling the wine at kosher establishments these days]) in helping the consumer navigate the treacherous waters that are kosher wine shelves. With so much prettied-up but complete drek being pushed these days, the need for advice is greater than ever. Despite my ongoing vociferous pushing for wineries, producers and importers to get together and pay someone to educate their front-line soldiers (i.e. the people actually selling wine to the consumers), nobody has picked up the gauntlet and educated the retailers about the product (I mean seriously, it’s a marketer dream – give the wine seller in depth education about your products and which wines do you think he will be talking about/selling more often). Obviously there are good retailers out there, and even some with more than a passing understanding of wine, but it is certainly not guaranteed and the wine knowledge in a kosher-focused wine store is so far below that of a non-kosher, it is embarrassing.

Even if you are lucky enough to find a well educated and knowledgeable wine retailer, you are almost certainly bumping up against a conflict of interest between you (who wants the best QPR, top-tier, new and/or delicious wine) and the retailer (usually focused on margins, kickbacks, sale, “promotions” and other commercially self-serving endeavors instead of focusing on trying to build a loyal following by providing quality service). Before I get hoisted on my own petard, this is obviously a gross generalization and not directed at anything (or anyone) specific. My main points are (1) wineries, importers and distributors need to allocate resources to educating people about wine (the lack of consumer wine education was recently lamented by my good buddy over at Kosher Wine Musings) and (2) if you like wine, educate yourself by asking questions, tasting a lot of different wines (and obviously reading this newsletter). The more you know, the more you will enjoy. As an aside, the lack of knowledge and education is self evident when a list of “Top 100” wines has the “Blue Bottled Abomination” at #4 and Yarden Hermon Red at #8, while the Flam Blanc is at #80, Yatir Forest is at #84 & none of my top wines are even on the list (although some older vintages of the same wines were)).

The nest three topics showcase two additional trends driven by the massively increased number of kosher wine drinkers, one positive and the other two slightly less so – more white wine, more “Parkerized: wine and finally, more mevushal wine.

A Rising [White] Tide

As I have been discussing quite often recently, the kosher wine consumer has finally woken up to what white wines have to offer. Depending on how far back you go, white wines were bad, condescended to or simply viewed as pleasurable quaffers. It is only recently that we have been fortunate enough to be able to enjoy well-made, high-quality, sophisticated and complex white wines from many different regions around the world. With Israel’s nine months-hot Mediterranean climate it is quite surprising that it took them this long, but at least now some wineries are having huge success with their white wines, whether it is a primary focus for them (Bat Shlomo or Matar) or simply something they believe in and do quite well (Tzora, Domaine Netofa and Capsouto). Even the “big boys” are making significant inroads with Tabor producing a number of terrific white wines and the Golan Heights Winery simply hitting it out of the park with their sparkling wines, Sauvignon Blanc and many others. I’m not sure whether consumers are drinking more white and rosé because the wine quality is at sufficient levels or wineries started making higher-quality wines to satisfy demand but hey – who cares really. The important thing is that there are some really terrific white wines now with more and more becoming available and I look forward to seeing this trend continue (see below on Psagot).

The Consumer is Always Right

With more and more consumers getting into wine, many wineries have been taking long and hard looks at their bottom line and are trying to figure out who their target consumer is. As the viability of a winery as a successful enterprise becomes more and more evident, some wineries are focusing more on selling lots of wine than making the wine they want to make (or think should be made). Despite the romanticism of wine, it is a business and many people’s livelihoods depends on it so the resulting trend, while somewhat unfortunate, is completely understandable. White gratifying to see the number of kosher wine consumers expand (especially since they are signing up for my newsletter), they are mostly “entry-level” drinkers who prefer rich, robust and near-sweet fruity wines, regardless of cost or quality. As such, many wineries are producing wines to satisfy the demands of these customers. While stalwarts such as the Golan Heights Winery have always made [high-end and terrific] wines in this manner (making their Blanc de Blanc all the more a shockingly magnificent outlier), other wineries are changing their style to satisfy “the street”.

What’s Cooking?

While high-end single malt scotch remains the only culinary indulgence in which an Orthodox Jew can participate on equal (or greater) footing with his non kosher-keeping peers, as kosher wine quality (and prices) continue to grow, kosher wine is edging its way into the business arena more and more. As more high-end business meetings occur at presentable kosher establishments, the need for high-end mevushal wines is growing. After nearly a decade of holding a near monopoly in this arena, Binyamina’s Cave is seeing some legitimate competition as nearly every major importer/distributor is pressuring their wineries to produce at least one of their higher-end wines in a mevushal version. While a good idea in principle, the majority of these “experiments” has been unsuccessful to date, with Herzog’s higher end mevushal offerings and Hagafen’s “Prix Reserve” remaining the gold standard by which any mevushal wine shall be judged.

Return of a Class Society

As discussed multiple times in the past, mankind’s constant demand for the new and exciting has not passed the kosher wine world by with every winery constantly looking for new ways to stoke the consumer’s interest and stand out in a crowded marketplace. However, and as I am constantly reminding wineries, exclusivity is valued above all others and many of these kosher wine consumers are looking for hard to find wines that can be used for additional purposes beyond providing drinking pleasure. The easiest route for a winery to take is creating an exclusive wine club that will offer wines only available to those who sign up, guaranteeing them exclusive wines. Some good examples include Covenant’s “Landsman”, Hagafen’s “Prix Reserve” and Herzog’s various “special wines” which include the Eagle’s Landing wines that have been home to quite a few really nice wines recently.

Other special projects include “white labels” (where a winery will take one of their wines and bottle/label it as a private wine), private barrels and a myriad of other special projects (one way to stay appraised of many such things is to sign up for my Corkboard Buying Group) that are available for those who are happy to invest in increasing their wine-related pleasures.   Another aspect of this is the increased interest in high-end wine tourism, with many wineries around the world attempting to service [mostly well-heeled] wine aficionados, interested in truly unique wine-related experiences.   Stay tuned, as my crystal Ball will deal with this topic more in depth given the expected growth next year in this arena.

The French are Coming [Back] [Again]

After going “all in” on the self-described 2005 “vintage of the century”, the reign of the French seemed to be over, as distributors and retailers struggled to move the mounds of over-priced wines they were stuck with (especially with anti-French sentiment then at near-record highs). As evidenced at last year’s Miami KFWE, the French are rearing their aristocratic heads once again with plenty of new labels on the shelves (and many more coming down the pike). As “wine-awareness” continues to penetrate deeper in the psyche of kosher wine consumers, the willingness to shell out the “big bucks” for quality wines has never been higher (with plenty of growth ahead). With hundreds of years of winemaking experience under their belts, proven long-term ageability and tremendous food-paring abilities, French wines are once again providing us with portfolio diversity by showcasing high quality, earthy and mineral laden wines and people are paying for them. I have seen the future – and it is bien.

Cost Issues

Despite all the growth discussed above and a waiting and welcoming not-yet-tapped market, many Israeli wineries continue their relentless pursuit of Israeli Wine’s Holy Grail – penetrating the mainstream wine market with “Israeli Wine” instead of focusing on increasing market share within such relatively “low hanging fruit”. While I agree that this is a valid pursuit (especially in this day and age of global gratuitous anti-Israel behavior), the decision is partially driven by an inherent snobbery that a Japanese non-Jewish consumers is more valuable (i.e. better) to an Israeli winery than a kosher consumer from New Jersey. Putting the political difficulties aside, one of the main obstacles to achieving this worldwide penetration is cost. With the primary expenditures (land, water, grapes and labor) significantly cheaper in other wine growing regions of the world, even [primarily non-kosher] Israeli consumers tend to prefer qualitatively comparable and significantly cheaper foreign imports over local offerings. Until the Israeli wine market can provide wide range of benchmark under $10 wines, their time, effort and limited resources are far better spent expanding their local market and servicing the untapped growth potential represented by the ever-growing [primarily] North American kosher consumer market (which is happy (or at least resigned) to spend a little more and has less options to choose from).

Salvation Lies to the [North] East

As opposed to Warden Norton’s thinking that “salvation lies within”, the needs of kosher consumers to enjoy consistently qualitative wines at prices closer to $10 a bottle than $20 a bottles are not being met from “within” (the mainstays of the kosher wine world – Israel, California and France) but rather by other wine growing regions including Spain, Italy and Portugal. Part of this is based on the simple reality that the primary requirements to produce wine (land, grapes, water and labor) are all cheaper in these regions, making producing quality wine at affordable prices (while still extracting a reasonable profit margin) a far easier endeavor. Israel has a few wines in that price range that are passable, but the more interesting specimens are still primarily coming from afar.

One for the Road

There were quite a few notable occurrences within the wonderful world of kosher wine, many of which will continue to impact us in the coming year (and some of which will be discussed in more depth on Part III of the Trifecta. A few stories to note follow.

After nearly three years of being New York-centric, the Rosh Chodesh Club (“RCC”) finally took on a life of its own with burgeoning franchises opening up on a near-monthly basis at many locales around the globe. Given the low bar for entry (good friends, aged wine and a desire to share with friends), it isn’t surprising to find RCCs being held in Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, Lakewood, Westchester, Strasburg, London, Paris, Scranton and a few other places with many more expected in the coming few months. Read the newsletter, corral a few like-minded folks and launch one in your neck of the woods. I promise you won’t regret it.

Another noteworthy story was discussed a few weeks ago, and that is the long shadow cast by Recanati’s launch of the long lost [to say the least] Marawi wine. Adding revival of antiquated indigenous Israeli varietals to an increasingly long list of successes, the winery continues to show why it should be on anyone’s shortlist for “Best Of” [anything].

After years of making really great wines utilizing the “winemaker by committee”, Psagot brought on the uber-talented Ya’acov Oryah to be the primary winemaker. After firmly establishing himself as an iconoclast winemaker, with a huge edge in making top-tier white wines [and being a bit of a rabble rouser], his first slew of rosé and white wines indicate that a wise choice was made by the powers that be and I look forward to seeing what else he serves up in the near future.

After bursting on the wine scene in 2013, Greg Lambrecht’s incredible invention really took flight over the past 12 months, muscling its way not only into wine bars and the briefcases of traveling wine salesmen but also into the homes of average consumers. Nicely recovered from a brief hiccup relating to exploding bottles, version 2 was launched this year further improving on the incredible little tool that enables you to pour a glass [or taste] of wine from a [typically expensive] bottle of wine without uncorking it and leaving the reminder of the bottle to continue as if nothing happened [for months on end].