And What a Year it Was

While there has and continues to be many underlying trends that shape the kosher wine industry, the primary one continues to be the explosive increase in kosher wine drinking consumers, which will continue unabated throughout growth of ever-expanding growth in the kosher wine consumer base which continued unabated throughout 2016 but, as I expect it to continue in 2017, it will be discussed in detail in Part III of the Trifecta – 2017’s Crystal Ball.  However, it remains the motor that powers many of the trends discussed this week.  There are indicators for the prevalence of the trend but an easy one to point to is the explosive growth of an innovation of mine – the Rosh Chodesh Club (“RCC”).  With nearly 20 regular monthly meetings globally celebrating Rosh Chodesh, we have collectively taken “Open that Bottle Night” to a whole new level!

Many of the topics below are sufficiently important to warrant complete newsletters of their own.  However, in order to provide a broadly encompassing analysis of our wonderful world of kosher wine, I have sometimes sacrificed more in-depth analysis for brevity to ensure you make it all the way through!  Next week’s newsletter will provide my list of “the Best and Most Exciting/Interesting Wines of 2016” (Part II of the Trifecta).

I am very much looking forward to continuing to share the wonderful world of kosher wine with you during 2017 (and beyond) and, personally, am looking forward to crossing the personal milestone of 8,000 readers this year (as always, your help in spreading the readership of this newsletter is tremendously appreciated)!

To. Much. Wine. (or “First World Problems”)

2016 represented another year in which, despite earnest efforts, I failed to taste every single kosher wine.  However, before you start questioning my dedication to all of you, note that the primary reason is the over 3,000 (!!) different wines produced this past year.  While not a large number compared to the approximate 175,000 wines every year, 3,000 wines is a lot of wine for one person to taste, especially when you have a demanding day job (that pays for buying all that wine I need to taste).  However, by managing to taste 2,085 different wines last year, I did exceed my personal record (from 2015) of 1,850 which enabled me to sift through the proverbial chaff and recommend some great wines for you to enjoy.

As the consumer base expands, producers are racing to take advantage of the economic opportunities by providing potential consumers with a smorgasbord of options for every palate.  Measured by number of labels, Israel retains the lead with the United States and France taking the second and third spots on the list respectively.  However, quality wines are available from nearly every wine growing region across the globe (including many lesser-known regions) including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, Chile, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Moldova, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, Spain and South Africa.  With kosher German Riesling finally a reality my wish list continues to shrink (even kosher First Growths are in the works).  Given that China occupies the number six slot of top global wine producers, I am sure some budding entrepreneur is already working on making Chinese kosher wine as well (but personally I am holding out for some white wines from Greece)!

While obviously a terrific boon, this explosive production growth is creating a glut of wine and new vintages of many wines are going unloved and slowly aging around the world in warehouses as importers, distributors and retailers struggle to clear out vintages before releasing newer vintages to market.  However, the biggest challenge for consumers remains the near-Herculean task of sifting through the unfortunately copious amounts of drek to find those wines worthy of your attention, palate and most importantly – hard-earned lirot, leading directly to the next topic.

Caveat Emptor (or “Conflict-Free Wine”)

As I have mentioned in the past, the inability (or lack of motivation) of the kosher wine world to support full time wine writing remains the primary reason there are no full-time professional wine writers focused on kosher wines.  Even in Israel (where much of the wine is kosher and there are one or two kosher-focused writers), no writer is able to survive solely from wine-writing income.  Besides continuing to suffocate “traditional” wine writing (a phenomenon bemoaned by Jancis Robinson and not limited to the kosher wine world), it has created a world where the majority of available information about kosher wines (outside of this newsletter) is no longer coming from conflict-free authorities, but rather from sources laden with potential biases and conflicts of interest.  Regardless of any individual’s personal integrity, the Torah has long taught us that when matters of authority and money are concerned, “the eyes of the wise are blinded and their words become crooked” (Deuteronomy 16:19).  As such, the old adage of caveat emptor is as true today as it was in the early 16th century, and it behooves each and every one of us to make sure they understand where their information is coming from.

Different from providing inaccurate information (which is the next topic), much of this potentially biased information is provided by knowledgeable individuals who simply have a bias due to the potential benefits they could reap from recommending or promoting one wine or winery over another.  This includes producers (starting with the sometimes elaborate fiction gracing labels), sommeliers (outside of Israel, usually simply the waiter) and representations from each of the antiquated multi-tiered distribution system (importers, distributors, retailers and participants kosher wine’s active “grey market”).  More than any time I can remember, 2016 stood out for the sheer magnitude of information being provided by these sources, with a significant portion being done without proper disclosure of the potential conflict.

It goes without saying that best practices when writing about wine (or anything else for that matter), all relevant affiliate information should be properly disclosed so that consumers can properly evaluate the information’s “quality” for themselves – unfortunately too rare an occurrence in out world.  While I personally frown on publications enlisting industry representatives as wine writers, as long there is proper disclosure (as my dear friend Adam Montefiore did for years at the Jerusalem Post), no harm – no foul.  However, lack of disclosure is akin to outright fraud and in such instances the publication and writer bear the responsibility for misleading the public.  Even in a store, where a sale is obviously expected to occur, there is plenty of potential for conflict given the incentives provided to the store for selling one wine or winery over the other, which is almost never disclosed to the consumer but obviously plays a significant hand in what the consumer is exposed to.

Fake News

During the recently concluded highly acrimonious US presidential election process, the ability to proliferate “fake news” via the Internet’s vast reach was highlighted as a major issue.  While not as seditious as fake news, the voracious need for information about the multitude of available wines combined with the continued proliferation of social media venues has provided an outlet for a vocal minority of self-proclaimed wine experts who are far less knowledgeable than conveyed by the authority with which they “speak”.  One of the most prominent examples comes from outside the kosher wine world – the concerns some have with well-known blogger Wine Folly (see also here and the indomitable Hosemaster’s scathing comments).  However, throughout the year I encountered dozens of kosher wine-related articles penned by individuals whose knowledge of wine should be called into question solely based on the information they provided.

While formal wine education is extremely valuable, I am (obviously) a huge believer in being self-taught, however the information provided in many of these articles (and various blogs and other social media medium) is sometimes so inaccurate as to present a danger to budding kosher wine consumers for all the reasons described here.  Among the most unfortunate aspects this year has been the sheer dissonance between the accuracy of information and the authoritative tone in which it is delivered (not to mention the lack of civility that sometimes occupies these discussions.  As consumers, we should each endeavor to educate ourselves and also diligence the source of information upon which we are relaying.  as I always say – regardless of the source’s pedigree, recommendations are only helpful if you actually enjoy the wines recommended, so make sure to find sources of information that parallel your own palate.

Pastels are Cool

After years of neglect, the kosher wine consumer has discovered the array of pleasures white wines can offer (breaking from the usual Israeli lag behind US trends, this trend actually started in Israel – a hot-climate region well-suited to white wines, before being “exported” to US shores).  2016 was another year in which we enjoyed enhanced quality, increased creativity and an expanding portfolio of quality white wines from all around the globe.  From mainstream varietals like Pinot Grigio (e.g. Golan Heights Winery and Dalton) to slightly less common grapes like Chenin Blanc (e.g. Domaine Netofa) and Marsanne (e.g. Recanati) though truly esoteric ones like Picpoul Blanc (e.g. Hajdu) and (dry) Furmint (e.g. Shirah), 2016 was the year in which kosher wine consumers finally got to enjoy a huge portfolio of quality white wines (a trend that will continue).

While these wines are coming from around the world, Israel is a primary driver of this trend (an understandable fact given the regions Mediterranean climate which includes nine months a year of warm to hot weather) and many of its wineries are experiencing great success in this arena.  Irrespective of whether white wines represent a primary focus (e.g. Bat Shlomo or non-kosher Sphera) or simply something they believe in and do quite well (e.g. Tzora and Capsouto).  Even the “big boys” are making significant inroads, with Tabor and Carmel both producing a number of terrific white wines in all price ranges (obviously no need to reiterate the amazing white and sparkling wines from the Golan Heights Winery).

I no longer find myself alone when expressing a preference for white wines over red (as my personal consumption of white wine reached nearly 70% of wines I consumed this year (as opposed to tasting, where red wines continue to heavily dominate).  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 is unclear, but solving the vinous version of the chicken and egg question isn’t a priority – the important thing is all those great white options we got to enjoy in 2016 and can expect over the coming year as well.

The French are Coming [Back] [Again]

2016 was the year in which French wines became cool again.  While 2015 already saw this trend start to develop, 2016 was where it really came together.  The increase in consumption of French wines included a dramatically heightened interest in older vintages, both of terrific and prized wines like Château Pontet-Canet and Château Lafon Rochet and also of far less desirable (i.e. dead) wines like the 1986 Baron Rothschild.  The expansion of the Rosh Chodesh Club played a huge part in this increase, as did the availability of many new French wines on the market, across a broad spectrum of price ranges (from the $800 2005 Château Valandraud to the $10  Château les Riganes).

Unfortunately also resulted in certain retailers having the opportunity to unload previously unsellable wines, well past their prime by repackaging them as “library wines”.  With a dearth of French wines between the 2005 and 2011 vintages, many of today’s enthusiastic kosher wine consumers “came of age” during an era that lacked sufficient examples of French wines, creating a swath of kosher wine lovers with plenty of disposable income and a burning desire for “the good stuff”, combined with a lack of education regarding French wines and very little experience with mature wines and unfortunately resulting in s(p)ending (lots of) good money after (expensive) bad wine.

Ten years after being “burned” by over-indulging in the 2005 market only to watch the popularity of French wines go into a tailspin, French wines are finally having (another) their day in the sun and producers and importers are responding to increased demand in full force.  The number and quality of wines on the market and in the kosher French pipeline is greater than ever before, and includes some seriously heavyweight Château gracing the list for the first time.  While many of these wines hit the market throughout 2016 (including the delicious 2014 Château Pape Clément which produced its first kosher “run” 708 years after its first harvest and will make an appearance in next week’s newsletter), some of the others are going to require your patience since they won’t come to market for another few years (hopefully the enthusiasm for such wines won’t have waned by then).

Extra Special

Mankind’s constant need for the new and exciting included the kosher wine consumer, requiring every winery to constantly be looking for ways to generate interest in their products.  This can manifest in changes to form (e.g. the regular periodic revamping on a winery’s labels like Teperberg’s), substance (like new wines, philosophical shifts or limited edition wines) or both, but in any event, wineries are on a perpetual search for new ways to stoke (or retain) the consumer’s interest and stand out in an ever-increasingly crowded marketplace.  2016 stood out as the year in which more wineries than ever before took my advice and created “special” wines that were made in exceptionally limited quantities, available only at the winery or both.  Other wineries that followed my strategic advice were Shirah and Hajdu who both launched wine clubs, offering customers exclusive access to special wines including some delightful Nebbiolo from Hajdu and a lovely Furmint from Shirah.

In addition to these special wines launched by the wineries themselves, many in the industry launched special and unique wines.  This list includes retailers like and their white label “Chosen” wines, importers like The River and their exclusive Twin Suns wines from California and Contessa Annalisa wines from Italy and the folks behind the Pape Clément mentioned above.  Other hard to find wines (due to exceptionally small production and intentionally limited distribution) that came to market in 2016, included the late-disgorged 2000 Blanc de Blanc from the Golan Heights Winery, the 2014 Château Smith Haut Lafitte and the 2014 Domaine d’Ardhuy Gevrey-Chambertin.
2016 also saw a tremendous increase in the number of private barrels created by wineries where, under a typical arrangement, the winery will sell a customer an entire barrel of an existing wine, enabling the customer to put his or her own label on the barrel).

Drinking Out

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, the increase in kosher wine’s quality and pricing has enabled wine to be a more active participant in the business arena more and more.  While the push for higher-end mevushal wines continues (see last year’s newsletter for an in-depth discussion of this topic), it abated slightly in 2016 while another, far more interesting, phenomenon took hold – that of bringing your own wine to restaurants.

While a common practice at non-kosher establishments around the world, outside of Israel where it is exceptionally common), the concept bringing your own wine to a restaurant and paying a corkage fee (ostensibly to cover the cost of related service and glassware) is basically non-existent in the kosher world due to the overly-stringent kashrut policies applicable (primarily) to eating out in the United States.  While the excellent ETC restaurant in Teaneck has long had a policy that allowed one to bring your own mevushal wine (enabled by a lack of liquor license), this year saw many more restaurants (almost all without their own liquor licenses) allow customers to bring their own wine – a tremendously welcome first (baby) step down the path of allowing consumers the opportunity to enjoy fine wine with their food.  A much smaller number of restaurants actually allow folks to bring non-mevushal wines to dinner, but these are mostly flying under the radar establishments who, for obvious reasons, don’t advertise this option publicly.

Unfortunately politics are responsible for the bulk of policies restricting our ability to enjoy good wine at dinner, the scope (and sensitivity) of which is far beyond this newsletter.  Hopefully 2017 will see additional chinks appear in this ridiculous suit of amount and kosher wine lovers will soon be able to enjoy great wines with the great food available in many of America’s fine kosher dining establishments these days.  These pleasures should not be limited to Israel and Paris (where I recently enjoyed a lovely meal at L’atelier Déli alongside a terrific wine list with nearly 50 by-the-glass options).

Trails, Tabloidations & Enoducation

Despite the oodles of growth described in this newsletter, the kosher wine world remains a small one where the personal stories and movements of the involved individuals have an importance beyond mere gossip.  Whether involving winemakers and their ability to impact the actual wines, executives and their impact on marketing, development, capital investment and export or writers and reporters and their influence on the industry’s penetration of target audiences, when these folks shift allegiances the ripple effect directly impacts what we consumers get in our respective bottles.
Throughout 2016 there were a number of impactful events, starting with Tzora Winery’s Eran Pick doing the entire industry proud by becoming the first Israeli Master of Wine and ending with the year’s most bombastic announcement – Recanati’s Ido Lewinsohn leaving to become Barkan’s chief winemaker.

In addition to Hajdu, Shirah and Covenant launching new wine clubs, we also had Vitkin Winery release its first kosher wines including a terrific Rosé, the Golan Heights Winery released its first high-end blend (a field-blend from their newest Bar’on vineyard from which a varietal (and excellent) Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah were also produced) and new wineries were launched (a new Arza winery) or “re-launched” (the defunct Shokek Winery became Drimia).

Israeli wines continued to garner accolades from around the world starting with Israel gracing the cover of Wine Spectator’s October edition and included a wine region of interest along with Portugal and Greece, each of Castel, Recanati, Tabor and Tzora earned a spot on the publication’s coveted list of the Best 100 Wines with 90+ scores (along with the right to showcase their wines at the annual wine show), Midbar Winery’s 2014 Viognier snagged a Gold Medal from Decanter, the Wine Enthusiast handed out some 90+ scores to Dalton and Barkan and Robert Parker (i.e. Mark Squires) gave high scores to Tulip and Galil Mountain.

Israel’s obsession with selling wine to any country with a different area code regardless of market viability continued with a large and respectable delegation of Israeli wineries flying off to Japan to showcase their wares.  While the wines were well received, I remain highly skeptical of the business decision to allocate significant resources to a market that will never provide any significant portion of sales.

The Golan Heights Winery played a prominent role in many events (beyond the new Bar’on mentioned above) including the merger of their distribution arm with Shaked (owned by the powerful Shaked family along with a minority stake in Recanati and the Israeli chain of wine stores – Derech Hayayin) which will continue to shake up the Israeli wine retail industry and losing Arnon Harel, who left his position of many years as head of marketing to move to Carmel where he replaced the lovely Dorit Ben-Simon.  2016 also say the incredible Mia Luce Winery gain considerable prominence with the release of two special wines – a whole-stem fermented Syrah and his CSM – a delightful riff on the Rhone-driven GSM blend, utilizing Carignan instead of Grenache)

Another welcome development this year was the launch of a Master’s degree program in Viticulture and Enology at Israel’s Hebrew University, led by the fittingly named Professor Zohar Kerem and professional coordinator Yotam Sharon (former winemaker at Barkan and Trio and current sought-after wine consultant).

I am looking forward to (the rest of) 2017 and am excited to continue sharing it with all of you!