The Year that Was

After a six-week hiatus and with the Gregorian year of 2013 now solidly in the bag (and then some), I wanted to take this opportunity to look back at the last 12 months and discuss the occurrences and trends that impacted the wonderful world of Israeli and kosher wines (“KIWW”).  While Jane Austin’s philosophy of “think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure” is a valid one and I usually try to focus on the positive aspects of the prior year, the KIWW of 2013 suffered from a number of negative trends from which a lot can (and should) be learned, especially if we want the massive improvements in the KIWW of the past few years to continue.  This newsletter is the first in my annual three-part Year-End Series, which also includes the best wines of 2013 and my predictions for next year (both of which should come within the next week or so).  For those interested in review (and score-keeping), feel free to check out my end-of-year newsletters for 2012 including the “Best Wines of 2012”, a look back at the year that was and some predictions for 2013).

Before we dig in, a quick reminder that we are entering the busiest season of all for kosher wine events.  Rapidly approaching is the always-worthwhile KFWE at Chelsea Piers, which will be held this year on Monday, February 24th (use CORKBOARD for $20 off tickets).  The West Coast IFWF is hot on its heels on Wednesday the 26th of February at the Hyatt Regency of Los Angeles (tickets + coupon from here).  Monsey’s Grapevine Wines is holding their annual wine tasting extravaganza on March 2nd, followed by one of the largest and all-encompassing wine tastings – Gotham Wine’s annual bash on March 23rd.  Last, but certainly not least is the annual Jewish Week tasting held on Monday March 31st at the awesome City Winery in connection with the publication of their annual Kosher Wine Guide of which I am one of the founding judges.  Great events – all worthy of attending and I hope to see you at one or more of them!

There are two major issues I have not covered in this newsletter – price and storage, mainly as they deserve a newsletter of their own.  With the increasing visibility of kosher wines, Israel is going to have to figure out a way to be competitive on the lower end of the scale.  Outside the kosher wine world, once you cross the $200 threshold, you enter a substantially better realm of quality wines. For the kosher wine consumer this number if much, much closer to (if not over) $30 and there are barely any high quality kosher wines under $15.  The other issue is one I have been discussing for years, but recently seems to have been noticed by a growing number of individuals.  Many wines that are imported, primarily from Israel, taste markedly different in the US than they do in Israel.  While I believe this is a worldwide issue relating to shipping/importing in general and not limited to kosher or Israel, it is more highly visible with Israeli wines for a simple reason.  Israel is one of the only wine-growing regions with a relatively large number of wine drinkers sampling the same wines in both the country of origin (Israel) and export (the United states).  Due to its unique place in the Jewish world, Israel has a hugely disproportionate number of wine drinkers visiting it annually and bringing wines back with them.  I have received over a hundred emails this year from different readers complaining that wines they enjoyed in Israel tasted differently when they were purchased here in the US (not always necessarily worse, but certainly different).  As I said, to be discussed soon in a separate newsletter and now onto this week’s topic!

Shabbat Shalom,

More Wine, Better Wine & New Drinkers

A positive trend that has been relatively consistent for the last few years is that more and more kosher consumers are “getting into” wine.  As the sophistication of the kosher consumer continues to develop, we are witnessing unprecedented interest in higher-quality, more interesting and typically expensive wines from a much broader audience of consumers than ever before.  The industry is rising to the occasion and providing these consumers with new wineries, wines and labels which seem to be popping up left and right, making this writer’s job even more difficult.  If historically one could theoretically taste every new kosher wine from every vintage, every year, these days it is a nearly impossible Herculean task.  In addition to the proliferation of wines and wineries, recent years have shown a massive increase in private label wines made by wineries or individual winemakers for different interests and adding to the confusion are the “relabeling” efforts many wineries are undergoing.  Relabeling typically occurs in connection with revamped efforts at export (discussed in detail below) or in connection with a rebranding – an exercise most wineries seem to enjoy throwing money at every few years in an effort to boost sales (for less-than-great wineries, it is sometimes beyond me why this money and effort isn’t simply utilized towards making better wines).  As such, there are individual wines from a few wineries that are bottled under three to five different labels – but are exactly the same wine.  Tracking down the wine and producer of many of these private label wines (most of which end up for sale in some capacity or another) is not always an easy task.  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.

The flip side of all these new potential customers is that many of them aren’t interested in complex dry wines but rather the sweeter semi-sweet wines that seem to have taken America by the storm and heavily contributed to it being the largest wine-consuming country in the world.  Presciently forecasted back in 2007 by Gary Vaynerchuk while tasting the Herzog Jeunesse Cabernet Sauvignon, this segment has exploded in popularity, comprising a substantial part of newbie drinkers’ increased consumption.  While I am happy people are drinking more wine, these aren’t the wines I am hoping for.  While bone dry and acidic wines can take some getting used to, there are many wines that provide a soft, supple and fruity drinking experience that is an easier entrée into the wonderful world of “real” wine and semi-sweet Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t going to get you there.  Additionally, and as discussed in detail below, with the somewhat wretched 2009 and 2010 Israeli vintages, many of the dryer and more complex wines have taken on an overly sweet flavor profile that will be easier to swallow (no pun intended) than in the past.  As such, when you encounter newbie wine drinkers looking for recommendations, gently remove the blue bottled abomination or Jeunesse from their clutches and suggest they pick up a bottle of Recanati Petit-Syrah/Zinfandel, Dalton Petite Sirah or even the Capcanes Peraj Petita instead.  They will be in your debt forever.

The Year(s) the Weather beat the Winemaker

As discussed in detail in my recent vintage-related newsletter, after many years of relative consistency across Israeli vintages, 2009 and 2010 were relatively bad vintages in Israel in which the weather showed man whose boss.  While these vintages are already a few years “old”, 2013 was the year in which the vast majority of better wines on the market were from these vintages (as you know, the better wines typically require more time in the barrels or bottles before they are ready to be released to market).  After many years in which upstart wineries and less talented winemakers where able to produce high-quality wines (“anyone can make good wine in a great vintage”), the difficult seasons stymied many wineries (including some of Israel’s best) and resulted in a large number of sweeter and “structurally confused” wines.  Despite some discernable trends among regions that were harder hit than others, wineries with a “riper style” like the Golan Heights Winery suffered more from the hotter and riper vintages that wineries focused on subtler wines including Castel, Tzora and Flam who are all located in the Judean Hills, which seems to have borne less of the brunt than Israel’s Northern wine-growing regions.  Additionally, the latter wineries are all smaller wineries and it is easier to control the winemaking process with a smaller portfolio and substantially lower production

Besides the obvious problems with a slew of relatively poor and uninspiring wines being unleashed on the market, I believe that damage was done to Israel’s reputation as a quality wine producer.  After many years of upward trajectory in quality, where wineries across the board where creating better and better wines, utilizing innovative techniques and experimenting with more and more grape varietals better suited to Israel’s Mediterranean terroir, the downward shift with these vintages has put a damper on the party.  Happily this downward shift ended with the 2011 vintage which was more of a mixed bag, with many of the country’s better winemakers churning out the high-quality and interesting wines we had become accustomed to in recent years.  2012 and 2013 were even better and are already spoken of in nearly the same reverent terms as the mythical (and unfortunately for many) Shmittah year of – 2008. Based on the my own barrel and advance tastings of many 2012 and 2013 wines, all this lavish praise may actually be insufficient, as we are looking at a large number of very special wines.  Besides the boding of general good fortune for all us oenophiles, personally it is sweet music to my ears, as it is my youngest daughter Ariella’s birth year and I am looking forward to drinking some amazing 2012 wines over the years at her future (B”H) smachot (life-cycle events).

Rise of [Potential] Conflicts

As discussed in depth in last year’s newsletter, the passing of Daniel Rogov left the kosher wine consumer with no widely known and accepted professional critic.  While there are many wine writers writing about Israeli wines, there are less than a handful (including yours truly) who write in English and an even lower number who cover kosher wines outside of Israel.  Additionally, many of these writers are hobbyists (like myself) or involved in the industry in one-way or another.  While we have discussed the potential benefits of losing the strongest voice in the room (many of which have come true), one of the downsides is the increasing importance of the industry’s voice.  With no impartial and universally accepted critic, people in the wine trade are gaining substantial influence with the ordinary consumer.  This list includes wineries, winemakers, retailers, distributors, importers, wine waiters, sommeliers and marketing folk.  While this list includes many with extensive and impressive wine knowledge (especially winemakers and sommeliers), each have commercial interests that may influence their opinions with respect to which wines they recommend.  With more and more people seeking advice on how to advance their wine knowledge (and consumption), advice and recommendations are taking on ever increasing importance and having someone who opinion you trust is more important than ever.  Winemakers may know a ton but they are obviously biased with respect to their own wines (and that of their competitors) and (as discussed in depth below) restaurants have commercial interests in the wines they chose to serve, making the Sommelier less than a fountain of unbiased knowledge with respect to the quality of the wines on his list (how do you think the “wine of the month” is typically chosen?).  Before my sommelier friends jump down my throat and never speak to me again, this is a generalization and there are plenty of great sommeliers out there whose greatest pleasure is to introduce you to a their favorite wines.  My point is not that a commercial interest in the wine industry automatically renders you unable to give an honest opinion but merely lamenting the fact that the majority of people given their opinion these days have a potential conflict of interest and, as always, caveat emptor.

As I have discussed in-depth in the past, there will not be an all-powerful and market moving successor to Daniel Rogov. The world and kosher wine market has simply changed too much for one person to have that much influence, especially in the world of Israeli and kosher wine in which the primary consumer think he or she knows better than everyone else.  That said, in addition to yours truly, there are a few others who write about kosher and/or Israeli wine on a somewhat regular basis and multiple Israeli wine writers who write in Hebrew.  Ha’Aretz recently appointed someone to write about wine, there are a number of Israeli wine-focused wine publications in the works (books and magazines) and, with the ever-increasing interest, this will continue.  As always, find a writer or critic whose palate agrees with yours and continue to drink and enjoy the wines you like, not the ones someone else tells you that you should like.

Increasing Importance of Restaurant Sales

As many of you know, in addition to being the home of the vast majority of quality kosher wine being produced today, Israel is also at the forefront of another, no less important revolution – that of a quality dining experience.  Other than folks who limit themselves to only Glatt kosher establishments, Israel plays hosts to the largest concentration of high-end and terrific kosher restaurants in the world.  As such, after a tough day of winery visits and barrel tastings I usually seek solace in one of the many incredible dining establishments the country has to offer.  One observation I have from my last few visits is that more and more Israelis are drinking wine with their meals than I have ever seen before.  Nearly every Israeli restaurant I have visited over the last two years has a decent wine list, many with surprisingly respectable pricing – a pre-requisite for growing wine sales and encouraging a non die-hard drinking public o consume more wine.  As discussed in more detail below, due to the unfortunate constraints relating to [perceived] requirement for mevushal wines, this trend hasn’t yet materialized in the United States but the increasing availability of higher quality mevushal wines (more on this below) will hopefully help in this regard (a silver lining if you will).  Partially as a result of this increase, restaurant sales provide a substantially increasing percentage of a wineries revenue, further increasing the importance of wine buyers and sommeliers (both from direct sales from the winery and also in their capacity as ambassadors of the winery to the public (as discussed above).

Reverting to the Mainstream Consumer

After a few years of positive progress towards more subtle wines, many wineries seemed to have reverted back to bigger, bolder and sweeter wines. Whether this is merely a reflection of the last few overly sweet vintages or a shift in philosophy remains to be seen but in my opinion, it is a little bit of both.  There are certainly wineries and winemakers who have made a conscious decision to cater to the mainstream market by making more fruity wines but others have simply gotten there as a result of the harvest.  With the large influx of newbie wine drinkers, many wineries have made a business decision to cater to these consumers and sell them the wine they like.  While wineries are obviously a business first and need to sell wine, I am somewhat disappointed that what I perceived to be a hugely positive trend has had the proverbial wind taken out of its ales.  While many wineries like Tzora, Recanati and Flam seem to be sticking to their guns, others have “jumped ship”.  Obviously, the larger wineries that have to sell millions of bottles of wine every year are more susceptible to this pressure than those making 100,000; I believe that the trend of educating the consumer is an important one.  Hopefully, with the vastly improved vintages of 2011, 2012 and 2013, wineries will regain their confidence and reverse the trend.  Thankfully the other side of the same coin – the continued growth of varietals such as Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Roussanne, Marselan, Touriga National, Carignan, Petite Sirah and GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre) blends over Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay continues to gain momentum with many new varietals and vineyards expected to come online in the next year or so.

Lack of Strong Israel Advocate & Strong Headwinds

While the lack of an all-powerful trendsetter has some positive aspects, many of which I have discussed on these pages, the Israeli wine industry is certainly suffering form the loss of its loudest and most prolific cheerleader – Daniel Rogov.  While he may have also benefited from his tireless promotion of Israeli wines on both the local and international stage, it is undeniable that Israel is suffering from the lack of a fearless promoter of its wines (unfortunately the government cannot seem to get its act together on this front, despite wine having the potential to improve Israel’s economy, diplomatic standing and general well-being in one fell swoop).  With the ever-increasing importance of export facing the increasingly challenging aspects of the high cost of Israeli wine, Israeli wine could use a promoter now more than ever.  Additionally, along with the increasing calls for “economic disengagement” from Israel as a whole, recent months have seen the left-wing vitriol against wines and wineries from Judea and Samaria rise to unprecedented levels.  The worst part being that a substantial amount of negativity is coming from within Israel’s own boundaries.  This is a problem that we should help fight by voting with our wallets (especially since so many of the Shomron region wines are awesome).  Tongue-in-cheek, this works for me as it leaves more incredible wines from Gvaot, Psagot and Shiloh for me…

More Israeli Export and the Rise of Mevushal Wine

Despite the increasing consumption of the Israeli mainstream market, it is insufficient to support the continued production growth of Israeli wineries whose reliance on export continues to grow.  More and more wineries are targeting increased exports as a significant part of their projected growth.  Some wineries like Montefiore are targeting 75% of their production for export.  While such a high percentage s a relative outlier, 40% continues to be a recurring number I am hearing, a substantial increase from the 15-25% of the last few years. While the main driver for this initiative is providing additional (and more high-end) options for restaurants and caterers, I believe that these wines will be highly sought after by the more observant crowd (an increasingly discerning group of kosher wine consumers) for home consumption.

Due to the continued (and incessantly frustrating) refusal of mainstream US kosher supervising organizations like the OU and OK to allow non-mevushal wines to be served in restaurants, the primary options for the kosher wine consumer in restaurants has been the wines of Herzog and Hagafen, with the entry-level Barkan Classic wines providing some uninspiring at best Israeli options (my go-to wine has traditionally been Herzog’s Cabernet Sauvignon from the Alexander Valley ).  Recent years have seen the wines from Shiloh added to that list as the winery slowly shifts towards a largely mevushal US-portfolio and a few wines from Spain’s Elvi. As part of the efforts to increase (US) exports, many of the major US importers have convinced their Israeli winery clients without any mevushal wines in their portfolio to create one or two higher-end mevushal wines, which are intended primarily for export.  Among the first to jump on this trend was Recanati, with a mevushal Shiraz in their “Diamond” series.  In the last year or two, the list has grown to include the Quadro from Bravdo (a blend similar to their Coupage with the addition of Merlot), Capcanes’ Peraj Petita and Peraj Ha’Abib, Psagot’s flagship Edom blend and their Cabernet Sauvignon, among others.  The common denominator of these wines is that, as opposed to the wines from Shiloh, Hagafen and others, these wines are made as non-mevushal and only undergo flash-pasteurization process at bottling which typically results in a lesser, but certainly different wine.  With both mevushal and non-mevushal versions of the same wines available, consumers should be aware of which wine they are purchasing (especially since some of these wines can be purchased non-mevushal at your local wine shop and mevushal at your favorite steakhouse).  I have conducted side-by-side tastings of all these wines, comparing the mevushal and non-mevushal versions and in every single case, there are discernable differences between the two, with the non-mevushal version being the superior wine in almost every single case.

General Wine Developments

Another year went by and there have been many upheavals and changes, with wineries being sold (Carmel and Saslove), wineries becoming non-kosher (Israel’s Midbar and California’s Agua Dulce), other wineries close up shop (Bashan and others), new wineries open (Kishor, Rota, Tamir, Abuhav, Dubkin, Shoham, Zimbalista, Pasco Project & Jezreel Valley – most worthy of your attention) and others become kosher (wineries like Dadah and Trio or specific kosher wines like Pelter).  Covenant Wines added a “Landsman” wine club and will have a number of additional exciting changes coming soon as well.  Many new wineries are being imported into the United States including Yaffo, Montefiore, Pasco Project, Ben Haim, Agur, Ramot Naftaly and Gat Shomron; with nearly every other non-importedwinery looking for importers as well.  Many wineries are ripping out vineyards that have been affected by viruses, which is going to result in some old favorites no longer being produced – stay tuned.

2013 was also loaded with personnel changes at many of the wineries including Binyamina (which lost Assaf Paz who replaced Avi Feldstein at Segal – and I just heard Sasson as well) and Ella Valley seems to have become a revolving door with Lin Gold being the only remaining person there (hopefully she will continue as winemaker and they won’t make her CEO).  On the commercial side, was sold and Internet sales continue to represent a rapidly growing percentage of sales within the kosher wine market.

Yossie’s Corkboard

After the longest period of non-writing I have experienced to date, I expect Yossie’s Wine Recommendations to continue on its regular, more-or-less, weekly trajectory and hope that you continue to enjoy them.  As always, please feel free to add anyone you think might enjoy to the mailing list (either by signing them up directly or sending me their contact information).  To the extent there are specific topics, questions or inquiries you would like to see covered on these pages, please let me know.

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.  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.