While Standing on One Foot: A Look Back on 2012

This newsletter is the first of my annual end-of-the-year three-part series on the wonderful world of Israeli and kosher wines.  As the Gregorian year comes to an end, I like to look back at the last 12 months and discuss the (hopefully mostly positive) changes that the delightful world of kosher wine underwent, with a natural focus on the Israeli wine industry (which still produces the majority of kosher wine).  I also get to see if I was right with any of my predictions last year (for those interested in checking themselves, my end-of-year newsletters for 2011 included the “Best Wines of 2011”, a look back at the year that was and some predictions for 2012).

This week’s edition deals with some of the more material events and trends we experienced over the past year.  The next two editions will include my list of the top wines of 2012 (and the most “interesting” wines that didn’t make the list but were (and remain) well-worthy of your attention) and a look forward to 2013, in which I peer into my crystal ball and try to predict what 2013 may look like (guess is more appropriate terminology, but predicts sounds better).

While the wine world experienced many upheavals and transitions over the past twelve months, from a personal perspective, the biggest event of the year was the birth of my fourth child – Ariella Naomi, six months ago yesterday.  While wine is a delightfully enjoyable thing and a somewhat engulfing hobby that takes up far too much of my free time, family is paramount and nothing is more pleasurable than spending time with my kids.  That said, I continue to work diligently on my children’s wine appreciation skills so I can combine the two…

With that mushy and personal reflection safely out of the way, I present some of the bigger events and trends in the kosher and Israeli wine world over the last 12 months – enjoy.

Robert Parker “Sells Out”

With the obligatory end-of-the-year postings looming for writers and bloggers, many jump the gun and publish such articles a bit too far in advance, risking having important events occur after the fact.  A few very recent events (i.e. in the past week or so) are helpful reminders on why it pays to hold out on these as long as possible.  The first item, while not directly tied to the Israeli or kosher world of wine, was easily one of the most important wine events of the year and has the potential to impact the world of Israeli and kosher wines as well.

Last week Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal broke the story that Robert Parker (easily the world’s most influential wine critic, despite a waning of influence over recent years) was selling a majority stake in the Wine Advocate for approximately $15 million to three investors from Singapore (the lead investor has been identified as Soo Hoo Khoon Peng, formerly of the wine importing company – Hermitage).  To qualify such news as a bombshell would be an understatement, exacerbated by the fact that only a month ago Parker had professed publicly that he had no such intentions.  As would be expected, the announcement created a huge brouhaha and much speculation and analysis.  The uproar included an “amendment” to the initial article in the Wall Street Journal after Parker took to Twitter to “clarify” a number of points in the original article with which he curiously disagreed (after apparently providing the Wall Street Journal with the initial information).  If you somehow missed all of this, I have included most of the relevant links here (and you obviously don’t yet follow me on Twitter)

While the Wine Advocate doesn’t review or score a lot of kosher or Israeli wines and Mark Squires (as opposed to Parker himself) is the writer tasked with covering Israel (in addition to Portugal, Greece, Lebanon, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania) does the tastings (Parker himself covers primarily Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley); the unparalleled prestige of the Wine Advocate (mostly based on Parker’s reputation) provides unparalleled marketing opportunities (and hopefully corresponding sales growth) for those lucky wines viewed favorably by Mark Squires (a highly talented and respected wine writer in his own right who is starting to have a greater understanding of Israel’s unique terroir now that he has a number of years of tastings under his belt) and showcased in the Wine Advocate.  While Parker’s influence has been waning for some time, these changes have the potential to further erode the relevance of the publication (decreasing the benefit of achieving high Wine Advocate scores).  Additionally, having the epicenter of the publication potential shift to Asia makes me wonder how much effort and resources will continue to be diverted to Israel, a country with little of the prestige so important in many Asian wine-drinking countries, the current ‘darlings” of the high end wine industry.

One other potential impact could be the rise of other competing wine publications including Wine Spectator and the Wine Enthusiast.  Any such increase in prestige and exposure could benefit Israeli wines; given the increasing exposure such wines are receiving in both these publications.

Real World Recognition

While the potential upheaval at the Wine Advocate may have some negative impact on Israel’s recognition as a quality wine-producing region, so far so good and Israeli wineries are doing just fine, thank you very much.  Leading the pack is Israel’s top winery – the Golan Heights Winery. After being the first Israeli winery to ever win a top award at the international Vinitaly 2011 Wine Competition in Verona as the World’s Best Wine Producer last year, they were awarded New World Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine.  While every reader of this newsletter already knows that Israel is capable of producing world class wines and that “kosher” is neither a region or varietal; the fact that Israeli wineries are competing head-to-head with “mainstream” wineries and coming out ahead puts a well needed (and deserving) spotlight on Israel’s wines, enabling them to be recognized outside their core market of the kosher consumer.  While I don’t place much stock in awards, medals or competitions in providing meaningful information with respect to the wine’s quality, they are important from a marketing and sales perspective and create publicity, recognition and awareness, all sorely lacking for Israeli wines.  With Israel’s limited domestic consumption (a problem all onto itself – see below) and rising production, export remains a crucial component for the success of the Israeli wine industry and enabling Israeli wines to be marketed and sold under an “Israel” label as opposed to a “kosher” one is paramount to these efforts.

Winds of [Mediterranean] Change

Continuing last year’s trend, (which I expect to continue and be exacerbated by the changed at the Wine Advocate discussed above) wineries continue to focus more on food-friendly wines, with less [over-]ripe fruit, higher acidity levels and less pronounced oak exposure.  More and more Israeli wineries are experimenting with this style, with Recanati, Tzora, Carmel and others leading the charge.  As most wine is enjoyed with food, this is certainly a welcome trend but one onto which the average Israeli wine has not yet latched.  With the need to sell wine justifiably paramount over all other, many wineries continue to produce the big wines consumers love, many a times by over-oaking them.  Others, the most prominent of which is the Golan Heights Winery, continue to make big, bold and fruit dominant wines (which, at least in the wines of the Golan Heights Winery, are tempered by elegance and impeccable structure and balance) that consumers want.  While I believe the trend will continue, until the path of the Israeli wine consumer crystallizes (see below), this trend will continue to remain very much in flux.

The Fall of the Dominant Wine Critic

As discussed in both my 2011 year-end newsletters in depth, last year’s biggest event was the passing of Daniel Rogov, which I expected to have far-reaching implications for our little world of Israeli and kosher wines.  I am not going to repeat that analysis and you can reread my thoughts on this here and here.  While some of the changes will take a few years to permeate, I have noticed a few substantial trends over the past 12 months that can certainly, at least partially, be attributed to his passing.

·         Rise of the Consumer:  While slightly less prominent in the Israeli market due to the existence of other established wine writers, there was a definite correspondence between Rogov’s scoring of wines and sales volume.  Especially with the expanded marketing of his book, wines that scored highly were sought after by many consumers and those that he panned were left to gather dust on the shelves and required heightened marketing efforts by retailers to push them onto consumers.  With Rogov out of the picture, the consumer is left to fend for himself.  While this impact also carries with it some negative aspects, the upside is that the consumer is no longer “forced” to drink wines enjoyed by one individual palate and is freer to make decisions about the wines they like or dislike without being tethered to wine scores.  While this has resulted in increased sales of what some could call inferior wines, consumers are certainly drinking more of what they like as opposed to what people think they should like (see the most popular and top wine lists put out annually bykosherwine.com as a good example).  While the need for wine writers and critics remains and there are other wine writers who cover Israeli and kosher wines in both English and Hebrew, none of them have anywhere near the gravitas that Rogov did, which frees consumers to drink what they like.  One unfortunate downside is that the few kosher wine consumers who don’t yet subscribe to this newsletter are left at the sometimes ignorant (or worse – unscrupulous) hands of retailers who will push wines on them that are simply better left unmade, or at the very least on the shelves (or the $5 bin).

·         Hidden Gems:  Rogov made a serious attempt to visit nearly every “commercial” winery in Israel (or have a broad sampling of their wines) every year or two, at most.  Given his standing, these tastings nearly always included barrel tastings and advance tastings of too-be-released wines, for which he published his detailed tasting notes (and scores) shortly after tasting (usually the same day).  For those who participated in his forum, this was a great opportunity to get a sneak-peak at some of the great wines coming to market and per-emptively reach out to your favorite source to secure some bottles.  While there are many wine writers who cover Israeli wines (in English and Hebrew) and a few that also cover global kosher wines, nobody comes close to tasting as many wines as Rogov or making the same effort to actually visit all the wineries.  Given the sheer number of wines produced annually by Israel’s more than 300 wineries and the fact that it is nearly impossible to survive solely as a wine writer (in Israel and globally), most writers primarily rely on samples, major tastings (such as the Sommelier Expo and IsraWinExpo I have attended and written about in the past which are akin to Royal’s coming Kosher Food and Wine Experience) or special press events when wines are “unveiled”.  While these writers help the consumer ferret out some of the great wines coming to market, the sheer number of Israeli and kosher wines produced annually ensures that not every wine is going to be tasted and reported on – including many “worthy” wines (until they are randomly tasted and provide a Eurekamoment to someone determined to let the world know).  The upside is that these undiscovered wines tend to avoid the hype over-pricing (e.g. the Recanati, Mediterranean Reserve, Wild Carignan, 2009); the downside is that these wines remain undiscovered…

·         No “Must-Have” Wines:  As with the “Rise of the Consumer” discussed above, I view this as an extremely positive development. Despite my personal dislike of scores (evidenced by the fact that I don’t score wines – the issue has been discussed in depth multiple times on these pages), consumers’ love of scores is only surpassed by the affection bestowed upon wine scores by wine retailers, distributors and producers (i.e. wineries).  While most other wine writers score wines, with Rogov gone, no other wine writer covering Israeli or kosher wines is a king maker – with the ability to bestow instant cult status on any particular wine (akin to what happened to the 2006 Yarden Rom from the Golan Heights Winery when Rogov ultimately gave it a 96 – the highest score he ever granted an Israeli wine).  Such status results in making the wine a “must have” and selling out nearly instantly, subject to severe rationing by the winery and retailers (only to be resold by some wine stores at exorbitant markups, mostly preying on well-heeled but unsuspecting tourists).  One example of this phenomenon is the release earlier this year of one of Israel’s greatest wines of all times – the Katzrin 2008 from the Golan Heights Winery.  The wine is simply amazing and one of the best I have tasted with tons of development ahead and aging ability of 20 years.  If Rogov were alive, I’d guess I would have scored a 94 at least, maybe even a 95 which would have resulted in it selling out right away.  While the wine justifiably reigns as the best Israeli wine and sells out pretty easily every year, without a hyped up score from Rogov, the wine is still pretty easy to find at its release price of ~$100.  While the fact that 2008 was a Shmittah vintage does put a slight damper on its “acceptability” for certain segments of the kosher oenophilic population, this has become less of an issue in recent years (the sarcastic part of me thinks it might have to do with the superiority of the 2008 vintage).

·         Rise of the Amateur:  Despite the expectations of many, no replacement Rogov has appeared and folks need to realize that therenever will be such a replacement.  Without taking anything away from his knowledge, incredible writing ability, palate and dedication, much of his dominance can be tied to being in the right place at the right time.  He was basically the only quality game in town during the emergence of the Israeli wine industry and indispensable in its promotion.  These days, Israeli wines win accolades around the world, the world’s best known publications (including the Wine Advocate , the Wine Enthusiast and the Wine Spectator) regularly cover Israeli wines and grant them good scores and a multitude of wine writers have sprung up to cover Israeli and global kosher wines.  It is no longer the one-man show it was ten years ago and the sheer number of Israeli and kosher wines make it virtually impossible for one man to cover them all.  As a result, many other wine writers and bloggers have gained more recognition, prominence and exposure, both in Israel and abroad.  Additionally, many wine lovers who didn’t actively participate in public discussions on Israeli and kosher wines (primarily on Rogov’s wine forum), partially due to Rogov’s dominance, are now much freer with their opinions and tasting notes (usually with positive effect), leading to more democratic discussion and sharing of ideas and opinions which is always a good thing and a proliferation of publicly available comments on many wines.  I expect this trend to continue to the benefit of all Israeli and kosher wine lovers.

Quality in Addition to Israel

While Israel still produces the majority of kosher wines, the numbers continue to shift rapidly with more and more quality offerings being produced in various countries across the globe.  Over the past year I have tasted many new quality offerings hailing from diverse places as Argentina, France, Australia Spain, Italy and California.  Many of the wines are not [yet] commercially available in the United States but this will hopefully change and, as the wheat is separated from the chaff, expect to see some high-end (and hopefully decently priced) offerings from currently unknown global producers.

All that said, after Israel, California continues to reign supreme as a producer of quality kosher wines and the various wineries out there continue to improve and innovate their offerings, with an understanding that in this rapidly changing and highly competitive world, staying still is no longer an option.  Some recent California examples include Covenant’s new “Landsman” wine club which included a top-notch Pinot Noir, Herzog’s new vineyards and the addition of a Cabernet Franc, Brobdingnagian’s White Grenache (which I haven’t tasted yet) and Carignan, one of the best wines I have ever tasted from Four Gates winery and increased production by the Weiss Brothers at their Shirah Winery.  Craig Winchell, formerly of Gan Eden, is also contemplating a return to the world of kosher wine and his individualistic winemaking skills are sure to provide new and creative wines for us to enjoy.  All is all – things continue to improve for the kosher wine consumer.

Of course, while all this increased competition is music to our ears, winemakers need to work harder and have a somewhat new reality to deal. Wineries producing high-end (read expensive) wines, can no longer rest on their laurels and count on their legions of loyal fans to continue to buy all they offer at any price.  As internet wine sales proliferate and antiquated related legal stumbling blocks continue to crumble, consumers have more choices at better prices than ever before and will spend their dollars where they get the most bank for the buck  These days, if you can produce real QPR wines, you are golden and if not, you may be in trouble.

Odds and Ends

As always, people come and go and the past year was no exception with many comings and goings at a multitude of wineries.  Among many other changes, Ella Valley’s longtime winemaker – Doron Rav Hon – was replaced at Ella Valley by Lin Gold, Tamir Arzy was replaced at Tulip Winery by David Bar-Ilan (under less than perfect circumstances) and Binyamina continued its management shakeup with longtime CEO Ilan Hasson leaving and senior winemaker Sasson Ben-Aharon being promoted to Executive Manager.  Another welcome change was the return to Israel of Lewis Pasco, formerly of Recanati, who is in the process of starting up another winery.  His innovative Petit-Sirah/Zinfandel blend was an early favorite of mine and I look forward to seeing what he does this time around.

Other changes are in the wind as the cooperative that owns Carmel Winery is looking to sell approximately 30% of the winery to outside investors, creating some drama among the cooperatives numerous grower owners.  I have also heard from numerous wineries that are looking to raise substantial amounts of new capital for a multitude of planned improvements, with new and attractive visitor centers heading the wish list for many wineries.

While not something that is discussed much outside Israel’s borders, the Israeli wine industry and its varied proponents including wineries, wine writers and others, are grappling with the need to raise domestic consumption and awareness of Israeli wines.  Despite a robust domestic production of high quality wines, Israel imports a substantial amount of foreign wines, which find many takers.  I am not referring to the high end offerings from Burgundy, Bordeaux and Tuscany which are high-quality wines enjoyed around the world by sophisticated wine aficionados, which Israel has a plenty but rather about the cheap plonk that you can order by the glass at many restaurants or buy on sale in a supermarket, many a time for under $10.  As we discussed a few weeks ago, this is a feat which is still somewhat difficult for Israeli wineries, whose wine doesn’t carry the still existing cache of being imported.  With a growing production, a multitude of new vineyards coming online and a global economy still reeling, increasing domestic consumption of Israel’s wines is increasingly important for an industry still going through some growing pains.

Yossie’s Corkboard

The past year saw a number of changes for the newsletter including more than doubling the number of subscribers and adding a number of helpful pages to the website including an interactive map of Israel’s more than 70 kosher wineries with tasting notes, detailed information for most and links to related articles.  Other added pages include wines only available in Israel (a list that continuously shrinks [and becomes more obscure] as more and more kosher wines are being imported into the United States), a list of Recommended Retailers with special discounts,ageable and cellar-worthy wines (a list that continues to grow as Israeli wines get better and better).

I have also become more active on Twitter, providing many links to interesting wine articles, tasting notes and other items of interest in the oenophilic world, all at only 140 characters a pop (the most concise medium in which you will ever read me).  For those who don’t want to read each carefully curated “tweet”, I also summarize the best items from each week on Monday which can be found on the “Best of Twitter” page.

The past year also saw my first visit to the West Coast wineries.  While I have been tasting and writing about the delightful Napa Valley kosher wines for years, this was the first time I actually got to visit the stunningly beautiful Napa Valley and surrounding areas.  Spending quality time with the folks from Herzog, Hagafen, Brobdingnagian, Hagafen and Four Gates was great and stay tuned for detailed reports and tasting notes from the visits.  For those who haven’t been, it is an incredibly highly recommended trip!

I have many new things planned for the website in 2013, much of which I will discuss in my 2013 Crystal Ball newsletter, coming in the next couple weeks – hope you enjoy and please continue to let me know of any ideas, suggestions or critiques you may have that help Yossie’s Wine Recommendations continue to improve!

So that is a quick summary of the wine related highlights for 2012.  Hope you enjoyed as much as I did and I look forward to a bigger and even better 2013 (my predictions for which we will discuss in a coming [very] shortly newsletter).  Given the length of this newsletter, no tasting notes this week but stay tuned for the Best Wines of 2012 coming next week!