America’s Kosher Wine Scene
Thu, 02/28/2013

Kosher wine in America is a multimillion-dollar business (upwards of $28 million, according to estimates made several years ago), and every year brings changes — new wines, new vintages, new varietals, new regions, and sometimes new producers. Keeping track of what’s hot and what’s not can be confusing. To try and make the topic more digestible, we reached out to a cross-section of kosher wine importers, those responsible for bringing many of the kosher wines to the consumer.

Clearly, Israel remains very hot — a lot of interest, a lot of new wines and vintages, and a lot of growth and movement. According to Jay Buchsbaum of the Royal Wine Corp., the largest producer, importer and distributor of kosher wines and spirits with nearly 20 different Israeli wineries in its portfolio: “The single strongest growth area in the kosher wine world is Israel, hands down. We almost can’t bring it in fast enough, and some of the wineries can’t produce anything like enough volume to satisfy U.S. demand.”

“Yes, Israel is definitely a popular part of the market,” agrees Shai Ghermezian, executive vice president of Allied Importers, the No. 2 importer and distributor of kosher wines in the U.S. “Partly this is due to the increasing quality and general vitality — new varietals, new blends, new styles, new producers [at least to our market]. Also, of course, a lot of people want to support Israel. So if they are going to spend a few extra dollars on a good wine, they’ll spend it on an Israeli wine. The fact that Israel makes such great wines simply makes this choice an easy one.”

According to Joseph Berkowitz of Monsieur Touton Selections, a non-kosher wine importer and distributor with a healthy smattering of Israeli, French, New Zealand, Argentinean, Chilean and Italian kosher imports, “Israel has been trending very hot for the past several years, because the wines are just superlative quality, and the prices are coming more into line with the quality being offered. A case in point would be our new Ugav line [from the Jerusalem Winery] — a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Merlot and a Cab-Shiraz blend from Judean Hills vineyards; these are in the $13-$14 bottle range and the response has been very enthusiastic. Even above this price range, when the quality is there, the wines are in demand, like for our small boutique Ella Valley Vineyards line — great wines, all meticulously produced by hand, with fanatical attention to quality.”

Royal’s Buchsbaum fine-tunes this point: “One of the biggest reasons Israeli wines are so sought after is because of their increasing quality, even though their prices continue to rise. Interest in them remains high, and their ‘quality to price ratio’ or ‘bang for your buck,’ even with rising prices, remains very strong. Especially at the mid-range. Consider, for example, a brand like Barkan,” the second largest Israeli wine producer. “The Barkan Classic line,” he notes, “has maintained a healthy presence in the $10-$15 range, yet their quality has gone through the roof of late, so your $10-$15 is buying a better bottle than even just a few years ago. This $10-$15 Barkan Classic range offers standard, solid wines — Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, and the like — and they are mevushal, food-friendly and delicious.”

Another clear trend for the last few years is towards new or interesting and innovative wines. Royal Wines, as the kosher wine market leader and largest player, arguably has the lion’s share of these, though both Allied, Touton and others have plenty to offer as well.

Buchsbaum’s list of new and hot Royal portfolio wines is long, so here’s a small sampling: the new Bartenura Malvasia and Brachetto sweet, light red wines from Italy; the Pacifica (Evan’s Collection) wines from Washington State; the single vineyard selections of Herzog; the Harkham Australian wines; the Capçanes old vine Garnacha, the newest Elvi wines; and the high-end Barkan and Segal wines.

He also recommends the Binyamina Zinfandel and Carignan wines, the Cabernet Franc, and old-vine Petite Sirah and Carignan “Appellation” wines from Carmel as well as the new Mediterranean and Limited Edition blends; the newest releases of Israeli boutique wines like the high-end Castel, Shomron region wines of Shiloh; the Mediterranean-style Domaine Netofa wines; the new releases from Tzuba and Flam, and Tulip, and Royal’s French Drappier Champagne — “magnificent champagne; I’m crazy about this wine,” notes Buchsbaum. “It’s about the same price, within a few dollars, as its non-kosher counterpart, despite the extra costs of kosher production and certification, and its wonderful and so versatile and mevushal. I’m actually surprised this hasn’t sold out.”

Shai Ghermezian’s list from Allied’s portfolio also makes the mouth water. Here is just a sampling: Saslove’s 2010 vintage wines (Adom Cabernet Sauvignon, Adom Shiraz, and the Saslov Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010); the Dalton 2011 wines (Dalton Meron Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, their Petite Sirah); Dalton’s 2012 Reserve Viognier (available after Pesach), as well as its 2012 Moscato, Le Mourre De Isle Tavel Rose 2012, and Vignobles David Chateauneuf du Pape Red 2011 (also after Pesach); and, from Portugal, their ITS reasonably priced non vintage Quevedo Ruby Port dessert wine.

Berkowitz of Touton also offered a long list of new and interesting wines. Here is a small sampling: one of his favorites is Chateau le Bourdieu, “a superb 2009 Bordeaux blend from the Medoc, with excellent balance and at under $30 perhaps one of the best kosher Bordeaux on the market.” Higher up the scale is the Chateau Tour Baladoz ($45-$50), a 2008 Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, which Berkowitz says “is drinking absolutely brilliantly right now, just delicious.” At the “affordable end,” he cites the Rene Lacray Chablis (Premier Cru Montmains) from Burgundy — “a brilliant, just classic Chablis. We also have just superb Argentinean wines: Guillermo de Mendoza and Don Mendoza. In the Don Mendoza line we have a reserve Malbec, which is a very trendy grape generally, and a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. These are at fantastic prices (around $11.99), and offer just superb juice, really excellent wine and just high QPR [quality to price ratio]. Our Cantina Gabriele wines are also excellent QPR.”

Ami Nahari, CEO of The River, a fairly new, innovative distributor of fine kosher wines, has some stellar new wines as well. Shirah’s “Bro-Deux” (limited quantity) and “Coalition” wines from California, notes Nahari, “are easily our hottest wines — kosher or not. These are just such superior-quality kosher wines; really like nothing else available in the market.” Also of interest are The River’s Israeli wines, such as the (limited quantity) Gush Etzion “Blessed Valley White,” a blend of Chardonnay and Viognier, the Gush Etzion “Lone Oak Reserve Cabernet” and its “Spring River Cabernet/Merlot,” its Tishbi Estate Malbec (“one of the best malbecs on the market today”), Har Bracha’s Petit Syrah, and its Kadesh Barnea Single Vineyard 100% Petite Verdot from the Negev.

Perhaps the healthiest trend, as Royal’s Buchsbaum puts it, is that “the kosher wine market is doing great. The number of kosher wine consumers is growing strongly, which is good, but even more importantly, kosher wine consumers are drinking more wines, and better wines.” Significantly, he notes, “an actual culture of kosher wine consumption — drinking wine as simply part of life’s enjoyment, as part of a healthy, balanced diet — is emerging and developing.” This is so much of what Royal Wines, for one, is trying to promote. “Don’t get me wrong,” he’s quick to note, “We’ve a long way to go yet, but this is a wonderful and very healthy development.”

To that, we can all drink a L’Chaim! ◆