Grape Expectations
Thu, 03/03/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Phillip “Baron” Herzog, left, and Rabbi  Yonah  Tzvi “Eugene” Herzog, who arrived in New York in 1948.
Phillip “Baron” Herzog, left, and Rabbi Yonah Tzvi “Eugene” Herzog, who arrived in New York in 1948.

From old world to new; from yeshiva to board room; from amassing great wealth to losing it all to earning it back: For more than 250 years, back to the days when Mozart was composing, the Herzog family — the largest player in the kosher wine industry today — has traveled great distances and bridged gaping contradictions.
But the journey it is now in the midst of — moving the kosher wine consumer to dry wines — may be the family’s toughest one yet.

The Herzog name may be well known, but what is not so well known is the story behind this wine-producing family, which traverses the highs and lows of modern Jewish history. From the court of Kaiser Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Holocaust to postwar New York City, the Herzog story is one of business acumen, immigrant grit and a family’s commitment to holding fast to its Jewish identity and faith in a materialistic America.

The Herzog’s wines routinely score excellent marks in Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazines, and have fared well in international competitions. As Daniel Rogov, wine critic for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz and author of the annual “Rogov’s Guide to Kosher Wines,” recently noted, “Herzog is the largest and certainly one of the very best kosher producers in the country.”

Today, the Herzog’s Royal Wine Corporation has two wineries, Kedem Winery in upstate New York and Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard, Calif., a massive bottling plant in Bayonne, N.J., and a thriving grape juice business. According to Jay Buchsbaum, a vice president at Royal and its director of wine education, “Kedem Grape Juice is second only in sales to the non-kosher Welch’s.” Royal also imports kosher wines and spirits from 17 countries, and sells over one million cases of wine and grape juice annually in more than 16 countries.

Yet this successful family business was merely a dream when the Herzogs arrived in the U.S. in 1948 aboard a Pan Am flight from Prague organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Rabbi Yonah Tzvi “Eugene” Herzog (1906-1994) arrived in New York on June 3, 1948 with his wife, Soroh (“Sidonia”) and their six children. According to the family, his unshakeable faith in God kept him strong as he scrambled to earn a living in the United States and create a new and better life for his family while maintaining his commitment to Orthodox Jewish values. Herzog had been the head of a distinguished and commercially successful Orthodox Jewish family in his native Slovakia, but they were now refugees whose wealth had been almost entirely consumed by the confluence of war, the Nazis and then the Communists. The Herzogs had been Jewish communal leaders and Torah scholars going back 250 years, and had been in the wine, beer and distilled spirits business for over 100 years.

Recent conversations with members of the Herzog clan reveal a long and rich family history, but, in keeping with their traditional Orthodox notions of modesty, it is a story they are reluctant to share. Most of those I spoke with did not wish to be quoted directly.

The family’s winemaking story begins in the early 19th century in the town of Vrbové in the Trnava Region of Slovakia, where Rabbi Menachem Herzog (c. 1750-1822) established the family’s distillery, winery and brewery, which would sustain the family for the next century and beyond.

Menachem Herzog, known to his non-Jewish customers as “Emanuel,” produced wines (Rieslings and other dry white varietals), beers and spirits (gin, slivovitz and liqueurs) for the general market. He also produced kosher wines for the Jewish community as a side business. This is echoed today in the family’s sales pitch: “Producing premium quality wines that just happen to be kosher.”

Another key moment for the family involved one of Rabbi Menachem’s great-grandsons, Shragah Feish (“Philip”) Herzog (1843-1918). After the death of his father in 1857, Shragah was called back from yeshiva to run the business and help support the family. His rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Asad, a renowned Torah giant, prevailed upon him to leave the yeshiva in Szerdaheli (modern-day Dunajská Streda in southwest Slovakia). Rabbi Asad gave Shragah reassuring blessings for personal and commercial success for the family provided he set aside a regular fixed time for learning, made certain his sisters were married off to ehrliche yidden (fine, upstanding religious Jews), and that he never be late to davening.

According to his reputation, and as engraved on his tombstone, he meticulously fulfilled all three stipulations.

Shragah worked hard, and the family prospered. According to the family lore, around 1875 Herzog was awarded the exclusive contract to provide wines and spirits to Kaiser Franz Josef of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and given the title Freiherr or Baron (at the time Baron was commonly used in social and commercial settings even in writing). Shraga Herzog’s example of religious commitment and real world accomplishment has stayed with the Herzog family to this day.

Between the First and Second World Wars, the family business, much like the region generally, experienced highs and lows. In 1928, Rabbi Yonah Tzvi Herzog left his studies at the famed yeshiva in Galanta, where he learned directly under Rabbi Yehoshua Buxbaum (1887-1944), and entered the family business. He was the sixth generation and the last to run the business in Slovakia. During the interwar years, Yonah helped rebuild the Herzog winery, distillery and brewery into a thriving empire.

According to the family oral history, Yonah Herzog was much loved for his generosity and kindness even by his non-Jewish employees, business connections and customers, and so found willing help from his friends and neighbors during troubled times ahead, often despite great personal risk for those caught helping a Jew. Yonah used these resources to help save much of his family and as many Jews as he could when the Nazis took over. He liquidated his fortune to secure safe passage, bribe officials, pull strings, secure safe houses, and do whatever else was needed to escape. Tragically, his father and mother were betrayed by one of the “bribed” Nazi officials and were deported to Auschwitz and murdered there on July 8, 1944.

Yonah decided it was time to flee Europe following the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. After coming to America, Herzog’s winemaking reputation led to several competing offers to produce kosher wines for Jewish storefront wineries.  Herzog twice sought the advice of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (known as the Friediker Rebbe). He advised that Herzog go to work for the struggling start-up winery called the Royal Wine Corporation on the Lower East Side. He also gave Herzog a blessing for success, provided he use the chasidic kashrut supervision of the Tzehlimer Rav, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Greenwald (his supervision was universally accepted).

Herzog readily agreed and received both the blessing and $1,000 in additional seed money from Rabbi Schneersohn. He settled in with the Royal Wine Corp. in 1948 as a winemaker, salesman and truck driver, receiving much of his pay in mostly worthless shares in the company. Eventually, Herzog bought out his partners.

As Philip Herzog, one of Yonah’s three sons still in the business put it, “They thought we would never make it.” Yonah’s children entered the business and in 1958 they family established the Kedem brand, from the Hebrew words Chadaish Yameinu k’Kedem — “renew our days as before.”

The family became determined to build a reputation for excellent wines that just happen to be kosher, following the example of their forbearer Rabbi Menachem “Emanuel” Herzog. It always bothered Yonah that kosher wine in America was simple and sweet. As Royal’s Jay Buchsbaum points out, “For centuries, kosher wine tasted like the local wine of any given country. Only in the last 80 years did kosher wine turn sweet. It’s actually a very modern tradition.”

Yonah’s children finally began the effort to push consumers towards drier wines, by importing dry wines in the 1970s and branching into making California wine in the mid 1980s. According to Daniel Rogov, “The true kosher wine revolution in America started … when the [Herzog] family expanded to California.”

Royal has grown every year since 1958, and today 10 Herzogs work in the business, putting in long hours and carving out time every day to learn Torah and daven. Every member of the Herzog family remains religiously observant. The Royal Wine Corporation, say family members, has fulfilled Rabbi Yonah Tzvi Herzog’s dream to renew and surpass what the Herzog family had lost in the old country. As his grandson, Michael Herzog, winemaker at the Kedem Winery, put it, “We pray and learn every day. We don’t want to work so hard that we forget about what’s important.”