Industry in a Bottle

By Rafael Hoffman

Those claiming deep knowledge of France’s celebrated wine industry might be surprised that one of the leading experts in its many chateaus is a Parisian Jew named Menachem Israelievitch.

Mr. Israelievitch began his career at 16, “before I was even allowed to drink the wine,” he says, as a mashgiach working seasonally at wineries in Bordeaux. As he matured, so did his interest in the fine wines his country is famed for producing, and he sought official training as a sommelier, the term for a wine professional. He went on to produce some of his own wines and facilitate kosher runs at chateaus humble and great.

Menachem Israelievitch.

Twenty-seven years since what started as making a few extra francs during breaks from yeshivah, Mr. Israelievitch now heads Royal Wine’s European operation, overseeing kosher production at dozens of prominent wineries. The nature of kosher wine production, where vintners have to reveal and teach their process to Jewish staff to produce the wine they have perfected, gave Mr. Israelievitch insight that few others have.

“The experience you get when you work in kosher production makes most winemakers jealous,” he said. “Normally, someone goes to train in one winery. In my position, I’ve had the opportunity to work in over 20 at the same time.”

In addition to broadening his own wine expertise, Mr. Israelievitch has a front row seat in the kosher wine industry’s evolution.

“The kosher market has totally changed,” he said. “Even 15 years ago, when I came to New York for wine shows, the most common request was to taste the most expensive bottle on the table. Now, I bring the owners of chateaus to the same shows and they’re very surprised to see how educated the kosher consumer has become.”

Whether one has a palate for fine wine or just buys it as a staple of Jewish life, few can escape noticing that the kosher wine market has radically expanded from what it once was.

The plethora of regions and wineries now offering kosher bottles has opened up a new world of options. This expanded diversity of labels begs the question of how a market, long associated with sweet, low-cost brands made in upstate New York and a handful of wineries in Israel, went to selling a full range of reds and whites from California, France, Italy, and Spain.

What convinced established wineries to open their guarded cellars to outside winemakers, offering access to a new market, and who are the new generation of Jewish wine aficionados who have made the transformation possible?

Like many products, the kosher wine business’ expansion comes as a result of the Orthodox community’s population growth as well as of the affluence and liberal spending habits of the present era.

However, expanding people’s wine-drinking horizons is patently different than introducing a new brand of potato chips, as few people are born with a natural appreciation for the sophistication of wine. One factor which bridged that gap is more Orthodox Jews with wine expertise who helped expose customers to more stimulating options. 

“There are more frum wine professionals than ever, and they have an influence in recommending new things for consumers to try,” said Ari Lockspeiser, a winemaker who works as a sommelier at The Cellar in Lakewood. “Bringing in new products from the retail perspective starts with distributers who try to get new regions and expose drinkers to more options.”

Mr. Lockspeiser’s foray into the wine business began about ten years ago when he decided to turn his hobby into a part-time profession, purchasing and writing for an online kosher wine forum. That led him to seek more formal education and to facilitate kosher runs in emerging American wine regions. Mr. Lockspeiser’s present work advising retail consumers goes on alongside his continued work as an attorney, focusing on workers’ compensation. 

“The artistic expression of making wine is very unique,” he said. “There’s a lot of science to learn about, but it’s also about taste and smell… The work can be hard, but it’s rewarding helping consumers and bringing new products to Klal Yisrael. 

The expansion of options itself helped nurture a growing consumer base interested in quality wines, as increasing diversity drives consumers to try new offerings.  

“It’s a wheel that keeps turning. When there is more variety, there’s more interest, when there’s more interest, you have to have better quality,” said David Cohen, sales and export manager for Elvi Wines, headquartered in Barcelona, Spain. “Twenty-five years ago, even the big players didn’t have to make really good wines. Now, everybody has had to up their game.”

The COVID pandemic, Mr. Cohen said, helped to accelerate interest in higher quality wines. When social distancing protocols left most people with smaller gatherings for Pesach and other occasions, many people opted to splurge on better wine.

“We sell in 25 countries, and I heard this from distributors all over the world,” he said. “People were willing to spend more, and, as a result, they got more educated.”

To some extent, the industry’s growth mirrors trends in the broader American wine market, on a few decades’ lag. Until the late 1960s, Americans drank relatively little wine, and much of what was consumed was low-quality sweet wine. Increased travel, cheaper imports, and generational change brought more interest in more sophisticated dry wines. By the 1970s, California wine country began to blossom with hundreds of wineries, producing a new domestic wine industry.

“About 10 years ago, there was a blossoming of kosher wine production worldwide in Europe, Israel, and America. Now, I would call it a tsunami,” said Jeff Morgan, founder and owner of Covenant Wines, based in Berkeley, California. “Jews who care, which is basically the observant community, started drinking good wine, and once they saw what was out there, they couldn’t go back.”

A large percentage of the present variety in the kosher wine market comes from special runs at established non-kosher wineries, bringing many well-known names to Jewish consumers. With kosher runs of other products, however, process changes are limited to kashering machinery and possibly replacing or removing certain ingredients.

Yet, since kosher wine must be handled exclusively by observant Jews during production, vintners must be convinced not only to reveal their process but to turn it over to others. That can be challenging in a field where crafting a product is seen as more art than industry.

“The pitch is, ‘This will be no different than how you make wine, just we’ll be handling it, and it will bring you to a new market,’” said Mr. Lockspeiser, who has mostly worked with smaller wineries in New York and Washington state. “I’ve been told plenty of times, ‘Don’t mess with my product,’ but some are very open to it.”

Another hurdle in getting winemakers to try a kosher run is convincing them that another team will maintain quality, since their label will still be on the bottle. Wineries are often paid for the wine in advance, but reserve the right to block sale if quality does not live up to their standard, placing a good deal of risk on the kosher contractor.

“The biggest challenge each year is to make sure the quality will be the same as when they put it in the bottle,” said Mr. Israelievitch. “Our job is to work with the winemaker and do whatever we can to make things easy on the kashrus side and on the quality side.”

Operating under Royal Wine, an arm of the Herzog wine empire, Mr. Israelievich works with some 40 chateaus in Bordeaux and other European wine regions producing runs that typically span from 5,000 to 10,000 bottles every other year. Once a winery agrees to pursue a kosher run, its heads will meet with winemakers on the kosher team as well as with the mashgichim. If technical details can be worked out and agreed upon, pressing, barreling and bottling will take place on site.

“We have to convince them that it’s worth it for them to open up to this new market and that they can’t do that without making a kosher run,” said Mr. Israelievitch. “Our team has built a good reputation here in Bordeaux, and a lot of the big chateaus have come to trust us with their product.”

While kosher runs at established wineries have driven the bulk of expanding diaspora labels, the list of exclusively kosher wineries has steadily expanded as well. The dominant position in this club is held by Herzog, which produces dozens of original wines at its cellars in Oxnard in southern California.

At the same time, a growing club of West Coast boutique wineries have sprung up, sourcing grapes from California’s Napa, Sonoma, and other wine regions.

Gavriel Weiss first learned the wine business working for Herzog. As he became more interested in winemaking, he read up and then, together with his brother Shimon and some friends, made a homemade brew in a barrel in their garage. Successive attempts produced more and better wine until the Weiss brothers decided to open what would become Shirah. Their first harvest was in 2009, and their wines hit the market in 2011, with colorful labels like “BroDeux” and “Counter Punch.”

“Our motto is ‘power to the people,’” said Gavriel Weiss. “They’re meant to be in your face and have a lot of personality. Big in style, but structured.”

A small handful of California kosher wineries predate the market’s recent expansion. Ernie Weir opened Hagafen Cellars in Napa in 1979.

“I was looking for a different lifestyle from the urban culture of Los Angeles where I was raised,” he said. “It’s a generational business, not one you can come into and then leave in five years. It takes a long time to acquire the knowledge you need, but once you have it, there’s a lot to build on.”

The trend extends to some of Europe’s wine countries as well.

Eli Gauthier first built his wine knowledge running a tasting station for Royal in a London supermarket. A growing interest in winemaking brought him back to his native France where he worked for a chateau and took online courses. In 2014, he opened Cantina Giuliano, a kosher winery and restaurant in Italy’s Tuscany region, known for its chiantis.

Winemaking and running his restaurant and catering business keeps Mr. Gauthier in Tuscany for the summer and early fall. Most of the rest of the year he spends in Strasbourg, where the seasonal profession allows him to dedicate much of the winter to learning Torah. Even in the “off” months, his work necessitates occasional visits back to Italy for bottling and trips abroad for trade shows and sales meetings.

“The easy part is making wine, the hard part is selling wine,” he said.

Like many kosher winemakers, Mr. Gauthier was drawn to this unique livelihood by its artistry and contribution to Jewish life.

“There’s something very satisfying about taking raw materials and creating something with depth and sophistication. It’s a type of craftsmanship, like building wooden furniture,” he said. “After all the work that goes into making it, there’s nothing more fulfilling than getting a picture from someone who used your wine by a bris or chuppah or at their Shabbos table.” 

The Cohen family has been operating Spain’s only fully kosher winery for the past 25 years, the first one in the country since the Inquisition. Dr. Moises Cohen grew up in Casablanca and went to university in Israel before making his way to Spain to pursue a PhD in agricultural engineering. There, he and his wife Anna decided to use their farming know-how to bring new offerings to the kosher wine market.

“My parents basically started by asking, ‘Why can’t kosher wine be good?’” said their son David, who runs the winery’s sales and exports.

The family lives in Barcelona, but their winery, Elvi, is located in Taragone, about an hour and a half south of the city. While many smaller wineries source grapes from various producers, the Cohens manage their own set of vineyards in six of Spain’s wine regions.

“You can never make good wine from bad grapes; 85% of wine quality is grape quality and my father is very picky about what we use,” said Mr. Cohen. “We start from scratch and control every step of the process.”

Winemaking comes with its share of challenges. Increasing competition makes it difficult to gain significant market share, especially for small operations. The ageing process means that profits on product will not be reaped for at least a year after barreling. A harvest that runs from late summer through the fall and an intense season of sales and trade shows leading up to Purim and Pesach sometimes creates a lopsided work year for those in the business. The unknowns of agricultural and weather patterns, added to things that can go wrong in the fermentation process, bring a set of risks other businesses do not have. Still, for those who have chosen the winemaking life, its allure remains.

“Wine’s an artful beverage with a high aesthetic value and spiritual value,” said Mr. Morgan of Covenant Winery. “Wine can open gates of community, heritage, faith and artistry… For me, personally, making wine has enhanced my life spiritually and created more connection with Jews all over the world. For that, I feel blessed.”

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