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Israel's Carmel winery hopes to corner kosher market
Wines & Vines / November 2000

By Larry Luxner

RISHON L'TZION, Israel -- Tourists visiting the Carmel winery south of Tel Aviv are often surprised to see bearded, religious men checking cooling tanks, tasting samples from wine vats and operating forklifts on the loading docks.

That's not all. Honoring a Jewish tradition known as terumot vema'aserot, Carmel Wines Ltd. intentionally spills on the ground or gives to charity 10% of its annual production.

Other Talmudic laws prohibit Carmel from using fruit produced during the first three years of a grape harvest, while requiring all wine to be flash-pasteurized before bottling and allowing the land to rest every seventh year.

None of this, however, comes as any surprise to Leslie H. Berman, export and import manager at Carmel.

"From the vineyard right through the actual bottling line, everything must be done by religious, observant Jews," he said. "Some people go as far as to say that if a non-religious Jew even looks at the grapes, it's considered unkosher."

Maintaining kosher standards is a priority for Berman, whose $57 million company last year exported 50,000 nine-liter cases of wine worth $1.6 million to the United States, a 35% rise over 1998.

"The United States is our largest single market, based on its large Jewish population," Berman said, estimating total 1999 exports at $5.5 million. "Other strong markets are Great Britain, France, Russia, South Africa and Canada. Smaller markets like Japan are upmarket, whereas in the States and the U.K., we sell a variety of sweet kiddush wines and varietal reds."

The company, officially known as Societe Cooperative Vigneronne des Grandes Caves Rishon Le-Zicron Jaccob Ltd., was started 118 years ago by Baron Edmund de Rothschild, who brought the first French wine grapes to Israel. About 15% of Carmel's total production is exported, though before the Holocaust, Carmel exported 80% of its production -- mainly to Eastern Europe.

Berman, 44, has been at Carmel for the past eight months. A native of South Africa, he grew up in the city of Paarl, near Cape Town, making wine in his backyard. Berman spent many years in that country's hotel and restaurant industry, at one point even catering political dinners for the African National Congress in Johannesburg.

"What is wine to a Jew? It's opening a bottle of Concord and saying a blessing to start the Shabbat," he said. "The best time for me as a child was Passover, when you could drink four glasses of it. But my love for wine really came from being in the hotel industry."

Today, Carmel accounts for more than half the Israeli wine market. Its biggest competitors are Barkan, also located in Rishon L'Tzion, and Yarden, headquarted in Qatzrin, a town in the Golan Heights.

"People started becoming knowledgeable about wines around four years ago, aware of the fact that lots of other wines are available. They said, 'why can't we drink the wines that everyone else is drinking?' The minute Israel started improving the quality of its wines, people realized kosher wines could be just as good as non-kosher varieties."

At present, the Golan winery produces around four million bottles a year -- 21% of Israeli wine production and nearly 40% of the country's wine exports. Berman said that if Israel is forced to return the Golan Heights to Syria under a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace accord, it would put a big dent in the country's wine production.

"On the other hand," he said, "an Israeli pullout from the Golan wouldn't affect Carmel much. We are opening up extensively in Ramat Arad, just above the Dead Sea. We're opening a boutique winery there for Cabernet and Merlot. We're planning to produce 180 tons of grapes next harvest, going up to 450 tons within two to three years."

Carmel's U.S. importer is Parliament Wine Co. of Atlantic City, N.J.,, which has represented the Israeli company for over two years. Sales are particularly heavy around Passover, when advertising campaigns in Jewish newspapers, radio stations and magazines push Carmel to their audiences.

"We're representing one of the most advanced technologically advanced wineries in the world, kosher or non-kosher," says Parliament's president and CEO, Jonathan Shiekman. "They have new wine presses from Germany, stainless steel extensively, they use American, French and Slovenian oak. Their vineyards are managed by students who have gone to enology schools throughout the world, and their winemakers are French- and California-trained."

Shiekman says that "white Merlot and the Private Collection have all increased dramatically, but the Concord business will be down. White Zinfandel is in the process of being discontinued, and a better wine has been introduced, the Vineyard-Selected White Merlot, which is taking advantage of the current Merlot mania. It's a beautiful wine, with a salmon color, georgoues bouquet and soft tannins and served chilled with a touch of sweetness. At $5 a bottle, it represents real value."

Berman says that about 20% of the estimated six million American Jews regularly drink kosher wine, mainly at weddings, circumcisions, bar-mitzvahs, funerals and at the Shabbat dinner table. Most of them live in the New York metro area, though Carmel is also shipped to other locations throughout the United States and Canada.

"I'm excited about our challenges in the North American market," he said. ""Our wines compete favorably. Other than the Jewish market, my vision is to upgrade our wines by becoming more dominant in the upmarket and introducing them into restaurants. I intend to expand into the restaurant trade, and I predict a sales increase of around 15% this year."

Even so, Carmel's main market is Israel, home to 6.2 million people -- of whom at least two million are observant Jews.

Rabbi Abraham Janovsky, Carmel's resident Talmudic authority, says that of Carmel's 380 employees, only those connected with the production of wine must be observant Jews. The rest can be secular Jews, or even Arabs.

But it's difficult to know where to draw the line.

"Arabs can pick grapes, but only an Orthodox Jew may operate the mechanical harvester," says the Orthodox rabbi, who wears a long black coat, a black hat, sidelocks and a fringed undergarment. "It's more difficult to make kosher wine than any other kosher product. For example, you are not allowed to eat fruits within the first three years of planting. When we buy grapes, we have to check with the supervisor that no one used the first three years of the fruit. Also, you can't have other crops in the same field with grapes."

The rules don't stop there, says Berman.

"All Carmel wines are flash-pasteurized, meaning that for a second it's heated up to 82 degrees C. and immediately cooled, so that a non-Jew can pour the wine for a Jew. This is ione of the factors that sell our wines. However, our wines have technologically advanced to the point that our wineries can be compared to any other in the world. We are the only company now producing kosher additives such as tartaric acid, which we export to Eastern Europe and all over the world."

He adds that "soon, you'll be able to buy, in the United States, kosher wines supervised by Carmel but produced in third countries like Australia and Chile."

Berman presides over blind tastings of Carmel wine and its competitors every Thursay. He says that at present, Israel boasts around 30 kosher wine brands, with kosher wines also being produced in Estonia, Georgia, Australia, France, Argentina, Chile, Italy, Germany and Spain.

Parliament's Shiekman says that Carmel controls around 50% of Israel's wine export market, and between 50% to 70% of the grapes cultivated in the Jewish state.

"According to Israeli law, if they get much higher than 50%, the government may declare them a monopoly," he said.

Asked what's hot in the market right now, Berman says "Merlot, without a doubt. It's not heavy-bodied like Cabernet, and can be drunk with any kind of food -- meat, fish or dairy."

Berman says his native South Africa "is a growing market for kosher wines, even though the Jewish population is declining." He adds that "Jews are not our only market. In Russia, our wines go to restaurants in general, and in Japan, our wines are being marketed as a top-quality wine from a Mediterranean country, with a map of Israel on the label."

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