JTA / March 28, 2005
By Larry Luxner
LUJÁN DE CUYO, Argentina — Guarding the entrance to Bodegas Barberis, a family-owned winery 22 kilometers south of Mendoza, is a small ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary, known locally as the Virgen de la Carrodilla.
"She's our local patron saint and protector of the vineyards," explains Adrian Barberis, who owns the prosperous winery along with his three brothers.
The Virgin would hardly raise an eyebrow in this devoutly Catholic country — except for the fact that Bodegas Barberis is a leading Argentine exporter of kosher wine produced under strict Orthodox Jewish supervision.
Each year, the church-going Barberis family turns over 20% of its 100-hectare winery to a team of Hasidic Jews from Buenos Aires. For several months before Passover, the Hasidim supervise every aspect of wine production — from fermentation to bottle-sealing — to ensure that the laws of kashrut are observed to the letter.
By now, the winery's 15 employees are used to seeing the half-dozen bearded, religious men running around 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 vena'aserot, Barberis must intentionally spill on the ground or give to charity 10% of its annual kosher wine production. Other Talmudic laws prohibit Barberis 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.
"We are allowed to cultivate the grapes and bring them to the bodega in plastic bins," he explained. "We leave them in the truck, and the rabbis and their employees unload them and do the whole process in a special sector of the bodega. The only thing our enologist does is explain to the rabbis and their people how to use specific machinery."
Barberis said his biggest market is the United States, where an estimated one-fifth of the Jewish population regularly drinks kosher wine, mainly at weddings, circumcisions, bar-mitzvahs, funerals and at the Shabbat dinner table.
The peak season, however, is right before Passover (Pesach in Hebrew), which falls in March or April depending on the Hebrew calendar. That's when hundreds of thousands of American Jewish families stock up on kosher wine.
"It all depends on production schedules," said Barberis, who is familiar with basic kashrut terminology. "The Orthodox Jews don't work on Pesach, so if Pesach coincides with fermentation and the grapes are mature, we can't use our grapes, meaning we have to buy grapes from other wineries."
This year, Barberis expects to sell $300,000 worth of kosher wine to Royal Wine Corp., an importer based in Bayonne, N.J.
Other wineries in both Argentina and Chile — a six-hour drive over the Andes Mountains from Mendoza — are also turning to the relatively small but lucrative kosher market in order to supplement exports in the face of weak internal demand.
That's resulted in the appearance on U.S. supermarket shelves of brands such as Chile's Layla Cabernet Sauvignon (retailing for $12.99 a bottle) and Argentina's Byblos Bonarda ($8.49), both imported by Abarbanel Wine Co. of Cedarhurst, N.Y., as well as Chile's Alfasi Merlot, imported by Royal Wine Corp. and available for $6.99 a bottle.
"Currently, Argentina is exporting more than 50% of its total production. Some bodegas export up to 90%," says Enrique Chrabolowsky, a Jewish wine critic based in Mendoza.
Chrabolowsky, who with co-author Michel Rolland has just published a coffee-table book entitled "Wines of Argentina," says that last year, Chile exported a record $900 million worth of wine — mainly to Europe and North America — while Argentina exported $300 million. Both neighbors are taking advantage of the fact that they offer relatively cheap land, phylloxera-free soil, high productivity and low wages compared with more established wine-producing countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Even so, less than 5% of the kosher wine purchased in the United States comes from South America. That's mainly because the cheaper sugary-sweet Concord varieties produced by Mogen David and Manischewitz in upstate New York still command 40% of the U.S. kosher market.
In fact, a search for "Chile" at www.kosherwine.com, a Chicago-based online retailer, turns up 13 labels, while a search for "Argentina" brings up only six labels. Both countries pale in comparison with Israel, with 152 kosher wine brands on the market.
"Argentina never paid attention to exports, because almost all of its production went for the internal market," said Barberis. "Then internal consumption began declining, which obligated us to export our products. We started later than Chile, which never had a big internal market and has been exporting since the beginning. But Argentina can grow rapidly and has big potential."
According to Chrabolowsky, a Jewish entrepreneur named Samuel Flichman pioneered Argentine quality wines, though there are few Jews still in the industry. Probably the largest Jewish vintner in Mendoza today is Pedro Marchevsky; his wine is called Ben Marco and even has a menorah on the label, but it's not kosher.
Barberis, on the other hand, produces three varieties of kosher wine for export to the United States: Valero Syrah, Valero Malbec and Valero Tempranillo, all of which retail for $8.99 a bottle.
The Syrah, boasts the label, "is produced using carefully selected grapes harvested in Argentina's world-famous Mendoza winemaking region. The wine displays a deep ruby red color with a bouquet of dark berries and licorice. The wine's flavor is reminiscent of plums and raspberries."
The winery also produces Tekiah Syrah and Tekiah Tempranillo for Argentina's Jewish community — estimated at 240,000 people — as well as for export to Panama.
As a Catholic, Barberis cannot serve Valero to Orthodox Jews because it is not mevushal, or flash-pasteurized. Tekiah, on the other hand, is mevushal.
But doesn't heating the wine even for a fraction of a second destroy the flavor?
"Theoretically, yes," Barberis replied. "But it must be good, because the Wine Enthusiast magazine has given Tekiah Syrah a score of 84 points."