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The New Kosher Wine

March 19, 1997|DAN BERGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In days gone by, the square bottle filled with sticky-sweet Concord wine that smelled like grape jelly was de rigueur on the table at Jewish festival dinners.

These days, fashionable Jews can stage such dinners starting with a bottle of Laurent-Perrier Brut, followed by a vintage-dated Chateau Giscours and an award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon with the main course, finishing with Asti Spumante--all while adhering to kosher law. These wines are now made in kosher versions.

So upscale are many kosher wines these days that the two major kosher wine producers in this country, Royal Wine Co. of Brooklyn and Hagafen Cellars of the Napa Valley, are marketing their wines as mainstream products, aiming for sales unconnected with Jewish holidays.

Traditionally, kosher wine has sold mainly in the weeks before Passover.

"Ten years ago, the months of February, March and April accounted for 80% of our sales," says Nathan Herzog, executive vice president of Royal. "Today that period accounts for less than 40% of our sales."

Herzog says the company sold fewer than 100,000 cases of wine a decade ago. The firm now ships 650,000 cases of wine, all of it kosher. Much of that wine is in the company's Kedem line, mainly the sweet wines migrant Eastern European Jews demanded after arriving in America during the first half of this century.

However, the fastest-growing segment of Royal's line is upscale, cork-sealed varietal wines from California, under the name Baron Herzog--wines that once were tarred with the same brush as the square bottle. Their success led Royal to join forces with Laurent-Perrier and Chateau Giscours in marketing upscale kosher wine. Today the Herzog family, which owns Royal, markets wine on two levels: kosher wines for Passover and fine wine to upscale markets.

Royal isn't alone in this quest. Ernie Weir, owner-winemaker at Hagafen, the first of the upscale kosher brands, is targeting non-Jewish buyers.

"The continuing focus of our marketing effort is fine wine first--except for March and April, when it is kosher first," says Weir. "In the spring we sell wine because it's kosher, but the rest of the year it's getting easier and easier to market [Hagafen] as fine Napa Valley wine."

Hagafen, founded in 1979, broke new ground by making exceptional kosher wines, but it wasn't until Royal entered the fine wine game that the image of kosher wine began to move upscale.

Herzog says of this move: "It's the only way to go today. Quality is what the consumer wants."

Herzog said Royal, family-owned for eight generations since 1848, entered fine-wine making in 1985 when it hired Peter Stern, former winemaker at J. Lohr Winery in San Jose, to make kosher wines.

Stern bought top-rate grapes--Chardonnay from the Russian River, Cabernet from Sonoma--and made the wines under the rigid kashrut certification rules.

"We knew we made the right decision when our Chenin [Blanc] and Cabernet won double gold medals at the San Francisco [Wine Competition] in 1993," says Herzog. "We were competing against Simi and Mondavi and winning!"

That year, he said, Giscours approached Royal and asked if it was interested in making a kosher version of its Third Growth Bordeaux.

"We had made such healthy noise about the kosher wine business, so we decided, let's try to do this. We called our kosher winemaker in France, Pierre Miodovnik, and he went to Giscours. They had no experience in making a kosher wine."

Giscours now makes about 500 cases of kosher Bordeaux each year. Only 100 cases come to the United States, and they sell out quickly. A bottle of the kosher Giscours costs about $40, about $4 more than the non-kosher version.

He says the kosher Laurent-Perrier came about by sheer serendipity.

"I got a call from a caterer who said he had heard that a kosher Laurent-Perrier was available in France, so I called Palace Brands," the import arm of Heublein, which owned distribution rights to Laurent-Perrier. Herzog arranged a luncheon to discuss gaining U.S. rights to the brand, an audacious move; such brands are almost never relinquished.

"I said to them, 'You want to sell kosher Laurent-Perrier; I know where the kosher bodies are buried. Name me five kosher caterers.' [The Heublein executive] couldn't name one. I said we had seven salespeople and all they do is sell kosher wine, we have a strong reputation, we dominate these sections."

Royal got U.S. rights to 500 cases of kosher Laurent-Perrier of 2,000 cases produced.

Herzog says sales of kosher wines to those who don't need to buy kosher have leapt in the last two years.

"It's all in the quality," he says. "It's great wine, and people are saying, 'Why should I wait until Passover?' "

Herzog said his company is growing at an average of 12% to 15% annually. New kosher projects are a company secret, but sitting on his desk were samples of kosher wines from Chianti, Australia, even South Africa.

Today, Royal markets 120,000 cases of Herzog wines as well as 25,000 more cases under the Weinstock label.

Hagafen's Weir says his goal to market wine to a non-kosher audience is aided measurably by winning gold and silver medals at wine competitions. "I enter all the competitions I can and I publicize the results," he says. "It helps to persuade all the naysayers."

Weir made 9,000 cases of wine last year and would have made more except for the shortage of top-quality fruit.

"Marketing today is a lot easier than it was 15 years ago when we were the only ones. The awareness and general appreciation of kosher wine is much higher than it was then."

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