David Herzog, CEO of Royal Wines, waxes eloquent on the importance of wine in Jewish tradition.
"Wine makes the heart happy," Herzog told The Jewish Standard, paraphrasing a line from Psalm 104 and pointing out that, in some instances, Jews are commanded to be happy. What’s more, he added, "we recite kiddush over wine on the Sabbath and make blessings over wine at simchas."
Herzog, seventh-generation owner of the Bayonne-based company one of the country’s largest producers, importers, and distributors of kosher wines said that it was his father’s desire to make "good kosher wine" that led to growth of the company, commonly called Kedem, after one of its labels.
The Kedem facility in Bayonne.
"In 1951 my father decided to call the product line Kedem (‘as before’) in the hope that it would be as successful as his winery in Czechoslovakia," said Herzog, explaining that his father, Jonah Herzog, was a sixth-generation winemaker when he came to the United States in 1948.
The company he built on the Lower East Side of Manhattan moved first to Long Island City and later to the Bronx and Brooklyn. Unable to find sufficient space in New York, Herzog bought its present warehouse in Bayonne at a time when the city was offering financial incentives to mid-size businesses.
Herzog is proud of the 400 vintages under his label. "Our kosher wines are on a par or better than many wines in the same price category," he said, describing the history of the American company. "My father never drank sweet wine in Europe, but here the native grape is [the sweet] Concord grape. My father wanted good wine, so in 1959 he started to travel to Europe looking for good wines to make kosher."
Martin Davidson, the company’s director of communications, explained that to be kosher, a wine must meet certain requirements: First, a Sabbath-observing Jew must administer the wine-making process; second, every ingredient added, whether in the filtration or clarification process, must be kosher; and third, all tools and equipment must be used only for the making of kosher wine.
Herzog joined the company in 1971, leaving his job as a Wall Street executive at his father’s request. Shortly afterward, he was approached by a man from France seeking to sell wine produced by the Jewish community of Bordeaux.
"He asked us to buy some and I convinced my family to take the risk," said Herzog.
The wine, he said, was both kosher and dry an unusual combination at the time. "There was a lot of anti-French sentiment among Jews at the time," he recalled, "and it was hard to sell." But, he said, after a reviewer wrote an article for The New York Times praising the vintage, "there was not one bottle left."
Now, he said, "sweet wines make up only a small part of our sales." Having learned how to work with crews in Europe to produce kosher wines, he said, the company was able to approach leading wineries. Today, it imports wines from Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Italy, France, Israel, South Africa, Spain, and Portugal.
In 1985, Kedem began producing wine in California as well. Three years ago, it established its own winery in Oxnard, Calif., together with a kosher restaurant. The company also grows grapes in New York State, used to make Kedem Grape Juice and some sweet wines.
Davidson noted that today’s consumers "demand quality and variety," adding that "this is all a far cry from the sweet and syrupy concoctions of yesteryear."