In an episode of the sitcom “Frasier,” the title character is trying to impress his Jewish girlfriend’s mother and asks his brother, Niles, what kind of wine Jewish people drink.
“It’s just like regular wine plus a little of this,” Niles says as he pours spoonfuls of sugar into the glass of non-kosher wine.
“It’s dreadful,” Frasier declares after taking a sip.
Sound familiar? The kosher wine industry has been battling this stereotype for years, said wine critic Mark Squires during a lecture at Royal Wine’s third Kosher Food & Wine Experience Monday night at New York’s Metropolitan Pavilion. Some 900 people came to the event to sample the more than 200 wines Royal Wines distributes. The evening was meant to highlight new trends in kosher wines and show how the product is no longer stereotypically super-sweet, organizers said.
“Kosher wine … is showing itself very nicely these days; it’s won recognition after many years of being in the basement,” said Martin Davidson, communications director for the Bayonne-based Royal Wine Corp. “The fact that it’s kosher is incidental. Observant people need that stamp of approval, but good wine is good wine.”
Kosher wines have generally gotten a bad rap, Squires noted during a lecture that evening. The perception has not caught up with the reality, he continued, and that’s because it has not been distinctive on the global market.
Israel faces a major challenge in winemaking because it no longer grows indigenous grapes. The country’s best product, he said, is cabernet sauvignon, which is made in many countries – and usually made better.
“For the Israelis to hone their competitive skills, they’re going to have to work a little harder,” he said. “They want people to buy their wines because they’re wines, not just because they’re kosher.”
Israelis have come a long way in that regard, said Daniel Rogov, Israel’s premier wine critic, who was signing copies of his new book, “Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines 2009.” During the 1980s, he told this paper, Israelis went abroad in large numbers and they sampled wines from California, France, and other wine superpowers.
“They came to realize that wine was not just something to do for kiddush – that wine was part of a cultured, civilized lifestyle,” Rogov said. “They came back to Israel and they were looking for good wines, of which there were none at that time.”
It was during the ’80s that the Golan Heights Winery opened its doors and brought in experts from California and France. Other Israeli winemakers followed suit, which led Kedem to begin a similar process in America, he said.
“All of a sudden American Jews started to realize that nowhere in the wisdom of our forefathers and foremothers is it written that you have to drink bad wine,” he said.
Even as Israeli wines improve, it is unlikely the Jewish state will become a leader in the wine industry. Israel is less than 10 percent the size of California and could never match that state’s production capabilities. Israel can, Rogov said, still make a mark on the wine scene.
“Our goal is not to make wines better than the best wines of Bordeaux,” he said. “Our goal is to make wines – kosher and non – that are fine-quality Mediterranean wines with a personality of their own that will sell for a range of moderate to quite expensive, giving people the option of anywhere in between. Then we will succeed abroad.”
At least one Israeli winemaker at the event, who recently began distributing through Royal Wine, was pleased with the feedback on his wine.
“The reactions of people tasting the wine is important because tastes here are not the same as in Israel,” said Eiton Green, general manager of Israel-based Tzuba Estate Winery. “It’s interesting to hear people here comment about our wines as opposed to what I hear in Israel.”
This was the first year at the expo for Stuart Kahan, co-owner of Ma’adan in Teaneck. He came looking for a new vintage to bring to his store and, as he strolled through the aisles, trying different flavors and styles, he seemed pleased that he had come.
“It gives you the opportunity to find whatever you’re looking for and what you didn’t know you were looking for,” Kahan said.
Halfway through the evening, he said he was still looking for that “knock-your-socks-off bottle.” His customers’ tastes have changed through the years and now they want a wine that is “a hint above dry,” like a semi-dry but not quite, and not too sweet – a far cry from the sweet, thick wines that had traditionally been used for kiddush.
“Tastes are becoming more sophisticated as years go by,” Kahan said.