It’s all kosher at Jerusalem’s annual wine fest
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It’s all kosher at Jerusalem’s annual wine fest

Two nights to taste varietals from 40 wineries across the land

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Tasting and spitting at Wine Jerusalem 2015; this year's expo opens Wednesday night at Binyanei Hauma, the International Convention Center (Courtesy Wine Jerusalem)
Tasting and spitting at Wine Jerusalem 2015; this year's expo opens Wednesday night at Binyanei Hauma, the International Convention Center (Courtesy Wine Jerusalem)

When Wine Jerusalem 2016, Israel’s annual and only completely kosher wine fair, opens Wednesday night at the city’s International Convention Center, the crowd won’t only be kippah-wearing locals.

“It’s 50-50, half are religious, and half aren’t,” said Memi Kaplan, whose family wine store, A.A. Pyup, from Jerusalem’s Orthodox Sanhedria neighborhood, has sponsored the event since its inception five years ago.

Some 8,000 oenophiles are expected to head to the convention center to taste wines from 40 wineries on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the two nights of the expo, up from about 5,000 during the first few years of the event. They come because Wine Jerusalem offers the opportunity to taste the pricier kosher wines, said Kaplan. All the wines sold at event are generally priced at NIS 80 ($20) and up, the higher end of the Israeli wine market.

“If you’re buying a wine for NIS 100 ($25), you have to know that it’s good,” he said. “And they don’t have to worry about ending up at a winery where the wine — and food — isn’t kosher.”

There are more kosher wines in Israel than ever before, as about 99 percent of the country’s wineries are now kosher, Kaplan estimated. While some of Israel’s best-known wineries were initially not kosher, most have now become kosher, as the largest export market for Israeli wines is the US kosher market.

One of the newer wineries featured at the event, Netofa, located on the slopes of Mount Tavor in the Lower Galilee, took its kashrut a step further, obtaining it from Jerusalem’s Badatz Edah HaChareidis, one of the strictest certifications available.

Focusing on Mediterranean varietals at Netofa, where the grapes are grown on the slopes of Mount Tavor (Courtesy Netofa Winery)
Focusing on Mediterranean varietals at Netofa, where the grapes are grown on the slopes of Mount Tavor (Courtesy Netofa Winery)

“If we are making something, we want everyone to be able to enjoy it,” said Yair Teboulle, an owner and the manager of Netofa, which specializes in old world-style wineries made from Mediterranean grape varieties they grow themselves. “So we chose the strictest kosher certification, even if it costs more.”

It will be Netofa’s second time at Wine Jerusalem, said Teboulle, having only put their first wines on the market in 2011 after planting their grapevines five years earlier. The winery specializes in wines made from grape varietals Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Chenin Blanc and Roussane.

“We go because it exposes us to an additional audience — those who don’t get to Tel Aviv,” he said. “It also puts us in an event that is becoming one of the central ones in Israel.”

The appeal, said Teboulle, stems in large part from the insightfulness of the Wine Jerusalem organizers, who choose the appropriate location, wineries and time of year — about six weeks before Passover, which is one of the busiest seasons for kosher wineries.

“Israeli wine has a presence that everyone can enjoy whether or not they drink kosher wines,” said Teboulle. “And this kind of event turns it into something that offers something for everyone.”

With an annual production of 75,000 bottles and plans to increase to 100,000 in 2016 and 120,000 in 2017, Netofa is based on a three-pronged sales concept, said Teboulle: its strict kosher certification, a NIS 60-NIS 100 ($15-$25 price range), and a delicate, “not bombastic” selection of red and white wines that can be appreciated by most wine lovers.

“We want everyone to appreciate our wines, not just some people,” he said.

The grapes at Tanya, an idiosyncratic winery located in the West Bank (Courtesy Tanya Winery)
The grapes at Tanya, an idiosyncratic winery located in the West Bank (Courtesy Tanya Winery)

It’s a more pragmatic marketing approach than that of another Wine Jerusalem participant, the Tanya Winery, located in Ofra, a West Bank settlement in the Binyamin region.

Named for winemaker Yoram Cohen’s daughter, Tanya, the winery, which produces 35,000 bottles a year, takes a more creative outlook

“I always try new things,” said Cohen. “Every wine we make is a kind of a new flotation; we’re not a lab, we don’t do anything systematically. If it’s good, I don’t touch it, like in the old world. They knew what they were doing in those days.”

At Tanya, Cohen’s grapes, grown in the same region as the winery, are aged in barrels for a period of 14 to 40 months. One of his latest wines, Sidrat Hasmisparim, the Numbers Series, has been left in the barrels for “a long time,” said Cohen, longer than any other wine he’s ever heard of. “It’s got quite an aroma.”

“A lot of things happen in a barrel and I don’t prevent it — I let it happen,” said Cohen.

This year, he’s also selling a series of wines named for singer-songwriter Meir Ariel — 12 different wines featuring various aspects of his life, made with Ariel’s widow and sons. There are also some remaining bottles of Tanya’s Cabernet 2009, a much-beloved wine that has aged nicely, said Cohen, and is now almost gone.

The winery sells mostly in Israel and the US, with just a small number of bottles sold in Europe. Its customers include kosher and nonkosher drinkers, said Cohen, and while his wine is made over the Green Line, he hasn’t had an issue with efforts to boycott or label products from Israeli settlements.

Around 25% of the Israeli wineries featured at Wine Jerusalem are located over the Green Line, said Kaplan.

“If there’s an effect to BDS, I’m not feeling it,” said Cohen, referring to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “Besides, I don’t believe in boycotts. Wine and politics don’t go together; in my eyes, if people look to limit themselves, then let them drink other wines.”

Wine Jerusalem 2016, Wednesday, March 9 and Thursday, March 10, 5 pm-11 pm. NIS 90 per ticket includes unlimited tasting of wines and a bottle of San Pellegrino. Parking is free and tickets can be purchased at the Wine Jerusalem website or at the door.

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