Kosher Argentinian wine, once a staple, is quickly becoming an extinct vintage

Why is the decade-long fruitful kosher wine industry currently withering on the vine?

Illustrative photo of wine grapes. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of wine grapes. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

BUENOS AIRES — Bernardo Solomón Hurtado, a shareholder of the kosher winery Finca 613, recalls his grandfather making kosher wine by soaking a handful of raisins in water and waiting for the liquid to acquire a semisweet taste.

Maybe a classic vintage for some, but in the era before Argentina manufactured its own kosher wine and imported bottles were still prohibitively costly, the makeshift fermentation scheme was the only way some observant Jews were able to say Friday night Kiddush.

As an offshoot to the Argentine viniculture boom though, kosher wine production began to develop in the early 2000s and soon experienced rapid growth. Profits soared along with demand and kosher Argentine wine became a staple on Seder tables and wine lists around the world.

But the decade-long fruitful market seems to be disappearing like a glass of slowly-sipped, harmonious red wine.

(photo credit: Alejandro Rascovan and Natali A. Schachar)
(photo credit: Alejandro Rascovan and Natalie A. Schachar)

“We used to export to more than a dozen countries,” says Hurtado, as he rattles off a list of places in North America, South America, Asia and Europe and spews out statistics. “A container of 13,000 bottles to Israel every two months, half a container to Colombia every year.”

“Now, we’re only able to operate in Argentina.”

The winery helped introduce kosher Argentine vintages to the world when it began vineyard operations in the fertile Tulum Valley of San Juan, Argentina in 2006, but has since reversed its externally focused business plan so that varietals including Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Torrontes stay local.

Citing high costs and low gains, Hurtado explains that it is no longer feasible to make kosher wine. “Countries like Israel who want to import quality kosher wine can find it closer and cheaper in France, Spain and Italy,” he says. Currently, the winery sells about 60,000 of the 100,000 liters of kosher wine it produces annually to retailers in Argentina.

Smaller wine outfits, however, are not alone in scaling down oversea operations.

Finca la Celia, the principal producer and exporter of kosher wines, finds itself facing similar economic difficulties and will also stop sending kosher wine abroad. Although the winery will produce kosher wine for consumption in Argentina, the internal market will probably see a decline in the availability and variety of products as well.

‘Not only our wines — but all kosher Argentine wines — will completely disappear in foreign markets by the end of 2013’

“Not only our wines — but all kosher Argentine wines — will completely disappear in foreign markets by the end of 2013,” predicts Claudio Magni, the export manager.

Between the years 2007 and 2009, the winery saw international shipments of kosher wine increase by approximately 57.7%, from 400,000 to 630,000 liters.

These days, Magni maintains that the intricate and laborious kosher process that involves watching a grape from the moment it is harvested limits flexibility and takes away focus from other products that return a better profit. A basic kosher bottle of Don Mendoza or Místico makes about $3 for the winery and costs almost as much to produce and export.

The strategic decisions of both wineries reflect larger trends in Argentina, where an appreciated peso has severely limited the competitiveness of local enterprises and exports have fallen significantly. According to the latest report by Indec, the national statistics agency, Argentina’s exportations were down $ 1.5 billion, or 11% in the past year.

Although the percentage of kosher wine exported from Argentina rose from four to 29% in 2008, many economists and oenologists consulted for this article say that the eventual drop in exports was a result of the global financial crisis that began in the same year.

While other countries began to lower commodity prices to maintain their advantage in international markets and capital flow during increasingly tough economic times, an escalating inflation rate caused Argentine commodity prices to rise.

Abraham Leonardo Gak, an honorary professor of Economic Sciences at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, adds that trade restrictions have also affected exports. “The protectionist measures of many countries have produced a short circuit in international trade, and should be removed in order for the second semester of the year to improve,” he says.

‘The protectionist measures of many countries have produced a short circuit in international trade, and should be removed in order for the second semester of the year to improve’

Very few foreigners are able to import kosher Argentine wine and hardly any local enterprises can afford to export it, but Daniel Harari of the Orthodox Union confirms that worldwide demand remains the same.

“The only way to make a profit is to ship boutique kosher wine in bulk,” Harari says after explaining that wineries pay about $60,000 to obtain international kosher certification.

“But if you say kosher Argentine wine, the consumers want it. Our Malbec is internationally known,” he says.

Harari predicts: “Everything will begin to normalize. This can’t last forever.”

With the dollar worth $6.01 on the Argentine black market, confidence in the face of uncertainty seems like the best back-up plan since homemade raisin wine.

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