Finding A Kosher Wine Niche
A tale of wine drew me in. The intriguing account of a new kosher winery’s genesis was being spun by a tall man with a gray beard and restless blue eyes for the benefit of an intent listener, Adam Montefiore, a wine writer and senior manager at the Carmel Winery. Around the two men swarmed a large and convivial crowd of tasters and sippers, many wearing Hasidic black, at the New York edition of the Kosher Wine & Food Experience, held February 13 at Chelsea Piers in New York.
“I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area and my wife is from Minnesota, and after 20 years of making wine in New Zealand, we decided that we wanted to spend more time in the Pacific Northwest and create a winery,” the tall man said, as I sidled closer. They decided to zero in on the Columbia River Gorge, with its stretch of river, valley and mountains. “The problem,” he continued, “was that Washington and Oregon have upward of 800 wineries, most of them small, like we would be. When economic times got tough, we tried to think of how we could we jump out from the pack. When I realized that none of those wineries were kosher, I had my answer: We’d be the Pacific Northwest’s first [exclusively] kosher winery.”
His name is Philip Jones, and never mind that neither he nor his wife, Sheryl, is Jewish. In 2006, the couple bought 95 acres on Underwood Mountain in Washington, just across from Hood River, Ore. They planted 25 acres of it to vines and named the property Evan’s Vineyard, after their youngest son. Their first two kosher wines have been just been released this spring under the Pacifica label and distributed by Royal Wine Corp., the largest domestic kosher winemaker and distributor. One is a dark fruited, plummy Meritage, a Bordeaux blend of three red grapes. The other is a silky, cherry and cinnamon-scented Pinot Noir.
Since Evan’s Vineyard has not yet come of age, the grapes were purchased from top-tier vineyards in Washington for the Meritage and in Oregon for the Pinot Noir. The full-bodied Meritage is made from grapes grown in the hot, dry climate of Eastern Washington, while the Pinot Noir grapes thrive in vineyards exposed to cool air from the Pacific Ocean. Evan’s Vineyard is planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Jones said he anticipates that the first bottling from the home vineyard will be a 2013 Pinot Noir.
The couple left California in 1989 and headed to New Zealand’s South Island, where they established the Spencer Hill Estate, originally a non-kosher winery on a spectacular site near the port city of Nelson.
While not about to abandon New Zealand, Jones seems to have been hankering a bit for the homeland, because around 2000 he decided that he’d try to make wine on California’s central coast. “I was in Santa Maria having lunch with a gentleman who operated a local contract winery and he mentioned that he’d been making kosher wine. ‘That can’t be a very big business,’ I said. I was surprised when he told me it was 50,000 cases. I stored that in the back of my brain.”
Soon after returning to New Zealand, Jones said, he contacted a rabbi in the capital of Wellington who was “intrigued” when Jones told him that he wanted to make the first kosher wine in New Zealand. “He came over to see me, and we started talking about how to do it. Most people throw up their hands when they discover all the rules that must be followed. But my background was as a researcher in sustainable pest management. I know how to follow procedures,” Jones said.
Next, Jones approached the Herzog family of Royal Wines Corp. “The Herzogs put me in touch with a rabbi in Melbourne, Mendel Serebryanski, who certifies their Australian wines,” Jones said. “He flew over and got us started. He was not only a good worker but he’d taken a winemaking course.”
Jones named his new kosher brand Goose Bay. Its first vintage was 2003. All 8,000 cases currently produced annually are shipped to the U.S. The moderately priced lineup includes a Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and just one red, a Pinot Noir.
Being New Zealand’s only kosher wine producer was a niche that Jones liked, and when he realized that there were no exclusively kosher wineries in the Pacific Northwest, he was ready again to be first in category. And by this time, he knew what he was getting into.
In 2010, as he was gearing up to start the winery, “economic conditions were warning us to be prudent,” he said. Backing off from going it alone, Jones again partnered with Royal Wine. Rather than produce the Pacifica wines from vine to bottle, Jones makes the wine at Evan’s Vineyard under the supervision of Oregon Kosher, a certification organization based in Portland. The wine is then piped into refrigerated tank trucks and sent to Royal’s ultra-modern winery in Oxnard, Calif., an hour from Los Angeles, where it is bottled under the watchful eyes of head winemaker Joe Hurliman.
As kosher wines improve and more closely match the quality of their nonkosher counterparts, they are increasingly being purchased by consumers who aren’t Jewish or don’t keep kosher. “We sell Goose Bay and other kosher wines at outlets like Trader Joe’s,” said Nathan Herzog, executive vice president of Royal Wine Corps. “Customers buy them and like them, and may never notice the OU seal that indicates they are kosher.”
The logistics of making kosher wine both in a remote corner of New Zealand and on the U.S. West Coast present challenges. In the U.S., the grapes have to be shipped afar to a kosher facility to be bottled. In New Zealand, a winemaking team of observant Jews is flown in from Australia to make the wine on the premises of Jones’s winery.
Jones has become well versed in the esoterica of kashrut. He knows, for example, that in the U.S., sugar made from glucose does not need to be certified kosher. But in New Zealand, he said, “The Australian rabbis insist that we get sugar that is certified kosher.” And he knows that different practices are required in different locations to prepare tanks for kosher wine. “In making Goose Bay wines, we have to use steam or heat to sterilize our tanks,” he said. “But in the U.S., you can use chemicals to get the same result. It can seem complicated, but for us, it’s a no-brainer. You just follow the rules.
“If you want to be part of the family, then be part of the tradition.”
Peter Hellman formerly wrote the weekly Urban Vintage wine column for the late New York Sun.