By Adina Rosenthal
Move over Manischewitz; Jewish wine is no longer synonymous with the sweet, syrupy stuff used for Jewish ceremonies. The Israeli wine and beer industry has boomed in the last few years, becoming a player in the global alcohol market. In 2010, the Israeli beer market grew to about one million hectoliters (26.5 million gallons), a 20 percent increase from the previous year. Though no one can be sure, “applying the foreign experience on the Israeli market will lead to the conclusion that there is still a great potential in this [beer] market.” For Israeli wine, exports reached $23 million dollars, with local consumption accruing an additional $100 million dollars for 2010 alone. According to Israeli wine critic, Daniel Rogov, “Today, you’ll find that people are looking for Israeli wines that meet international standards and the good thing is we are actually producing wines like that…There is no contradiction between wines that are kosher and wines that are excellent.”
But alcohol production is not new to Israel, just a well kept secret. Wine can trace its roots back to biblical times, when spies who ventured into Canaan were said to return with a single cluster of grapes so large that it had to be carried between two poles (a story familiar to anyone who recalls the Kedem grape juice logo). Not until the late 19th century, with the philanthropic aid of Baron Edmond de Rothschild and his Carmel Winery, was wine mass produced, though British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli described it as “not so much like wine but more like what I expect to receive from my doctor as a remedy for a bad winter cough.”
Despite its inauspicious beginnings, Carmel Winery has now cornered about 40% of Israel’s contemporary wine market, producing internationally recognized wines. The 1990s marked a “true technological revolution” in Israeli wineries, with 90 percent of all current wineries founded during or after that time. Today, there are about 300 wineries in Israel, totaling about 15,000 acres of land and producing about 40 million bottles of wine. Robert Parker, among the world’s most influential wine critics, has lauded Israel’s wine industry, rating some 40 Israeli wines. Fourteen of them won more than 90 out of a maximum 100 points in Parker’s rating system.
As successful as Israel’s wine industry has become, the Israeli beer market is also setting firm roots in the Jewish state. As an article in The Jerusalem Post magazine points out, “The rumor is that after the wine revolution, the land of milk and honey is now undergoing a beer awakening.” Though mainstream Tempo Beer Industries (producer of well-known Goldstar and Maccabee) Israel Beer Breweries (who brew Carlsberg and Tuborg) hold about 70 percent of the Israeli beer market, smaller beer distributors and boutique breweries are heeding the call for increased demand in beer, particularly premium beers. Though small microbreweries only hold about 1 percent of the market with just ten microbreweries, beer consultant Gad Deviri hypothesizes that like “the experience of the American craft beer market [Israel] can see that it is in the first stage of the revolution, diversion from mainstream commercial brands to craft beers.” Winemakers are also following this trend, with 250 commercial mini wineries opening over the last decade.
So, instead of the usual Manischewitz, you can spice up your next Shabbat dinner, Kiddush, or social gathering with an Israeli wine or beer, such as a selection from the award winning Golan Heights winery or the popular, non-alcoholic “Black” Nesher Malt, which is the first beer commercially produced in Israel. Such a choice is kosher, both literally and figuratively, so bottoms up and l’chaim!