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Royal success: Bayonne distributor proves kosher wine not just for holidays

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Jay Buchsbaum, executive vice president of marketing and director of wine education, in the bonded warehouse of Royal Wine Corp.
Jay Buchsbaum, executive vice president of marketing and director of wine education, in the bonded warehouse of Royal Wine Corp. - ()

Five million blue bottles of Bartenura Moscato wine fly off the shelves in the U.S. each year. It's the largest-selling imported moscato in the country — it's apparently so popular that the music producer DJ Khaled is seen taking a swig of it in the video of his hip-hop hit “I'm on One.”

Bartenura, owned and distributed by Bayonne’s Royal Wine Corp., is an Italian import — and it’s kosher.

Sure, Bartenura doesn’t dispel the myth that all kosher wine is sweet, but it does put to rest any notion that kosher wine isn’t as good as a non-kosher variety. Royal Wine estimates only 5 percent of its customer base is kosher.

“The biggest issue is perception. That’s something that I deal with. It’s not technical, it’s in some ways emotional, social, [and] incorrectly informed. It’s just perception,” said Jay Buchsbaum, Royal Wine’s executive vice president of marketing and director of wine education.

“No one picks up a bottle of Heinz and says, ‘You know, I don’t want this kosher ketchup,’” he added. “But when they pick up a bottle of wine, if they see a kosher certification, they [scoff]. Even if it’s cabernet, which is delicious ... they go ‘I don’t want this kosher cabernet.’ They don’t have the same perspective. That’s a big challenge for us from an education and a marketing point of view.”

The assumption that all kosher wine is sweet can be traced back to its roots in America, when a good number of Jewish people lived in the New York metropolitan area. Its beginnings relied on Concord grapes out of necessity. That was what was available in the region.

“We use wine every Friday night and every holiday except for Yom Kippur. We use wine every time someone gets married, every time someone has a circumcision, every time there’s a bar or bat mitzvah,” Buchsbaum said. “We needed wine, and everybody lived here in the Northeast. The only grapes that were available were the Concord varietal. In order for them to be palatable — you think they’re sweet, but they’re so dry at harvest — they had to add sugar.”

“Passover season is our Super Bowl. More than 40 percent of our sales are done in the three-month period.”

Sheldon Ginsburg, Royal Wine Corp. CFO

Unsweet kosher wines were introduced in the U.S. in the 1970s when the Herzog family, owners of Royal Wine, brought three Bordeaux to market. At the time, their sweet Concord kosher wines were going for $2 to $3 per bottle, and these Bordeaux were $6. They were unsure if consumers would be willing to pay that price, but when New York Times writer Frank Prial wrote about kosher wine in his Wednesday wine column, Buchsbaum said, the container sold out in days.

“[The real transition] began about 25 years ago when kosher wine producers like ourselves started making wonderful dry varietals suitable for all kinds of events and opportunities,” he said. “As the kosher consumer started to move out of Jewish enclaves, they wanted what everyone else wanted — good wine.”

The wine bottling line at Royal Wine Corp.
The wine bottling line at Royal Wine Corp.

Royal Wine has been owned by the Herzog family since 1958, when family patriarch Eugene Herzog purchased the winery started by the Pluczenik brothers in the 1940s. Herzog immigrated to the U.S. in 1948 after riding out World War II in hiding, living off smuggled profits from his family winery founded 100 years earlier. Focusing solely on sacramental wine, the Herzogs eventually grew their portfolio to more than 400 wines, where it stands today.

Royal Wine’s domestic portfolio includes Baron Herzog and Herzog Family Winery from Oxnard, Calif.; and Kedem, grown from grapes from the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York and fermented and packaged at the manufacturing facility in Bayonne. That facility produces over a half-million cases of Kedem Concord annually.

Buchsbaum estimates Royal Wine has 70 percent share of the kosher market.

The Jewish High Holidays make this a busy time of year for the kosher wine industry. Sukkos, which falls on Sept. 24, honors the harvest, which means a busy time at the vineyards as well.

“The biggest problem we have is in production in the European theater and outside of the American theater,” said Buchsbaum. “The harvest comes when the harvest comes, and the rabbinical crew has to be available when the harvest comes, but they can’t always be available because it’s Rosh Hashanah or the harvest holiday of Sukkos.”

The shipping warehouse of Royal Wine Corp.
The shipping warehouse of Royal Wine Corp.

This year is particularly challenging. In some years, the holidays fall on the weekends and coincide with the Sabbath — sundown Friday to sundown Saturday — when Jewish people aren’t permitted to work. But this year the lunar calendar puts the holidays in the middle of the week. The entire month of September only allows nine and a half days of work, including Sundays.

Jewish law doesn’t require fieldworkers to be Sabbath-observing, but anyone who touches the grapes after that has to be. The only real difference between kosher wine and non-kosher wine is oversight.

“From the crushing of the grapes to the sealing of the wine is the Merriam Webster definition of kosher wine,” said Buchsbaum. “The objective of the rabbinical supervision is to keep blessing out of the wine — to keep it pure both in its content and in its spirituality, to make sure it’s completely neutral. That way when you go home and you want to use it, you make it special instead of having already been blessed.”

That rabbinical supervision comes at a cost, said Royal Wine CFO Sheldon Ginsburg.

“There’s a financial cost to anyone who makes and sells kosher wine that others don’t have,” he said. “We pay the rabbi or their organization, and we build that into our cost structure and have to pass it on. They call it kosher tax.”

At Bartenura in Italy, the bottling is so constant that Royal Wine employs supervision almost 12 months a year.

Luckily, the added cost isn’t hurting Royal Wine’s profits. Since the company was founded, it’s never had a down year, according to Ginsburg.

“Passover season is our Super Bowl,” he said. “More than 40 percent of our sales are done in the three-month period. It used to be 60 percent, but Royal Wine is more and more diversified, so we’re not nearly as dependent on the Passover season as we were 10 years ago. October, November, December is also a very significant business time for us for our wines and spirits.”

Meanwhile, the market continues to grow and change. According to Buchsbaum, kosher wine is now making it onto the wine lists of non-kosher restaurants, and wine stores are setting up sections devoted to Israel in the same way they do California, Australia and France.

French-style wines are emerging, chateaus in particular.

“Kosher consumers want the good stuff,” he said. “They have more money to spend than ever, and all ilks within the kosher consumer — lawyers, doctors, attorneys who have this expendable money — one of the things they can enjoy is good wine, so they’re demanding the best there is.”

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Gabrielle Saulsbery

Gabrielle Saulsbery

Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at gsaulsbery@njbiz.com.

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