Royal Wine Corporation is the giant that leads the kosher wine world. In wine, the big guys often get stuck for being too successful or too dominant. However, in Royal’s case, they have literally changed the whole kosher wine market over the last 30 years. I want to pay tribute to their four major achievements.
Firstly, they led the move from sweet to dry and from simple to high quality. They weren’t the first to make quality wines. Carmel Winery produced the first kosher wine aged in small oak barrels, its legendary Special Reserve 1976. The Golan Heights Winery brought New World technology to Israel. Hagafen was the first Californian Winery to make quality kosher wines.
But it was Royal that had the power to raise the entire kosher sector to a new level. It led the Jewish world to a new promised land of wine quality. It showed that Jewish wine lovers could shmooze, taste and discuss quality wines, just like everyone else. Its raison d’être was to show that a kosher wine was just like any other wine, but with a hechsher.
Its second major achievement was internationalizing kosher wine. What started as a preserve of Israel, France and New York was expanded to Argentina, Australia, California, Chile, France, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and Washington State. Royal simply decided to make kosher wines in other countries, finding winemaking partners and creating new brands. It helped create the first kosher Bordeaux with the Rothschilds.
It took kosher winemaking out of the ghetto, away from the obviously Jewish areas, into the world’s main winemaking regions.
Now there is barely a major wine-producing country that does not produce kosher wine. Teale Lake, Alfasi and Bartenura are some of its brands. The Bartenura Moscato is a huge hit, reaching way outside the kosher market. Royal also dramatically increased the options for the kosher wine maven. Want to taste a port, sherry or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? Well, there are now kosher versions.
Thirdly, it strove for greater quality by opening a winery in California and employed a leading winemaker. It was not content with selling truckloads of White Zinfandel but also chose to make wines at the very highest level. In the 1990s, its Herzog Reserve wines became the first kosher wines from anywhere to receive more than 90 points in both the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.
However, it was not enough for Royal to make its own quality wine; it also wanted to distribute the best. This was how in many areas Herzog wines came to be distributed alongside the wines of distinguished wineries like Capcanes, Covenant, Hagafen and the first kosher classed growths from Bordeaux.
Finally, it then decided to focus on Israel. In the absence of any initiatives to sell Brand Israel from Israel itself, Royal took upon itself to become the importer, marketer and distributor of Israel in America and Britain. Today, it represents more than 20 Israeli wineries, including some of the largest, such as Carmel, Barkan and Tabor, and some of the best quality small wineries like Castel, Flam and Yatir. Israel is the fastest-growing sector in kosher wine, and Royal is leading the drive. There is no importer or distributor anywhere with such a steadfast commitment to Israeli wines.
The story may be told through the lives of three Herzogs, spanning more than 160 years.
It was Philip Herzog who began the winemaking dynasty in 1848 in Slovakia. He made wine for the Emperor Franz Josef, and for this he was granted the title Baron Herzog.
Generations later, it was Eugene Herzog, who survived the Nazis and the Communists, who planted the wine roots in America. He arrived in New York in 1948 with his wife and eight children. He started with nothing, found work with a company called Royal Wine, acting as winemaker, salesman and driver. In the bad times, he was paid in shares, which turned out to be a blessing because in 1958 he was able to take over the company. He created the famous Kedem brand. Manischewitz may generate more sales overall, but Kedem wines are far more revered on the kosher table for Shabbat and festivals.
Fast forward until now, and David Herzog is at the helm. He brought the Royal Wine Corp. to where it is today. The offices and warehouses are situated in Bayonne, New Jersey, on a site the size of a small airport. Royal owns two wineries – Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard, California, and Kedem Winery in Marlboro, New York.
They are the most international producers, and both the largest importers and distributors of kosher wine in the world.
The wines are distributed in many countries.
A sister company, Kedem Europe, looks after the portfolio in England; and Zur Agencies, from Bnei Brak, imports a large part of the range to Israel.
Out of all Royal’s successes, I believe its best achievement has been in their California winery. In 1985 it moved to California, first producing its Baron Herzog wines. In 2005 it opened their modern, state-of-the-art Herzog Wine Cellars Winery in Oxnard. The winemaker is Joe Hurliman, who previously worked at Alban Vineyards and the Sine Qua Non Winery. In 1998 he joined the winemaking team, and in 2001 he took over as chief winemaker.
If you meet Hurliman, he is the last person you would expect to see at the winery.
Baseball cap, earrings, a bouncy, irreverent humor, and he is not even Jewish. But that is not the point. He is employed as a wine guy dedicated to making great wine rather than being there to make up a minyan. His role is to make Californian wine, and he has a mandate to source fruit from the finest vineyards.
Taste the wines, and you almost forget the wines also happen to be kosher.
The Herzog Limited Edition wines, including the rare and strictly allocated Clone 6 and Generation VIII, are handcrafted in very small quantities from individual plots. The Herzog Single Vineyard wines are not far behind. These will stand tall in any competition for the best kosher wines on the planet.
Then there are Herzog Special Reserves.
These is where the winery is at its best, offering full-flavored, high-quality, authentic Californian wines, which are not too extravagantly priced.
Its entry level Baron Herzog wines provide a taste of the California sun at a reasonable price. These are honest, well-made wines producing value, good varietal character and consistency. This is a label that always punches above its weight.
The winery also produces the innovative Jeunesse wines. These wines are fruity and semi-sweet. A whole range of wines dedicated to the sweet vinotype.
Yishar koah to the Herzog family for the Royal revolution!
My favorite Herzog wines available in Israel are the following:
Baron Herzog Zinfandel 2008.NIS 60.
A chewy, flavorful mouthful of jammy, plum and berry fruit. There are not so many good examples of Zinfandel in Israel, and this is great value. My other favorite Baron Herzog wine is the Chenin Blanc. If possible, go for younger vintages.
Herzog Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve, Napa Valley 2010. NIS 190
Deep colored and full bodied with a pronounced nose of blackberries and cherries laced with an aromatic spicy veil of vanilla. Quite oaky, with a long, balanced finish.
Herzog Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve, Alexander Valley 2010. NIS 190
A more classic nose and a more elegant wine from Sonoma. Deep, ripe blackcurrant and blackberry aromas, soft tannins and silky flavors that coat the mouth. Finishes well.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.