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Israeli wineries innovate as they reach beyond kosher market
By NIV ELIS
09/01/2014
Wine exports rose over 80% since 2009; five big wineries account for 82% of the market.
 
Red wine never really did it for winemaker Doron Rav Hon. Not the way white did.

“I’ve made reds in my life, but the passion is for whites,” he said. After a decade making wine for large Israeli vineyards, he decided to go it alone, focusing on his minimalist vision instead. His Sphera “white concepts” winery, which put its first bottles on the market last year, produces only white wines.

Sphera was one of a growing number of small and medium Israeli wineries on display at the 2014 Sommelier exhibition in Tel Aviv on Tuesday and Wednesday attempting to branch out into new realms of marketing and winemaking, in hopes of standing out in a crowded market “They’re trying to innovate and interest the audience, whether from the standpoint of new blends, new varietals that are less available, or other ways,” said Avi Ben Ami, who runs the Sommelier exhibit.

“Creating just another Cabernet or Merlot makes it harder to compete.”

Alexander, a winery that has grown its production to 50,000 bottles a year since its 1996 founding – half of which it sells abroad – offers a blend of five varietals among its best-sellers.

Though small and medium wineries represent just 18 percent of Israeli wine sales (five big wineries account for the remaining 82% of the market), the number of newcomers hoping to distinguish themselves in the competitive world of wine is growing each year in proportion with the market.

Indeed, at the Sommelier exhibit, producers displayed a variety of related products outside wine itself, including liquors, eau de vines (grappa) and alcoholic ciders.

“There aren’t rules anymore. The Italians, the French, they have so many restrictions. In Israel we do whatever we want, we change things up,” said Efrat Kabilo, a representative with wine marketer Bordeaux Israel.

Moshe Rozen, the sommelier for the Mul Yam restaurant, agreed.

“You can’t even compare the variety of wines you have today to what was on the market three or four years ago,” he said.

Part of what’s helping the numbers grow, said Rozen, is a willingness among consumers within the Israeli wine market to pay a little more for a bottle of wine. But those that hope to grow within the crowded field are increasingly forced to look abroad.

“In the coming year, a huge number of wines are expected to come onto the market. The question is, who will drink them?” Ben Ami said.

International consumers seem more than willing. In 2013, Israeli wine exports had a record year, according to the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, reaching $34.7 million. That’s a 20% increase from 2012, and over an 80% increase from 2009.

But winemakers looking to foreign markets need to do more than distinguish themselves from one another. Many are working to help Israeli wine shed its image as an industry devoted to supplying Jews abroad with kosher libations on holidays.

“We are starting to get out of the kosher market, exporting to significant markets like Poland and Asia,” said Yaara Shimoni, the IEICI’s wine and fresh produce manager.

“Because of the impressive rise in exports, I think it’s clear that people are starting to see Israel as a market beyond just kosher.”
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