Barkan Vineyards controversy affects sales, causes social media outcry

Barkan Vineyards caused controversy last week when Israeli media uncovered its decision to transfer Ethiopian-Israeli workers to jobs in which they would not touch the wine.

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July 1, 2018 18:30
4 minute read.
IDO LEWINSOHN, the new winemaker of Barkan Winery

IDO LEWINSOHN, the new winemaker of Barkan Winery. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The controversy surrounding Barkan Vineyards has resulted in lower sales of the company’s wine at some stores, a vociferous social media outcry and the decision by some to at least temporarily stop buying it.

Barkan Vineyards, a winery based in Kibbutz Hulda, caused controversy last week when Israeli media uncovered its decision to transfer Ethiopian-Israeli workers to jobs in which they would not touch the wine. Israeli broadcaster Kan aired a recording that quoted Barkan CEO Gilles Assouline as telling an Ethiopian-Israeli worker at the winery, “Business is business.”

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The winery, which made the decision in order to comply with strict guidelines of the Eidah HaChareidit kosher certification organization (also known as Badatz, acronym for Beit Din Zedek, Righteous Court), has since reversed its decision, and has dropped the Badatz certification.

Eliyahu Nechemiah of Nechemiah Brothers Drinks, a liquor store near the Mahane Yehuda Market, told The Jerusalem Post that sales of Barkan wines have dropped by around half their original number since the controversy erupted, although he offered no further comment.

At the nearby Wine in the Shuk store down the street, seller Guy Levy said he has seen no drop in Barkan wine sales. He praised Barkan’s wine quality but said he thinks Barkan’s actions were “abnormal” and “a bad situation,” and that the workers at Barkan “are people and it doesn’t matter what color [they are].”

Ami Malah, a seller at Agrippas Drinks, said that sales of Barkan Wines were “definitely” affected by the controversy, and he estimated that they have dropped by around 60%.

At Dovid Chaim Wines and Alcohol, a liquor store located on Mahane Yehuda’s outdoor promenade, seller Daniel Maman told the Post that the store sells a very limited selection of Barkan wines, but that he thinks sales of them might soon drop. He said that he personally believes people should follow the rabbis’ ruling if it was truly motivated by the belief that someone isn’t Jewish, but that if Barkan’s decision was just made because of racism, it was wrong.

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“Whoever is a Jew – his color doesn’t matter,” Maman said.

The social media reaction to the controversy has also been significant.

MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) wrote about Barkan’s act on her Facebook page and concluded, “We have a message for Mr. Assouline and Barkan Winery: Do not be surprised that this wine makes us vomit. Do not buy from racists.”

On Barkan Vineyard’s Facebook page, people have been criticizing the winery for its actions in ‘visitor posts’ sent to the page. Many have called for boycotting the winery; others have tried to engage with Barkan.

“I wrote to you a few days ago saying that my friends and I were no longer going to buy Barkan wines because of your recent treatment of your Ethiopian workers,” Rachel Selby wrote on the page. “I got a very nice reply, as did we all, saying that your Ethiopian workers have all been returned to their original posts in the winery. Meanwhile I went off the whole idea of Badatz… and determined to buy other wine. However, other friends have said that points have been made, lessons have been learned and we should not punish Barkan for the demands of Badatz…

“Have you dropped the Badatz hechsher [certification] or have Badatz allowed the Ethiopians to touch the wine during the wine-making process? It was unclear from your original reply what the final position of Barkan is in relation to this appalling event. We look forward to your clarification. Thanks in advance,” she wrote.

Barkan Vineyards replied in a comment on the post, saying, “Barkan wineries do not have the approval of Badatz eidah Haredi [ultra-Orthodox community certification].”

Selby, who is originally from London and now lives in Jerusalem, told the Post by phone that “what really, really struck me… is the way [Assouline] said to the Ethiopians, ‘business is business’. I just thought that was the lowest thing. I said, right, that is it – we’re not buying Barkan.”

Even after she heard that Barkan would give the Ethiopian- Israeli workers their original jobs back, Selby said the CEO’s words will take a long time for her to get over, and that she also hopes to avoid buying Badatz-certified wine. “In the future I’ll look for wines without the Badatz label… And that will include Barkan, I suppose [now that they’ve dropped Badatz certification]. I do recognize they were put in a very difficult position [by Badatz], and the guy who said ‘business is business’ – it’s probably something he’ll regret for a long time; it’s a stupid thing to say.”

Zelig Klippel, who is originally from Texas and now lives in Katamon, wrote on the company’s page on June 29, “Had dinner at Luciana [restaurant]… last night. Was about to order a bottle of Barkan Altitude 770 – Cabernet Franc (I love Cabernet Franc), then I remembered their shaming of their Ethiopian employees, whose parents endured unbelievable hardships to come to Zion. Ordered wine from another winery as Barkan and I do not worship the same God.”

In a phone call with the Post, Klippel identified himself as an observant Jew and said that he disliked how Barkan had treated its own workers: “You don’t treat workers like that.”

When asked whether he would buy Barkan wines again in the future, Klippel said, “I’ll wait a couple of months, [to] confirm that they really have given up the Eidah HaChareidit hechsher, and then I will buy them again... Very good bang for the buck, [Barkan wine] was reasonably priced and eminently drinkable.”

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