Thousands of restaurant and store owners, sommeliers, wine wholesalers, beverage purchasers, barmen and waiters descended on the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv two weeks ago for this year's Sommelier wine exhibition, where almost 80 of Israel's wineries displayed their merchandise.
"This exhibition has a huge impact on business in the local wine industry. It attracts Israel's biggest wine buyers and its small ones," Avi Ben Ami, owner of Studio Ben Ami and the organizer of the exhibition, tells Metro.
"The purpose of Sommelier is to get wineries and importers together with their professional clientele. This is their yearly meeting place, where each one displays his or her innovations, new produce and the new wines that have arrived to Israel from overseas, so that the professional market can get up do date," Ben Ami explains.
The attendees see the wines, taste them and - if they are impressed - make orders. Selling a wine to a restaurant owner who wishes to put it on their menu is not like selling a bottle of wine to a wine-lover, Ben Ami continues. It can be a matter of three cases per month, or, if it is a big wholesaler that decides to start working with that wine, it can be a matter of hundreds of cases per year, he says.
Ben Ami has been running Sommelier exhibitions annually for six years. Among other wine-related events put on by Studio Ben Ami are The Golden Bunch, Best Value and Israeli Wine Award competitions, as well as the website sommelier.co.il.
Ben Ami said that in order to preserve the professional atmosphere, he does not advertise the Sommelier exhibition to the wider public. While industry members entered free, members of the public paid NIS 100.
Only five to eight percent of the approximately 5,000 attendees this year were members of the public. Most of them attended in the evening, along with the barmen and waiters, which fostered a casual, fun atmosphere. Fewer people attended during the day, but those who did were mostly members of the industry who went to do business, according to Ben Ami.
"When there are fewer people, it's possible to conduct more professional wine tastings," he added.
Tal Shaked is the marketing manager at Israel's biggest wine importer, Shaked, which is also a partner of the Recanati winery, as well as the promoter of various other wines. He said that participating in Sommelier gives him an opportunity to catch up with his customers, promote his new products and finesse business relationships in a relaxed environment.
This year Shaked and Recanati's stall cost a total of $20,000 - $25,000. It was the only stall at the exhibition to invite certain attendees to munch on complimentary fine cheeses and olives while tasting wine out of a Shaked wine glass - one which was given to them as a take-home gift.
Ben Ami estimated that a total of over NIS 2 million was invested in stalls and displays at this year's exhibition. "The [wine industry] players understand that [business] is not just about making good wine. How you look is also important; how you're branded. As a result of that, this year the stalls were very beautiful," said Shaked.
According to Shaked, the exhibition itself is more of a social, experiential event than a commercially focused one because it lacks the privacy required for closing business deals. "Everything's open. If I speak to one customer about prices, everyone hears," he said.
But business deals emerge from Sommelier. Shlomi Kahana, the Food and Beverage Purchaser at the biggest retailer in Israel, Shufersal, discovered a number of boutique wineries at Sommelier with whom he now has ongoing business relations. One of them is the HaMasrek Winery.
When Kahana attended Sommelier in 2006 he noticed three brothers standing in their HaMasrek Winery stall. Their incredible height caught his attention and drew him toward their stall. Kahana showed interest in two of their wines: their GewÃ¼rztraminer, and one called The King's Blend.
"I said to them, 'Look you're tired, I'm tired. Let's book a meeting where you can come to my office'," recounted Kahana, "They came to my office with their wine, I tasted it and enjoyed it a lot. So I said to them, 'Let's go to your winery and see how you men make wine.'"
Kahana travelled to the HaMasrek winery in Beit Meir, a village in the Judean Hills, near Jerusalem. He watched as the three went about their work, and was impressed by their drive to succeed. After checking the working condition of their equipment, he said, "Okay, let's do business." Kahana and Shufersal have been selling HaMasrek's wines ever since.
Working with Shufersal gave this small boutique winery access to 15 premium wine stores at locations in Jerusalem, Haifa and Eilat, among others.
But only a small amount of Kahana's total work with wineries emerges from the exhibition, he said.
"Since I am the biggest purchaser in Israel, wineries that want to work with Shufersal make sure they get in contact with us. When I come to the exhibition, I come to see those who did not approach me: Either they were shy, scared, or didn't know [how]. I want to show them that I'm a regular guy," he said.
Regardless of the prospect of business deals, Kahana advised wine makers and buyers alike to attend the event.
"You have to be there," he said. "You find all the key players in the wine market [at Sommelier]. If you aren't there you don't exist."