As the Israeli wine industry celebrates the start of the country's first international wine exhibition Tuesday, a consortium of Israeli wineries has been formed to change the way Israeli wines are marketed and branded in the United States. "In the wine sector, which has regional influences, branding under a country banner is very important," said Michal Neeman, food and beverages executive at the Israel Export Institute. "The positioning of Israeli wines has traditionally been in the kosher market which has a problematic reputation, and this is one of our main attempts to change this image." Established with the assistance of the Israel Export Institute and the Israel Wine Grapes Board, the consortium will operate with an annual budget of $1 million, to be financed by approximately 30 wineries, including the Carmel, Golan Heights, Barkan, Binyamina, Efrat and the Tishbi Estate wineries, which have committed to joining the project. The move comes against the backdrop of a weak start in 2006 where total exports fell 7 percent to $4.8m. in the first quarter of the year, compared to 2005. The Israel Manufacturers Association said at the time the decline came mainly from slower sales to the US and Europe where Israeli wineries are facing growing competition from local kosher wine producers. "We cannot ignore that our captive market will be in the kosher market in the future as well," said Batia Levy, exports manager at Carmel Winery. "There's so much competition out there worldwide, so we are trying to come together to promote Israel as a category, rather than have our wines in the kosher category." Levy explained that Israeli kosher wines are facing increased competition from countries such as France, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa, which because of their share in the mainstream market are able to effectively market their kosher products as an exciting new alternative. The Export Institute's Neeman noted that many of these countries had all successfully carried out similar campaigns, re-branding their wines as regional products. As such, the consortium has employed the services of a US company experienced in running similar campaigns for other countries to run the project, while Neeman will act as the Israeli liaison. Some of the actions taken, the IEI said, will include the placing of advertisements aimed at the general public and at the professional wine community in the US. It will establish tasting events in strategic areas in the US, as well as an information center about the Israeli wine industry, and launch a Web site offering information about the different wineries and business opportunities in the local sector. Yehiel Asia, director general of the IEI, said he hoped to double wine exports to the US to $15m. within three years as a result of the consortium. Meanwhile, ISRAWINEXPO, Israel's first international wine exhibition, opened Tuesday at the Exhibition Grounds in Tel Aviv. Both local and international wineries will exhibit at the three-day event which has attracted buyers, importers and journalists from abroad. The expo is open to the public from 5 to 10 p.m. with an NIS 45 entrance fee, including a glass to taste up to 10 different wines.