What’s with all the whining about wine?

Spiking ticket price and shrinking number of wineries taking part are making some rethink their decision to go to the Jerusalem Wine Festival.

The Jerusalem Wine Festival (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Jerusalem Wine Festival
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
There is no denying that life is stressful. With responsibilities like kids, work and taxes, it can be difficult to find an effective way to relax and unwind.
But that, my friends, is why God gave us wine. There is absolutely nothing better than a tall glass of vino after a long, hard day to take the edge off.
So it comes as no surprise that the Jerusalem Wine Festival is one of the most highly anticipated events on any Merlot-loving Israeli’s calendar. I mean, we are talking about unlimited amounts of wine from some of the top Israeli wineries for a set fee. What could be better? Well, apparently a lot. Over the past few years, attendees of the Jerusalem Wine Festival have noticed a steady increase in the cost of the tickets, but a steady decrease in the quality of the wine and atmosphere. And, needless to say, this has turned their grapes sour.
The 13th annual Jerusalem Wine Festival takes place this year on the evenings of September 5 to 8 at the lovely Art Garden of the Israel Museum, as per tradition. For the not-so-meager cost of NIS 95 every guest receives a glass, which they can take home as a memento of this special night, and they can refill this glass as many times and from as many winery stands as their Chardonnay- loving heart desires. One must note that the NIS 95 does not cover the cost of food, which ranges in decadence from chocolate to cheese to sushi.
The objective of the festival is to offer guests a wide range of Israel’s finest wines and this year’s festival features varietals from many of Israel’s biggest and most well-known wineries, like Galil Mountain, Golan Heights and Dalton. Since its inception in 2004, the reputation of the festival has grown exponentially and it is now one of the hottest tickets in town.
But it seems as if the festival’s popularity has gone to its head and its organizers have developed a bit of an ego, because they are starting to think they can charge any sum of money and people will still show up. Back in 2010 one could purchase their festival ticket for the relatively reasonable cost of NIS 60 (that is to say if it’s reasonable at all to make people pay for wine, which is a basic human necessity). Then in 2012, the price shot up to NIS 80.
By 2015 the cost reached NIS 85, and at that point it really seemed like things couldn’t get any worse – and then they did. “As someone who has gone to the festival pretty much each year for as long as I can remember, I was very disappointed in the price hike,” posted longtime attendee Avi Davidowitz in the Facebook group Secret Jerusalem.
“For NIS 95 you can get an exceptional whole bottle of wine. Few bottles that are served at this festival retail for NIS 95 or above, and it is doubtful that any festival-goer is served a bottle’s worth, making it objectively not worth it.”
Others, like Chaya Sarah Berkemus, complain that the festival’s popularity has brought in a decidedly less classy element: “I stopped going not so much because of the price, but more because I felt like the vibe switched to people just getting wasted... versus really enjoying and trying wines.”
ANOTHER ISSUE that loyal vino quaffers have noticed is a deterioration in the quality of what is actually being served.
The more people that go to the festival, the more wine is necessary and the costlier it is for wineries to serve their top-notch merchan- dise. This equation also discourages smaller boutique wineries from taking part in the festival, because it’s difficult for them to keep up with the numbers.
“My complaint isn’t the price but that the wineries have stopped bringing their good stuff and the selection is quite mediocre,” said past festival-goer Yaakov Fauci.
“They used to have all of their best on display. Now that the event is popular it seems the wineries don’t want to waste it on the common folk.”
Moreover, as Joel Haber stressed, “In 2015, for the first time, the wine festival – which only had Israeli wineries (both kosher and non) – had other, non-Israeli wineries. The organizers clearly saw they couldn’t get enough Israeli wineries to pay their exorbitant prices. Thus, the organizers make a lot of money off us customers, a lot off the wineries and the experience drops in quality.”
“Either this festival will die a slow death,” he cautioned, “or it will get a reboot of some kind that breathes new life into it.”
Some also have issues with all the non-wine offerings at the festival.
It seems a bit like a case of false advertising in that it’s called the Jerusalem Wine Festival, with an emphasis on beverages made from the humble grape, but that they are also promoting cider, passion-fruit ale and strawberry liqueur. Let’s be honest, the space that is being taken up by these other alcoholic options would be better occupied with more wine.
Then there is the fact that food costs extra. We all know that alcohol on an empty stomach only leads to a giant mess. So it seems wise for the Israel Museum to include the cost of food in their tickets, because it might help them avoid a lawsuit or two.
Though NIS 95 may sound like the cost of an average night out to many, what with the sky-high drink prices at bars and clubs, for many this is a substantial amount of money. For example, if parents want a night out from their kids they have to pay for two tickets (NIS 190), a babysitter, transportation and food. There are also many young people, some perhaps who have just made aliya, who would like a fun night out, but need to save their money.
“It’s way too expensive and [over the past few years has been moved up to] September, not August, making it more difficult for families with kids in school the next day, or in my case where my wife is a teacher,” said past festival fan Adam Mallerman on Facebook.
“It’s my favorite night out all year, but I won’t be going.”
This all begs the question: why, for the love of all that is sacred, is the festival making it so hard for people to get a taste of that sweet, sweet nectar? And the simple answer is: because they can.
WHAT THIS all seems to come down to is a classic case of supply and demand. As the festival became more and more popular and gained a loyal following of wine enthusiasts the price went up, because festival organizers knew that their customers’ love of wine could not be outdone by a few shekels here and there.
To put it simply: the more that people wanted to go to the festival, the costlier it became, because there is more competition for tickets. The festival has also turned into the place to see and be seen for wineries, which gives an advantage to the large wineries that have the funds and resources to participate.
“We find the Jerusalem Wine Festival attracts a quality audience that is interested in wine, and this is our chance to meet the people, talk about what they taste and let them get to know Tulip Winery and its story,” said Or Ben-Avi, Tulip’s marketing and export manager.
“As a winery that doesn’t participate in festivals most of the time, this one specifically is good and professional and it dignifies the wineries and wine industry in Israel.”
Though the size of the festival is certainly very good for its organizers, it tends to alienate the boutique wineries that play an integral role in the Jerusalem wine industry.
Festivals of this magnitude require the vendors to have enough funds to be able to buy into a slot and to be able to supply the goods at a lower cost than they would normally sell at. It also requires a certain number of employees to work at the festival, and a lot of the smaller wineries just don’t have resources to spare.
“I have a very small winery; I think you can consider it a micro-boutique,” said Shoshana Wiesen, owner of Shoshana Boutique Winery, which is not taking part in the Jerusalem Wine Festival.
“I make only about 3,000 bottles a year. I’ve done a few festivals, and it’s too taxing on my winery in terms of the amount of wine that is poured.”
BUT THAT’S not to say that it’s all bad news for the Jerusalem Wine Festival. According to the festival’s director of public relations and new media, Ariel Ariav, the event has sold almost all of its tickets – which he pointed out two weeks before its actual start date. This means that not only are thousands of people undeterred by the NIS 95 price tag, but they are eager to pay it. This is indicative of the fact that many people must enjoy the wines.
“I’ve never heard bad things about the festival,” said Ariav. “Most of the wineries bring high-quality wine.”
He also maintained that NIS 95 is a fair price, because a standard night out would be much costlier.
“If you are going out for an evening and you want to start it at the bar, the price that you pay for two drinks is much more that you are paying to taste 40 wineries.
“We have two bands every evening at the festival and you can drink as much as you want. Nobody will tell you, ‘Don’t drink more than three or four glasses.’ You can drink 40 glasses. You can drink as much as you can. So NIS 95 is not a lot of money. It’s really not.
As to whether the festival is an exclusive club for large, wealthier wineries, Ariav said that they extend the invitation to participate to all Israeli wineries, but that some had to decline the invitation, because they are too busy with the harvest or the High Holy Days.
“We don’t say we only want this winery or that winery,” said Ariav.
“We call all the wineries to ask them to join the festival.”
Some, like Alan Tennenberg, backed this up: “Went last year and loved it. Planning to go again this year. It’s a great evening, even if you don’t guzzle down your NIS 95 worth of wine.”
In the last six years the price of the festival has increased by NIS 35, from NIS 60 to NIS 95. In the grand scheme of life, no, NIS 35 is not such a big deal. But think about it like this: this is an increase of around 58 percent, for no other reason than the fact that the festival is more popular than ever. There is not a big difference in the featured wineries from year to year. But how many people can say that their income has increased by 58 percent since 2010? Probably not many. The cost of living in Israel is high and salaries are fairly static, so why does it seem like even the simple things are life are getting more and more expensive? So if paying NIS 95 for a ticket is not really your thing, but you really love wine, don’t worry. There are other alternatives. There is always the Jerusalem Kosher Wine Expo in the winter and the White Wine Festival at the Herzliya Marina. Or you can buy a few bottles, put on your comfiest clothes, invite your friends over and have a wine festival of your own.
As Evan Kent noted, “We’ve gone for many years, but...the price has crept up and the crowds have multiplied and with parking and entrance so difficult, we’re thinking that this year we won’t go. Instead, we’re inviting our friends over to each bring a bottle of wine they love – hopefully from an out-of-the-way vineyard – and have our own tasting... and the cheese and crackers and fruit won’t cost us a fortune.”