The Passover Wine Binge

Israelis buy wine, but do they drink it? Avi Ben-Ami lays down his way to make or break the Israeli palate.

Drinking wine should not be restricted to special occasions, says Avi Ben-Ami, who runs the Hebrew-language wine website, Sommelier.

“Wine makes its way to the Israeli dining table on Rosh Hashanah and Passover. People have this psychological block that wine is confined to a certain segment of the population or for specific days—or that it can only be drunk out of crystal goblets and not with a lunchtime sandwich or out of a disposable cup,” he says. “Wine needs to be made accessible, apart from formal occasions and restaurant wine lists.”

Ben-Ami’s perceptions are borne out by the facts. Israelis drink an average of about four to five liters a year, much less than the average 20 liters consumed in the United States and Australia. Israeli imbibing is a pittance compared to consumption rates in European countries, such as France, Italy and Portugal, where people drink between 40 to 50 liters a year.

It looks like most Israelis still need an excuse to open a bottle of wine. As a result, nearly half the wine purchases in the country are made just prior to Passover and Rosh Hashanah.

Drinking is one thing and sales are another. According to the estimates of the Israel Wine and Grape Board, which represents Israel’s vineyards and wineries, the local wine industry generates revenues of about 900 million shekels ($259 million) a year, of which about a fifth is exports.

Absent firm official figures, however, the best gauge of wine consumption and the movement of wine prices is provided by the major supermarket chains, and smaller groceries and convenience stores. Data from the Nielsen market research firm, which includes almost all of the country’s wine purchased at food retailers, shows that the Israeli public bought 562 million shekels worth of wine last year. That’s consistent with the notion that Israelis generally buy their wine at the food store. Nielsen says its 2013 figure is basically unchanged from 2012 and about 2% higher than 2011.

There are an estimated 280 wineries in Israel, but most of the country’s wine is sold through two major wineries, Carmel and Barkan.

“While food products as a whole have become more expensive, wine has remained unchanged,” says Ben-Ami. “Four or five years ago, thousands of additional dunams of vineyards [a dunam is a quarter acre] were planted amid optimism that something big was going to happen in the industry. These vineyards have been producing grapes for a year or two, but per capita wine consumption has not changed in Israel, meaning that large warehouses have millions of additional bottles destined for the supermarket shelves.”

Cultivating the 
Israeli palate

Tzahi Dotan, the CEO of the Wine and Grape Board, says efforts are being made with the wineries to develop a more sophisticated sales strategy, to distinguish wine from hard liquor and to encourage younger consumers to switch from hard alcohol to a sophsicated consumption of wine. The board is also working with the Agriculture Ministry to boost sales abroad of Israeli wine, beyond what is currently purchased in Diaspora Jewish communities.

Prices for table wine may not have risen in recent years, but it is still more expensive than in Europe. “At European supermarkets there are price levels that almost don’t exist here, other than for the holidays. Wine is sold there for [the equivalent of] 20 to 25 shekels all year round, and for 40 shekels you can find excellent wine,” Ben-Ami says. “You can find excellent wines in Israel, too, for 40 shekels, which is something that I couldn’t have said 10 years ago, but it’s harder to sort through them.”

The major difference, Ben-Ami asserts, is that there is a much larger selection in Europe. “In Israel, we have 10 commercial wineries that sell to the supermarkets and about five more major importers—about 15 players all told. At European supermarkets, on the other hand, there are hundreds of players.” The price differential, he says, is also due to greater government agricultural subsidies in Europe and in the assistance provided to vineyards and wineries when harvests are lean. Jewish dietary practice, kashrut, is also a factor, he says.

“Most of the hopes of Israeli wineries are pinned on exports and there we’re not a player. South American countries like Argentina and Chile sell wines of the same quality, and at a substantially lower prices, to the European market. That leaves us to compete only at the higher level. When we participate in expositions around the world, we see how much the [foreign] governments invest in and support wine promotion, something that still doesn’t happen in Israel,” Ben-Ami laments.

It turns out that Israelis are not only not increasing their wine consumption. They are also conservative in the selection of wine. Even though they have a broader choice, most Israelis prefer red wine, which constitutes about 70% of the market.

A survey conducted by alcoholic beverage retailer Bana Beverages revealed that price is the major consideration for Israelis in buying wine. Fully 62% of respondents in a survey of a representative sample of 596 people who said they had bought at least one bottle of wine over the prior 12 months responded that price was the most important factor in their choice of wine--more so than the winery, recommendations from friends or from a merchant or the taste or type of wine.

Competing for attention

The critical price factor for Israelis is what led Ben-Ami six years ago to start the Best Value annual wine competition, where the emphasis is on value for price for Israeli wines up to 79 shekels per bottle.

“In 2008, when our initiative began, the economic slowdown shook up the food sector and we wanted to come out with a message that would help consumers and wineries. Since then, the competition has been held on a regular basis before Passover, when consumers are looking for recommendations. The results of the competition are designed to serve everyone--not the people who are interested in wine all year long, but rather those who need someone to indicate which the best wines are for them to buy,” Ben-Ami explains.

This year, 128 different wines from 25 wineries competed, including 14 boutique wineries. The judges were recognized wine experts from major Israeli wine producers and boutique wineries and from leading Israeli restaurants and wine publications. The judges were asked to do blind taste tests and were only provided with the category of the wine they were sampling. The judges were barred from passing judgment on wines in particular categories if they were associated with wineries producing the same type of wine. The competition was overseen by a lawyer and by the head of the wine and beverage division of Dan Hotels, Haim Spiegel.

Seven categories of red and five categories of white wine were involved in the competition, along with one for rose wines, one for sparkling wines and another for sweet wine. The wines were all from the most recent harvest.

Contrary to the prevailing view that wines improve with age, when it comes to these lower priced wines, the recommendation is not to buy wine that is too old. When it comes to white wine, it’s particularly important to look for wine from the most recent harvest or from 2012 at the earliest. With respect to red wine, Ben-Ami says, wine that is properly stored from as far back as 2010 should still be good.