By Yossie Horwitz
As a wine writer I have been covering kosher and Israeli wines for over 30 years, tasting as many as 5,000 different kosher wines annually. With the number of kosher wines constantly increasing, one of my greatest pleasures is seeking out new and interesting wines that are typically harder to find. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a growing trend, one that seems overly concentrated within the kosher wine world, if not exactly unique to it: the growing phenomenon of winemakers with day jobs at commercial wineries who are spending their personal time (and often their own financial resources) to create wines separate and distinct from those they produce under the auspices of their employer wineries.
While the majority of these are producing one or two wines under their own labels, some of the early adopters of this trend include Jonathan Hajdu (Covenant Winery) and Kobi Arbiv (Recanati). Both have branched out to run full-fledged wineries of their own while continuing to crank out significant portfolios of commercial wines at their day jobs. Some of the more recent entrants to this exciting world of kosher pet project winemaking include Guy Eshel (Dalton), Dani Friedenberg (Teperberg), Olivier Fratty (formerly at Teperberg and now at Barkan) and Ari Erle (Bat Shlomo). While incredibly interesting and mostly producing quality wines, this article will not discuss winemakers producing non-certified-kosher personal wines like Ido Lewinson (Barkan) and David Bar-Ilan (Tulip). There are also a few professionals who were producing their own labels before assuming head winemaker roles at commercial wineries, including Ya'acov Oryah of Pinto; and well known consultants who also make their own wines, like Itay Lahat and Yotam Sharon.
Because these are not money-making endeavors, I believed that financial incentive could not be the primary objective for these winemakers to be adding to their already heavy work schedules to produce a couple of wines each year under their own names. As such I set out to explore the motivation behind this growing trend.
While each winemaker’s personal story contains a different narrative, the unifying factor for all of them was a desire for sole autonomy and decision making while executing their personal winemaking philosophy and style, without the hindrance of additional winemakers, commercial restrictions and/or the need to feed the often homogenous palate of the mass-market kosher wine consumer. Regardless of how long or closely you are working together, when you are subject to the philosophies and decision-making processes of another, your personal creativity is going to be inhibited.
Benefits for Employer Wineries
It was equally important to understand the reasoning for the wineries to allow their senior and arguably most important employees to work on personal projects which could be viewed as directly competitive. While in some instances the winemaker was so essential to the winery’s operations that one could think the winery didn’t have a choice, for the most part these personal projects are on such a small scale compared to their employer’s operations that there isn’t much real competition.
Most of the wineries seem to agree that the knowledge, creativity and feelings of self-fulfillment acquired by engaging in these personal projects enhance all the wines being produced by these vintners, including the commercial wines produced for the winery itself. Another incentive may be the added prestige a winery obtains as their winemakers’ stars ascend, whether due to the wines produced under their own labels or those of the winery’s. Any stardust a winemaker garners inevitably rubs off on the winery they represent.
Each winemaker also has a distinction from his mothership employer, with the most tangible outcome being the cost of the wines. When a winemaker produces his wines separate from the employing winery, as does Fratty, the prices are significantly higher than those made utilizing the full resources of the large commercial winery that employs them, as both Friedenberg and Eshel do. These two are able to take advantage of the economies of scale enjoyed by a large commercial winery and keep the
prices of their wines more affordable—and therefore more approachable to a broader segment of discerning wine lovers.
A Common Theme
A common theme for all the Israeli-based winemakers was the desire to showcase grape varieties most suited for the hot Mediterranean climate. With most kosher wine consumers continuing to demand high-octane cabernet sauvignon and chardonnays, most large commercial wineries continue to produce significant quantities of varietal wines utilizing those Bordeaux grapes, despite Israel’s hot climate not being the best suited for such grapes (not to mention their reliance on riper grapes and significant oak aging). Producing millions of bottles of crowd-pleasing wines is likely a strong motivation to go the other way in their personal wines, leading to a focus on fresh, vibrant, food-friendly and minimal to no oak treatment for wines with high acidity and grape varietals that are better suited to the hot mediterranean sun.
Jonathan Hajdu in California and Kobi Arbiv in Israel were among the earlier pioneers of this concept within the kosher wine world. Hajdu made his first personal wines for the 2007 vintage under the Brobdingnagian label until 2010, then changed the name to Hajdu Wines, all while assisting Covenant, which was then producing wine at Herzog Winery’s facility. He has continued producing his own wines since then while working at Covenant Winery full time since 2008. By now Hajdu has developed a loyal following, a well-known brand and an expanded portfolio of unique wines under his label while climbing the ranks at the acclaimed Covenant Winery, from cellar rat and mashgiach, to associate winemaker, to his current winemaker position, where he heads up the winemaking team alongside Covenant’s founding winemaker Jeff Morgan.
Historically, the primary differential between the two brands were the grape varieties—Covenant focused on cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, while Hajdu focused on Rhône varietals—but those lines blurred with the growing success of both brands and their expanding portfolios. However, there are nuanced stylistic differences: Hajdu’s wines are known for their big and bold style while Covenant’s are often more elegant with lower alcohol levels. After many years of solely marketing his wines direct to consumers, Hajdu is now distributed by Royal, which provides broader market penetration and greater exposure to a growing market of kosher wine lovers.
On the other side of the ocean, Arbiv got his start in the winemaking world around the same time as Hajdu, starting to work as a cellar rat at Recanati Winery in 2006 and working his way up to winemaker in 2012 alongside fellow winemakers Gil Shatsberg and Ido Lewinson, before being promoted to head winemaker in 2016. Right around the time he was finding his footing at Recanati, he launched Mia Luce with the 2008 vintage, making wines on top of his parent’s home in Or Akiva.
After exploring several different wines throughout the years, in 2015 Arbiv settled on the three wines he continues to produce today—Syrah & Stems (whole cluster syrah), CSM (carignan, syrah, mourvedre) and a marselan, along with a white blend focused on colombard, first made for the 2011 vintage and added to the portfolio with the 2018 vintage. Both Recanati and Mia Luce showcase the so-called Mediterranean varieties like syrah, carignan and marselan, however Mia Luce utilizes them exclusively while Recanati’s portfolio includes the entire gamut of grape varieties including the noble grapes of Bordeaux—cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay, among many others. After years of only being available in Israel in extremely limited quantities, Mia Luce’s wines are now imported by KosherWine. com where they are available exclusively online. They are well worth seeking out.
Hajdu and Arbiv are distinct from others and are pioneering in the way that they operate separate and distinct brands from their employers which continue to grow and prosper alongside the fabulous work they are doing.
Expanding Beyond The Playground
Over the years many wineries created sub-labels to showcase a winemaker’s personal preferences, often informally referred to as a winemaker’s playground. One of these wineries is Dalton, whose colorfully labeled Asufa wines by Eshel are dubbed “Guy’s Playground” and try to showcase different aspects of the winery throughout the years, often using slightly more esoteric varieties. But Eshel wanted more. For the 2020 vintage under the name “Guy Eshel Wines,” he created two vibrant and gorgeous wines, one from grenache and the other roussanne. Like all these personalized wines, they are available only in Israel but well worth seeking out.
For a commercial winery producing millions of crowd-pleasing wines annually, the ability of Teperberg Winery to cultivate the creativity behind not one but two different personal projects is surprising. The crowd-pleasing trend at the winery intensified following the 2011 vintage when a commercial decision was made to refocus stylistically on riper and less subtle wines, a decision that achieved great commercial success while disappointing many of the wine cognoscenti who had been enjoying Teperberg’s shift towards more subtle and, dare I say, older-world style wines. Friedenberg, the youngest member of Teperberg’s winemaking team (and among the younger winemakers in Israel
overall), made his first round of wines for the 2019 vintage, which included a grenache and a “Ramato.” (Ramato is not simply a grape but the Italian version of pinot grigio which is made in a style with light skin maceration, akin to orange wines, which yield the copper color that gives the wine its name. Ramato means coppery in Italian.)
As would behoove the youngest winemaker of the lot, Friedenberg’s wines are completely supported by Teperberg, to such a degree that they are marketed as “By Teperberg Winery” with Friedenberg listed as the sole winemaker. Friedenberg’s goals are to make out-of-the-box wines that are fresh, vibrant and brimming with bright acidity, characteristics that make them exceptionally food-friendly and well suited for the hot Israeli climate. His focus is on expressing each variety’s typicity in a refreshing, light and creative manner. For the 2021 vintage Friedenberg added a delightful barbera, but his grenache remains my personal favorite.
Given Teperberg’s size and breadth it would be impossible for Friedenberg to use varieties not used by the winery, but he selects the plots and then determines the way they are cultivated, harvested and transformed into wine. All his wines are worth seeking out, will be enjoyable by all, and are very well priced. With 2022 being a shemitah year in Israel, Friedenberg only made his Ramato, and I am excited to see what the 2023 vintage will bring from this budding young winemaker!
After nearly 18 years as assistant winemaker at Teperberg, Fratty finally made his first personal wine right before making the even more significant change of leaving his professional home to take over the head winemaking slot at Barkan, one of the only wineries in Israel producing more wines than Teperberg. This development leaves Teperberg’s winemaking team one short and with an unknown (at least to me) future in this regard.
Fratty’s first release was for the 2020 vintage, and it was well worth the wait. Sold under his personalized “l’enclos” label (French for closed area and reflecting his French upbringing and education), the wine is made from petit verdot sourced from his own vineyard planted right outside his home on Israel’s coastal plain. While Fratty acknowledges the area isn’t considered among Israel’s prime grape-growing appellations, his ability to make a personal wine at his home was a significant driver for launching his label, along with a desire to leave behind the commercial and mechanical winemaking process at Teperberg (and now Barkan) for a minimal-intervention winemaking process coupled with organic and biodynamic grape growing.
Petit verdot is expected to be the rimary grape for his single wine for the coming 2021 and 2022 vintages, after which his plantings of petite syrah and malbec will be available for the 2023 vintage and some marselan coming online for the 2024 vintage. Despite the added plantings becoming available, his current plans are to stick with one single red blend unless the grapes dictate otherwise. The wine, called Vin Rouge Sec, is powerful and elegant with plenty of characteristic blue fruits complementing the back fruit, and herbal notes with layers of complexity coming through over the three days I tasted the wine. Low quantities have dictated limited personal allocations, but I’d beg, borrow or steal to lay your hands on some of these delicious bottles before they are all gone.
Bringing the Past To the Present
Rooted in aristocratic Israeli tradition, Bat Shlomo Vineyards pays significant homage to its illustrious past, a fact not lost on their talented winemaker of many years. California-trained Ari Erle lived in Givat Nili where his family has been cultivating a vineyard of Israel’s ancient grape dabuki since 1973 (historically the grapes have been sold to other wineries) for many years. With a desire to create a family legacy, Erle launched four different dabuki wines for the 2022 vintage under the “Ari
Erle Winemaker” label, each made in a different style and showcasing a truly gorgeous label, not surprising, given the lovely aesthetic that accompanies every step of his commercial employer.
My personal favorites were the unoaked white wine and the short-term barrel fermented and aged version, but the orange wine was quite interesting as well, while my least favorite was the pétnat (generally a genre that doesn’t appeal to me, but one he likes very much, havingbeen behind the first Israeli pét-nat at Jezreel Valley back in 2016, also made from the dabuki grape). Made at and with the full support of Bat Shlomo, the wines are well made, refreshing, enjoyable and worth seeking out.
Whether this trend continues or manifests itself in significant movement between wineries remains to be seen, but currently it is providing us kosher wine lovers with a lovely mini-renaissance of creativity and more subtle and vibrant wines than the Israeli wine industry has seen in a while. Regardless of the way these wines came to be, the results have been overwhelmingly pleasing. Another nice aspect of this trend, specifically for those hailing from Israel or visiting, is that these wines represent a whole new slew of wines available only in Israel, a highly sought-after genre for those U.S.-based wines connoisseurs who are consistently searching for high-quality wines not available for commercial purchase in the U.S. Due to the ever-increasing depth and reach of the larger kosher winery importers and distributors who have greatly expanded their portfolios in recent years, it’s nice to see wines that fly under the radar a bit; these are wines made in smaller quantities that are worth tasting.