By Jewish Link Wine Guide Staff
Over the past three months, during our tasting of 660- plus wines and the editorial work of researching, interviewing and writing about the winemakers and professionals who make the kosher wine in our bottles, many of them stood out to our team in a particular way. While it was a prerequisite that all of the wineries or wines they represent performed well in our tastings, it was the passion and thirst for innovation of these five individuals that brought additional merit and strength to the kosher wine industry over the past year, and in fact have changed it for the better.
Whether it is in research and development of native Israeli varieties and teaching through learning (Dr. Shivi Drori of Gvaot Winery), a Renaissance perspective (Jeff Morgan of Covenant Winery and Covenant Israel), a historic and Torah-inspired approach to working the land of Israel (Ya’acov Ben-Dor of Yatir Winery), a passion to bring local wines from the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. to the kosher market (Kevin Danna of Binah Winery), a 30-year advocate to make Israeli wines and spirits equal to every other country’s on the world stage (Alex Haruni of Dalton Winery) or a team working to find and distribute the best Israeli, American and Italian kosher wines of the world to major markets (Larissa and Ami Nahari of The River Wine), we were simply blown away by their drive, innovation and expertise. Mazel tov!
Dalton Winery, Upper Galilee
Bringing Israeli Wine to the World Stage
CEO Alex Haruni started Dalton Winery in 1995 with his father Mat to explore the potential of the Upper Galilee region and highlight its natural gifts. Dalton’s initial production in the 1990s was around 20,000 bottles. Over the years the winery grew and became synonymous with quality and consistency. “When we began exporting to the U.S. we were a much smaller winery [than we are now], producing about 200,000 bottles a year,” remembered Haruni. Since then the winery has grown to over a million bottles and their sales to the U.S. have grown commensurately. “Managing a winery of this size and looking after its export sales takes up all the time I have,” said Haruni.
The Dalton brand is known for its consistency and quality, and more recently, innovation. You can pick up a bottle of Dalton wine at any price point and it will be of consistent quality throughout the vintage. But their consistency doesn’t get in the way of new ideas. “We are constantly innovating in the cellar, looking to bring new wines and new winemaking techniques to the market, be they varietals such as zuriman, storage innovations such as clay amphorae, new styles like the pét-nat or innovative blends that move away from the traditional cabernet-based blends,” Haruni shared. Dalton has also recently begun building a distillery and as one of its first products, has released an aromatic vermouth, one of only a few available in the kosher marketplace.
The overarching goal at Dalton is not to be thought of as a kosher wine. Though they make wine in the land of Israel, combining its natural resources of the soil, the sun and the fruit into their finished product, kashrut does not necessarily define them as winemakers, as important as it is. “What I truly want,” said Haruni, “is for Israeli wines to find their own voice on the international wine scene and not to be derailed by the kosher discussion.”
Dalton is mindful of the next generation of wine consumers and wants to create products that will appeal to that demographic. Haruni stressed that the winemaking team at Dalton is “always looking for new methods, tastes and ideas that will pique the curiosity of, and resonate with, new wine drinkers.
Covenant Winery, California and Israel
The Renaissance Winemaker
In 2003, Jeff Morgan founded Covenant Winery in California’s Napa Valley, where he and his late business partner, Leslie Rudd, sought to create a new high-quality paradigm for kosher wine.
A visit to Israel in 2011 prompted Morgan to make his first wine in Israel—a syrah—in 2013. Covenant’s wines are now sold worldwide, from the U.S. to Israel, Europe, Asia, Canada, Mexico and even in Tokyo and Taiwan.
A writer and musician as well as a winemaker, saxophonist Morgan was the West Coast editor of Wine Spectator magazine from 1992 to 2000. He has also written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine, Wine Enthusiast, Elle and—with his wife, Jodie—has penned 10 books on food and wine; the latest is “The Covenant Kitchen: Food and Wine for the New Jewish Table” (Schocken Books).
Morgan looks back to Covenant’s beginnings: “My first vintage of Covenant was produced in 2003—only 500 cases of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, which we released in 2005. Today we produce some 8,000 cases of 20 different wines at our Berkeley, California winery.” Starting in 2013, Morgan began to make wine in Israel. Prior to COVID (and shemitah) the winery produced up to roughly 2,000 cases—five different wines—annually in Israel, with two thirds of that production exported.
He explains Covenant’s unique situation in the kosher wine scene. “Covenant is among those wineries at the forefront of kosher wine’s quality renaissance,” he said. His experience as a wine reviewer for Wine Spectator gave him “a broad-based perspective, and with the assistance of many fine winemakers worldwide, I have learned techniques that continue to make Covenant a serious contender in the quality wine world.”
Morgan’s goal at Covenant is to make kosher wines that are as good as his favorite wines from around the world. He feels that if kosher winemakers ever hope to be taken seriously by the secular wine world, they need to make sure that their fine wines are also available, enjoyed and recognized outside the Jewish market. According to Morgan, “This may be our greatest challenge.”
The Mid-Atlantic Kosher Winemaker
Kevin Danna established Pennsylvania’s first kosher winery during 2019 at a small vineyard in Easton, Pennsylvania, before relocating a year later to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he resides with his family. Danna’s prior career in architectural lighting design gave him an elite design philosophy, which continues to shape his approach to winemaking as an art and a science.
Binah Winery is a micro-winery, producing around 1,000 cases per year. Danna began with 10 types of wine and has already expanded to 16. He focuses on excellence and superiority in white wine, producing wines from grapes in the cool-climate region of the mid-Atlantic, whose quality is consistent year-to-year.
“I think Binah is getting a reputation for being a hidden gem. But yeah, ask anyone who is already hooked, and they will tell you that the Binah brand is worth getting to know,” he said.
Binah Winery prides itself on being local and direct. “I believe that wine is best enjoyed when there is a direct relationship between a wine consumer and the winemaker. They know their wine best, and they made it for you! Find the kosher wineries in your region,” urged Danna, noting that there are wineries based near Jewish communities on both the East and West Coasts. But he stressed that local doesn’t have to only mean geographically. Danna encourages customers to find the wines, and winemakers, they can connect with “spiritually,” or to whose style they can relate.
“The best thing is to explore the world of kosher wine on your own. Purchase from the makers and wineries themselves, direct from the winery stock. (This is the best way to get it by the way … all great winemakers are obsessive about the conditions their wines are stored in, and how they get to you.) If it’s an American winery, they can probably ship right to your door. Get to know the people who make your wine, and better enjoy your wine because of it!”
LARISSA AND AMI NAHARI
The River Wine
The Industry Disruptors
Larissa and Ami charged into the world of kosher wine 13 years ago looking to shake things up when they started The River Wine. Fast forward to 2023: The business, and life, partners have succeeded in that mission of innovation, making creative choices and expanding their enterprise on the way.
Ami recalled: “When Larissa and I started our
business, we stated that we wanted to change this industry. We found it to be boring, stale, with overly priced products. When we shared our vision, we were met with skepticism—and I am being polite; we all knew they were laughing behind our backs. Today we produce the only kosher Amarone, Super Tuscan, Gavi, Willamette Valley Oregon pinot noir, old vine zinfandel aged in whiskey barrels, Barbera D’Asti, Passover whiskey, Passover aged tequila, Aglianico, Greco di Tufo, and the list goes on. Those are well known products outside the kosher world and we are the first to make them.”
The River Wine’s growth has been exponential: The Naharis sold 700 cases their first year, and today they are almost at 40,000.
When asked to name their most popular wines, Ami shared: “If you asked me last year, I would have told you Shirah, Twin Suns and the Amarone. This year you can definitely add the Ethan’s Sorghum Whiskey (kosher for Passover) and the Willamette Valley Pinot. In the last few months, we introduced a new Italian line called DACCI, which is mid-tier ($18- $20), and includes the new barbera, which is taking the market by storm, and a new prosecco in a diamond-like faceted bottle.”
Larissa and Ami’s vision for their company is simple: “Get Jews to stop drinking terrible wines or good wines that are overpriced. Let’s drink our kosher wines as regular wines. Many retailers carry our wines in their California and Italian sections (not necessarily kosher), such as Fresh Market, Sprouts, Publix, Target and others.”
DR. SHIVI DRORI
The Academic Winemaker
Dr Elyashiv "Shivi" Drori is a partner and chief winemaker at Gvaot Winery. His winemaking philosophy is to combine old- and new-world winemaking—giving respect to local central mountain terroir and using the best technology available to make balanced and long-aging wines. He is also well known for his scientific efforts to collect and characterize the indigenous grape varieties of Israel, and to identify the varieties used for winemaking in ancient times. His research has been published worldwide.
Today, Gvaot produces 80,000 bottles a year, and will reach the 100,000 mark in the next few years. “We started with a very modest production of 5,000 bottles back in 2005, growing gradually with the market demand. In addition to my work as a winemaker I am an active scientist at Ariel University and the Eastern regional R&D center. The research into winemaking in biblical times is changing, and will continue changing the kosher wine market, and I believe more and more wines from indigenous varieties will show up in the market in coming years,” Drori explained.
“I believe that our winery is best known for its highly elegant wines,” Drori continued. “We try to make wines which are delicious on release, but have proven aging potential. If I need to choose two wines which show this effort, I would chose our Gofna Pinot Noir—a very elegant pinot which is considered a top pinot wine in the Kosher market—and our Masada super premium blend, showing great elegance on one hand, and powerful structure and long-aging potential on the other,” he said.
Drori would like to see kosher wines excel to the point that they become known in the general market. This is not an easy task as the prices of kosher wines from Israel are high compared to other imported wines. But Drori believes that “a combination of high-end wines with the ancient history of Israel as the most ancient grape-growing region will attract the public and can be realized.”
The Medinat Yisrael Entrepreneur
Ya'acov Ben-Dor had his first encounter with agriculture and wine in his cooperative moshav community in Beit Yatir. He was appointed to lead the agricultural business entrepreneurship, followed by the planting of the first vineyard in the forest and ultimately, the decision to establish a winery in 1994.
In the first year of the 2001 vintage, the winery produced nearly 60,000 bottles. From the beginning the winery was kosher, and all the vintners kept the mitzvot, an important aspect to the proprietors. “Today, as then, the quantity of bottles depends on the year of harvest.
The goal is a high quality and quantitative crop that will meet the quality requirements of Eran Goldwasser, our winemaker. Hopefully we will have a blessed year that will enable us to continue growth in quantities, while constantly improving quality, ” shared Ben-Dor.
The Yatir Winery is known for its adherence to the special terroir of the Yatir Forest; the production of wine with its strict, unique and consistent characteristics; and its Hebrew branding, focused on the region, alongside the historical values of the vineyard location. Also a draw at Yatir is its visitors center, which gets worldwide interest in the wines made in the unique desert terroir of the Negev—evidence of the quality, consistency and reliability of the Yatir brand.
Unlike some Israeli wineries, Yatir and Ben-Dor celebrate the winery’s kosher identity: “Kosher Mehadrin is an integral part of the winery’s vision and process. Kashrut is not an obstacle to the winemaking process and therefore allows all consumers to enjoy wine of the highest quality. For me, kosher is a part of our identity,” said Ben-Dor.
Ben-Dor is grateful for each milestone at Yatir. “Each person has many partners in his success, also many personal motivations. I am glad that in the home where I grew up, we were instilled with a consciousness that nothing should be taken for granted.”