When we think of Israeli wine, we tend to think of kosher wine. And kosher wine typically brings to mind Manischewitz — the producer of the sweet, grape-juice-like beverage often served during Jewish holidays. But for Yaakov Berg, the owner of Psagot Winery in Jerusalem, Israeli wines — both kosher and nonkosher — deserve recognition.
Berg was in town last week to promote his brand at the Kosher Food & Wine Festival and to raise awareness about the high-quality wines coming out of Israel. Like the majority of wines produced in Israel, his is kosher, but what many people don't realize, he says, is the process for making kosher wine in no way differs from the traditional winemaking process. A wine's kosher designation has everything to do with who owns the business and how the company operates, and nothing to do with the wine itself.
Many countries produce kosher wines, but because most of the wines coming out of Israel are kosher, the country has been affected most by the bad reputation of kosher wines. Berg realizes this is because of wines such as Manischewitz, which he says taste nothing like wine, and he thinks it's unfair the country suffers as a result.
His goal is to see his wine, as well as others from Israel, featured on restaurant wine lists and at wine retailers. Today when you go into a wine shop, the wines are organized by origin, but if you want to find an Israeli wine, you have to head to the section labeled "kosher." This implies only people who are kosher should drink his brand of wine, which Berg finds utterly frustrating.
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Indeed, he recently met with representatives from Southern Wine & Spirits and told them the only way he would sell to them is if his wine were displayed in the Israeli section of their stores, as well as in the kosher section. The caveat is there isn't an Israeli section, and that's precisely the kind of change Berg is seeking.
There are more than 200 wine producers in Israel, and the world is just beginning to take notice. Psagot Winery is located in the Jerusalem mountains and produces several award-winning varietials. The grapes are cultivated on ancient limestone in a sun-filled area, and the wine is made using traditional methods developed by Israeli ancestors. Every bottle is stamped with an ancient coin from the Great Revolt period (66-73 B.C.) because the coin was discovered while digging out a cave that would become Psagot's barrel-aging room.
Psagot wines are sold all over North America, and the brand's presence in the United States is continually growing. Berg quit his job as a lawyer to start the winery in 2003 and hasn't looked back. He and his family immigrated to Israel in 1979 from Moscow, and he says he felt the need to take care of his country's land and give back. As the owner of a kosher winery, he is obligated to donate a portion of his profits every year to charity.
Because Hanukkah begins at sundown December 24 (Christmas Eve), New Times asked Berg which of his wines he recommends pairing with potato latkes. His response: Merlot because it's fruity and smooth and goes well with vegetarian food. He prefers a nice Cabernet Sauvignon with meat.