Adam Montefiore more »

Many of the Israel’s wine intelligentsia believes the wine world revolves around points, medals, forest fruits and astringency. They are quite disappointed to learn what a tiny fraction of the wine industry they are. It is disconcerting for them to know that by far the majority of the wine in Israel is bought in supermarkets, in a similar way to any other commodity. Quite a lot of these wine drinkers actually prefer Moscato, Lambrusco or Blue Nun to a complex Cabernet. They are not interested in the flowery language on the back label. An eye-catching label or attractive promotion is more likely sway the final choice, rather than where the grapes were grown or how long the wine was aged. It is a fact that 90% of the wine sold is under NIS 40. It is enough to have the so called expert snorting in his wine!

The supermarket range is dominated by the three giants, Carmel, Tempo (Barkan & Segal) and the Golan Heights Winery. They will usually be supported by any combination of the other top ten wineries, with a few big brand imports thrown in. In the last few years there has been a welcome process of ‘premiumization.’ More boutique wines and de-luxe spirits are now available in supermarkets than before. Furthermore, there are more famous wine brands making kosher cuvees. This is enriching the choice for the kosher consumer. However, in terms of retailing, we are still way behind Europe and America in the marketing of wine to the mass market. The shelves are often a shambles and even those that are set up nicely first thing, are usually in a mess half way through the day. They don’t seem to adhere to any planogram that makes sense. The main intention seems to satisfy the major suppliers, rather than being customer friendly. It would so much smarter to build a coherent system of colors, icons and signing that draws the customer in, provides the needed information and necessary explanations in order to make that instant buying decision that much easier.

Shelves always used to be organized according to wineries or winery brands. It is certainly in the large winery’s interest that the Selected, Classic or Hermon wines are grouped together. It strengthens the brand. My personal view is that more people in the mass market buy by grape variety than anything else. You ask what people drink under NIS 50, and they will invariably answer with a grape variety like “Merlot”, rather than a winery, a brand or even a wine style. In any case, most of the wines sold in the under NIS 50 category are varietals. This would be the most logical way of categorizing the shelves. Though, it is not really important what the language of display the retailer chooses, but it must be consistent and instantly understandable to the shopping customer.

By far the largest retailer of wine in the country is Shufersal. They are the best placed to create meaningful change. Osher Ad is a smaller chain that has made a commendable effort to upgrade their wine offer. Tiv Taam and Stop Market, not bound by Kashrut, have ranges that would not be out of place in some wine shops. I for one am waiting to see if Carrefour – Israel is the chain to make the big leap forward with wine. Time will tell.

Unfortunately, wine and spirits is a tiny part of a supermarkets income, so wine is probably fairly low down on the priorities. The three things that are important for the sector are sales, sales and sales, and much of the management time is spent firefighting administrative and logistical problems to achieve this. The culture is totally geared to selling at all costs. No-one has the time, inclination or long term vision to consider reinventing the rules of wine retailing in Israel. However, for the buyer on price, the best promotions, lowest prices and easiest place to buy wine is still in a supermarket….and the range of options for the prospective buyer is better than ever.

Those who wish to receive advice, or maybe even have the chance to taste before they buy, will be better advised to go to a wine store. The pioneers were Avi Ben in Jerusalem and “Derech Hayain” (the wine route) in Tel Aviv. The founding of the first Derech Hayain on Hashomonaim Street, Tel Aviv in 1993, was a milestone event. Uri Shaked was the visionary who founded it and brought the concept of quality wine stores to Israel. It was not an easy beginning. Shaked was then the distributor of the Golan Heights Winery and they were not so happy that the shop would sell other wineries too. Also, Carmel, then far more dominant than today, were reluctant sell wines to a wine shop run by the distributors of the Golan. The bulldozer Uri Shaked went ahead anyway, and the rest is history. Today Shaked, apart from owning the Derech Ha’Yayin chain, is the number one importer and distributor of fine wines, a part owner of Recanati Winery and partners in a joint distribution venture with the Golan Heights Winery. They therefore have a finger in every pie and are involved in the complete cycle of wine from the vineyard to the glass.

I recently visited the 30-year store and noticed the concept had changed. Wine stores here normally sell wine by country or wine region. However, this particular wine store was selling wine by short, easy to grasp descriptions, like: ‘Light White’, ‘Aromatic White’, ‘Rich White’, ‘Light Red’, ‘Classic Red’ and ‘Rich Red.’  I understand it is only for a trial period. This concept would be nothing new in the outside world, but it is a welcome initiative here. They have not quite done it with the pizzazz I would hope for and it needs some work. To succeed, the immersion has to be total, but it is an innovation here and a start.

Derech Hayain are not the biggest Israeli wine store chain. That is “Yain b’Ir” (wine in the city). They are everywhere. There are also large stores like Hermitage and Haturki that are expansive, almost like wine supermarkets. The big change in the last few years has been the explosion of imported wines from all over. There has never been such a rich selection of imports, whether fine wines, big brands, wines from exotic countries or inexpensive wines offering incredible value.

There are wine shops everywhere. Even in little Ra’anana, where I live, there are six specialist wine shops. It is important you find the right one for you. When you scratch the surface, you may find things are different from what they seem. For instance, we have a reasonably new wine shop near us, which is bright and shiny, and looks the deal. They hold a very large inventory. However, when I look closely at the shelves there are wines which even the winery thinks are past their best, which raises questions about the wine buying professionalism. Whenever I go in, there is a young lad on his telephone. I have been in and looked around and gone out without him looking up. And it is not the same ‘him’ each time. Once there was a wine tasting in sweltering heat. I suggested as a concerned taster, that it might be prudent to chill the reds. Instead of the lady pouring making allowances, with faint amusement at what she thought was a request of an old eccentric, she looked at me witheringly and explained as if to a child “we chill whites, not reds!” I did meet the co-owner twice, and each time his first comment was: “Have you written about us yet?” Well, now I have. But at least to spare their embarrassment, I have avoiding giving their name. However, this is not the type of wine store I can ever recommend or would use myself by choice, even though at first glance, it appears to tick the boxes.

Possibly the smallest wine shop in Ra’anana, is the newest and they also have a new concept. It is called Ha ve Da (this and that) and it situated in the Neve Zemer neighborhood. It is a wine shop, wine bar and food delicatessen with a shared area for eating, drinking and schmoozing. You can buy wine or take-home food, or with a small corkage fee you can buy wine and platters of food for two, and sit on the balcony and eat and drink in good company watching the world go by. In the best traditions the wine shop is managed by a wine professional, and an English speaker at that. Simon Mendoza is English born with nearly 25 years’ experience in wine retailing here. Apart from being English speakers, we have something in common: our Sephardi roots. Both our parents were married in the Bevis Marks Synagogue, though he was born in Manchester and I was a Londoner. So, my message is to check out your local stores, to find the one that provides the service and welcome that you expect. The one that becomes your local will be the one that caters for you personally.

One of the most welcome new additions to the local wine scene is the large number of wine bars that have sprung up, mainly in Tel Aviv. The Hagefen Local Wine Garden is one that springs to mind. These are places run by wine lovers, who usually specialize in a wine style or region. Here you can taste, buy, eat and talk about wine without the formality of a restaurant. Certainly, the best place to experience wine is accompanied with food and good company and Tel Aviv is the vibrant, dynamic center of our wine culture.

My message to everyone is that there has never been a better time for buying and enjoying wine in Israel. Feel confident and empowered to buy what you like at the price you want. I don’t accept that someone you think understands more, should have a veto on what you choose as your poison. On the other hand, if you want to learn more, there are shops which can lead you on a journey of tasting and experimentation. There are wine clubs offering monthly selections (like Devine) and wine schools ready to educate you (the W School – WEST). It is a whole new world for those who wish to purchase, explore or learn about wine. For wine lovers, connoisseurs and those who wish to learn, the world is your oyster. The Israel wine scene is abundant, blooming and ripe for the picking.

Adam Montefiore is a wine trade veteran and winery insider turned wine writer, who has advanced Israeli wines for 35 years. He is referred to as the English voice of Israeli wine and is the Wine Writer for the Jerusalem post.

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