From GlobeMail.com comes this fascinating report about kosher wine produced in Canada.
By RICHARD BLOOM
Thursday, April 28, 2005 Page B1
From merlot to the syrupy-sweet Manischewitz brand, kosher wine sales are soaring — and one Canadian winery is cashing in, bottling blessed booze from a most unusual locale.
Whitbourne, Nfld.’s Rodrigues Winery and Distillery — located thousands of kilometres away from the some of the country’s largest Jewish communities in Toronto and Montreal — bottles 15 different varieties of kosher fruit and berry wine, from cranberry liqueur to its popular wild blueberry wine.
In 2001, the company shipped 8,000 cases of its fruit and berry wines to retailers. Now, it is shipping about 12,000 cases a year. Its blueberry wine sits in the top five of kosher products at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Canada’s largest wine and spirits retailer.
The weeks leading up to Passover — which began last Saturday night and runs through this weekend — are the busiest time of year for kosher wine sellers.
Changing consumer tastes have led to significant changes in the kosher wine industry. Sales of dry and semi-sweet kosher wines across North America have risen steadily in recent years as wineries and retailers cater to increasingly sophisticated palates, selling premium wines made from shiraz, merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes.
The LCBO reports that sales in its kosher aisles are up 8.4 per cent over the past 12 months. The LCBO’s kosher count has stood at about 80 different products over the past five years.
However, the mix of bottles has changed dramatically to include a wide array of styles.
“What we’ve been seeing over the past five or 10 years is that people are trading up to higher-quality products,” said LCBO spokesman Chris Layton. “It’s come a long way from the traditional sweet wines. It’s a reflection of the sophistication and greater knowledge of the wine consumer.”
He added that while Rodrigues is a hot seller, most of the kosher wine on Canadian store shelves comes from abroad, namely Israel, Australia, Italy and South Africa.
Among some of the factors that make a wine kosher: It must be a completely natural product with no artificial additives, and be made using equipment used solely for kosher products. It’s because of those strict regulations that the Rodrigues family, which is not Jewish, decided to jump into the industry about a decade ago.
Lionel Rodrigues, the winery’s general manager, explains that his company was the first winery in Newfoundland and that provincial regulators instituted stringent processing rules on the firm, including a prohibition against using oak barrels. As a result, everything is aged in stainless steel containers — one of the requirements of a kosher winery.
In turn, upgrading to an all-kosher production facility required a “very marginal” investment, Mr. Rodrigues explained.
That marginal investment has turned into a successful one.
“Demand is rising, because before, kosher foods were just meant for the Jewish population. But now, since people put more research into the things they eat, kosher foods are becoming more popular for anyone to buy,” Mr. Rodrigues said.
According to Neil Grafstein, a Toronto-based wine agent who imports bottles for retailers throughout North America, sales of sweet kosher wines have “dropped dramatically” in recent years. He said his product mix is now 75- to 80-per-cent dry or semi-sweet wines with the remainder of the sweet variety. Not long ago, that ratio was 50-50, he said.
In regions like California, he explained, the shift has been even more dramatic. Only three years ago, the mix used to be 50-50. Now, it’s 98 to 99-per-cent non-sweet wines, he said.
In addition to changing palates, Mr. Grafstein said consumers are attracted to the way kosher wines are made. Many of the wines are organic, contain no chemicals and use no animal byproducts (many non-kosher wines are filtered using such agents as egg whites or milk). “The best wine makers in the world just squeeze the grapes and fill the bottle.”
That, he said, is also attracting non-Jewish clientele, further boosting sales. As Costas Mouzouras, the manager of Gotham Wines & Liquors in New York, recently told Wine Spectator magazine: “I recommend kosher wines to all kinds of customers, Jewish or not.”
Jonathan Shell, a 30-year-old Toronto management consultant, bought two non-traditional bottles for the first time last weekend for his Seder: A kosher merlot and a cabernet sauvignon to sip while dining on brisket, chicken and matzo ball soup.
He said that while he enjoyed the new bottles, Passover must include sweet wine. “The [sweet] wine sucks — but that’s what makes it great,” he says jokingly about his love-hate relationship with the traditional Passover drink. “My uncle makes a really sweet wine that I wait for every year.”