The Israeli Wine Revolution
The wine revolution is very much under way here in Israel. Every morning someone wakes up from his or her slumber convinced that they are going to be the person to make the next 95 point scoring Parker Wine. And so, in the last twenty or so years we have seen the number of wineries in Israel rocket from about thirty to around three hundred, I gave up counting or paying much attention, after the first hundred. However, don’t let this renaissance mislead you because about 85% of wines consumed in Israel are still produced by about fifteen wineries. And don’t think we are consuming more either, wine consumption has remained steady at between 4-6 liters per head for years. As a point of reference France consumes 42 liters per head, the UK 22, USA 10.5.
In fact, the Israel Government is so worried that we are drinking wines to excess that they have now placed onerous restrictions on the advertising of wine and forced the industry to place health warnings on our bottles similar to those on cigarettes, thus making it even more difficult for us to promote our industry.
In our desperation we look to pastures new and venture to the hallowed turf of חוץ לארץ as so many wine producing countries before us have done. Look at New Zealand, twenty years ago, no one had heard of wines coming from New Zealand, now it is recognized as one of the premier regions in the world for growing Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
So how do the Israeli efforts compare to those of our rivals? Unfortunately, not so well.
It is the ultimate fantasy of many Israeli winemakers to be recognized on an international level as producing world class wines that will be at home on dinner tables around the world, hoping that when consumers go buying wines they express the desire to buy Israeli wines as easily as they would ask for French, Spanish or Australian wines. We are not there yet, the usual reaction to telling people that we make wines in Israel is “Israel huh? who knew?”
There are a myriad of reasons that Israeli wines are not popular abroad and I think that the first reason is that people genuinely do not know that Israel has a wine industry, further, I think that people are so jaded by the news that constantly accompanies Israel that they don’t really care to delve deeper than the common preconceived notions of High-tech, Agri-tech and regional strife.
Even on the international playing field the Israelis still tend to see each other as greater rivals than their foreign competitors. There are only a handful Israeli wineries who really believe in making a co-operative effort in marketing Israel wines abroad but they, alone, cannot move the market in the right direction.
Unfortunately, there is clear logic to why the Israeli Government offers very little funding to promote our wines abroad as our industry makes up only about 3.5% of the total export income of the Israeli food industry. Yet, there is a sad irony that when Israeli business people entertain foreigners either at home or abroad they proudly pull out a bottle of Israel wine to show what fine wines we make, so perhaps on a subliminal level there is an understanding that the significance of wine as an ambassador for our little country might be greater than its pure accounting value.
To further our burdens, the industry has put itself in the hands of people who have no real interest or ability to promote Israel as a region. At home the wineries and growers pay tariffs into government bodies that are supposed to promote the industry but sadly what little funding we get is not always in the most capable of hands. Abroad we export to companies who pay lip-service to “Brand Israel”, seeing us a part of a broader portfolio of Kosher wines that they carry. This leads to the absurd paradox that Israel is the only wine producing country who doesn’t have its own shelf allocation in stores and is lumped together in a generic Kosher section unable to find room for self-expression.
So what can we do to improve our situation?
Firstly, we need to pull together as an industry and understand that we should work both together and independently of our importers, who do not always share our common goals. We cannot let them shape our destiny, we must put in the work to shape it ourselves.
Secondly, we need to understand who our customer is. Despite our best intentions, the world of wine is not yet hearing our story, however we have a core constituency of communities living around the world who are happy to listen to us, taste our products and could, with perhaps little effort, be persuaded to increase their consumption of Israeli wines. In my opinion this approach could yield quick and more immediate results.
Thirdly, despite what I wrote above we must continue playing the long game and persist at getting our story out to the general wine drinking population, this is a seriously long term project, something that we in Israel are not so good at.
Finally, and possibly most crucially we we should try and boost the almost non-existent local demand. An increase in consumption by even a couple of liters per head locally will transform the fortunes of our industry.
As I mentioned above, wine is the greatest ambassador a country can have, it would be a shame not to be able to fully capitalize on it.