‘It’s a Jewish wine tasting – people come to eat,” quips kosher caterer, Arieh Wagner, one of the co-founders of the Kosher Food and Wine Experience (KFWE).
When wine writer Jancis Robinson visited 2011’s KFWE, she termed it a wine-tasting extravaganza, writing: “Unlike the usual business-like wine tasting, this was a full evening’s entertainment with music, a lavish buffet and lashings of space between each producer’s table.”
Wagner, in-house caterer at The Park Lane Sheraton Hotel, where the event takes place, recalls Robinson was pleasantly surprised by the event.
“There was so much food, she thought it was more like a wedding than a wine tasting!”
For the past five years, food tables at the annual event have groaned under the weight of kosher sushi, a beetroot-cured smoked salmon carvery, noodle bar, lamb tagine and a salt beef carvery.
“No Jewish function is kosher without salt beef,” laughs Wagner.
But whatever the jokes are about Jews and food (and wine) this event is definitely not all about the nosh. Wagner and Morris Herzog – director of wine distributor Kedem Europe – founded it 10 years ago as a vehicle to educate kosher wine drinkers.
“It started with about 50 people – most of them clients,” explains Benjamin Gestetner, manager of Kedem Europe and the man responsible for staging the event, which now attracts 700-800 hungry, kosher wine enthusiasts.
Back in 2005 they took a small conference room at the Park Lane Hotel in order to showcase their wines.
“It was just called a wine tasting,” explains Gestetner. “The idea was to show the world that kosher wines could be high-end and not just sweet.”
The intention was also to educate the kosher wine drinking public that there was fabulous wine out there, and to attempt to retrain their palates from sweet, kiddush wine.
Morris Herzog and his family – who own Kedem’s older and bigger sister company, Royal Wine Corp – are part of a wine dynasty going back eight generations.
It began in Czechoslovakia in 1848, when Baron Phillip Herzog founded a winery supplying wines to the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – earning him his title. It was seized by the Nazis at the start of the Second World War, but the Herzog family survived by hiding, supported by smuggled profits from their winery.
In 1948 they left Communist Czechoslovakia for the United States, settling in New York City. Head of the family, Eugene Herzog, became involved in Royal Wine Corp – a business founded by an earlier immigrant – and by 1958, had – Victor Kiam-like – purchased the company.
The Herzogs continually raised the bar for the quality of kosher wines.
“Ernest Herzog – Morris’s father – was one of the first wine-makers in New York,” explains Gestetner. “In 1985 they started producing wine from their own kosher winery in California – the first kosher production of proper table wines.”
Not only did they make their own, but they also managed to secure the production of kosher wine by producers worldwide – from France and Italy to Hungary, and Australia and New Zealand to Chile, Argentina and the United States.
This led, in 1986, to the first kosher production of Rothschild wine in France – the first kosher Bordeaux. A stream of similarly high quality wine labels have followed suit.
“The Herzogs went to many of the great wineries to persuade them to produce a kosher vintage and educate them that the kosher consumer would appreciate their wines,” Gestetner says.
Royal Wine Corp is now a giant in kosher wine distribution, with many of its brands crossing over to the mainstream market.
“Bartenura, our moscato, is the largest imported Italian moscato to the entire US moscato market – not just the kosher market. It’s also popular in the UK,” smiles Gestetner, who estimates that Royal is now responsible for 80 per cent of the kosher wine market – in the UK at least.
And Gestetner proudly shares that its top end wines are also crossing over into the mainstream too.
“Our champagne made by Drappier – is the house champagne at the Élysée Palace – a top champagne, that just happens to be kosher.”
In 2004 Morris was dispatched to London to head-up sister company Kedem Europe, and he has continued to develop its portfolio in the same vein as his forefathers.
It was under his management that the wine tasting shows were started and since that first one they have grown steadily.
“It is now part of the Jewish calendar in the UK. The US took the idea and have done it their way and the New York show hosts more than 2,000 guests over two days from one of Manhattan’s Chelsea piers.”
There is now a series of them attended by all their top wine-makers: Tel Aviv (a first for 2015), London, New York and California. A fifth show takes place in Miami towards the end of the year.
Co-founders Herzog and Wagner are both driven by a desire to show the public how good kosher wine and food is.
“The Herzogs and I share the view that we want to bring quality kosher wine to the market. We want to shed that dusty old image – it’s no longer about roast chicken and Palwin No 10,” says Wagner.
“I want people to say this wine is the best I’ve ever drunk or this duck is the best I’ve eaten. That’s ultimately the reason why I got involved.”
Judging by the throngs that now queue up for both, KFWE seems to be getting that reaction.