Vintners downplay kashrut to lure Israeli wine drinkers

California's kosher wines are hot not only in the United States.

The Americanized Jewish state is consuming increasing amounts of wine, in part fueled — like the United States itself — by more studies showing the health benefits of moderate wine drinking.

Ernie Weir, owner-winemaker of Napa's Hagafen Cellars, exports about 20 percent of his annual yield to Israel. Weir is also consultant to Israel's Carmel Winery, which now sells a Carmel Choice California White Zinfandel, a semidry blush wine.

Meanwhile, the Livermore-based Wente Bros. is entering its second year of exporting a Monterey Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, sold jointly in Israel with the Segal Winery. This year Wente is exporting 5,000 cases of cabernet.

It's economics, bubbe, maintains Wente's vice president of international operations, John Schwartz.

"Wine consumption per capita is up, and the grape harvest production in Israel is flat," he says.

The Israeli wine world, once ruled by the old-line Carmel, turned around in the early 1980s with the first releases by the Golan Heights Winery's Golan and Yarden labels. Golan, which hired such leading winemakers as Sunnyvale's Peter Stern, soon was winning international wine competitions.

Today Israel's wine scene is booming, with consumption climbing to 5 liters annually per capita of domestic varietals (compared to 11 liters in the United States). Some wines are exported to Europe and the United States, and a few dozen smaller, microwineries are even cropping up.

Wente says it is packaging its cabernet as an upscale Israeli wine, and downplaying the kosher side — just as U.S. kosher winemakers market their product as premium wines first, kosher second.

Ironically, Hagafen's Weir says one Israeli even told him the Napa wine's label was just "too Jewish" for secular Israeli drinkers.