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The Wandering Jew of Kosher Wines

April 3, 2013 1:52 am 0 comments

Shimshon Welner. Photo: The Jewish Week.

It was eight years ago, on a rainy afternoon at New York City’s Javits Center, while I was covering the annual Kosherfest trade show, that I first met one of the fathers of the modern kosher wine industry. At the time, I had just started writing The Jewish Week‘s “Fruit of the Vine” column, and I was still relatively unknown in the industry.

While most of the vendors, noticing my press badge, treated me courteously, there was one vendor who gave me the real VIP treatment—not, I think, because I was a wine columnist, but because he seemed to treat everyone that way. His name was Shimshon Welner.

At the time, Welner had just recently returned to the kosher wine trade, after a nearly decade-long absence, and he was at Kosherfest promoting his company, Welner Wines. Today, Welner Wines has a portfolio more than 30, mostly budget-priced wines that Welner himself makes at wineries in eight different countries.

I recently caught up with Welner by phone at his home in the Golan Heights. At the time, he had just returned from a winemaking trip to South America, and was preparing for a sales trip to Europe.

Welner’s wines can now be found in retail outlets in 19 countries; he is particularly proud that his wines are sold by the British-based international grocer, Tesco. But three decades ago, Welner was just taking his first steps into the world of wine, and his inspiration for entering this new world was the apple.

“I had managed Perot HaGolan, a large apple cold storage company in the Golan Heights, and [the climate in] the Golan Heights was similar to the Yakima Valley [in Washington State].  … So month after month I found a few pages in The Fruit Grower, the monthly [trade magazine] for Yakima Valley, on how good apple-growing conditions were also good for growing grapes.

“So when one of my vendors in the Yakima Valley bought a lot of apples, I went there, and visited the Ste. Michelle Winery, and I met the winemaker and asked him, ‘How do you make wine?'” Welner recalls that when he returned from the U.S., “I got back to the kibbutz, and told my friends, ‘I am finished with apples, and I am going to [build a business] with grapes.’ … I didn’t know much about making kosher wine, but I learned it step by step.”

Working with a group of Golan Heights-based growers’ cooperatives, Welner helped found what remains one of Israel’s premier wineries, the Golan Heights Winery, which produces the Yarden brand of wines. One of Welner’s first moves in starting the winery was to bring Peter Stern, who would later become the head winemaker for American kosher wine giant Herzog Wine Cellars, to Israel to act as a consultant.

“Peter brought with him a student from UC-Fresno, Phil Steistreiber, and together they produced the first harvest” for the Golan Heights Winery in 1983, Welner recalls. “I learned from [Stern] how to do it, and after two or three years, when he left the winery, I more or less knew how to make the wine.”

While today Israel has a large and growing domestic market for dry table wines, in 1983 most Israelis were only familiar with sweet, sacramental-style wines. So Welner decided to sell his wine in America (where the fledgling winery could also earn some much-needed hard currency), with half being sold to importers on the West Coast and the other half in the East.

“In 1985 I met with David Herzog,” the head of the kosher wine giant, Royal Wine Corp., recalls Welner. “I told him I have a good wine, and he told me, ‘You’re crazy. You want to sell me wine for $3 a bottle when I buy wine for less than $1. Are you drunk?’ I thanked him for the meeting, and left.”

Welner goes on to say that after New York Times reporter (and now columnist) Thomas Friedman visited the winery and gave it a nice write-up, “David Herzog is on the phone saying he is willing to pay the $3.”

Welner is a skilled winemaker, and from the beginning the Golan Heights Winery received a remarkable amount of international recognition. “We won a trophy in Bordeaux for the ’85 vintage, and I will never forget after I got the trophy I was interviewed by French TV, and the reporter asked me, ‘For how many generations has your family been producing wine?’ I told him that ‘it’s my third wine, and my third year in the wine business. I never knew anything about making wine in the past.’ The reporter became very angry, and told the cameraman to stop recording. It was unforgivable that a Sabra from Israel, who [formerly] knew only sweet wines, should win a trophy.”

After eight years, Welner left the Golan Heights winery, and for five years he made wine in Italy and Chili for the Royal Wine Corp, under the S’forno and Alfasi labels. “I am not used to staying in one place for very long. Before the winery, I was in the apple business for seven years, and before that I built water dams in the Golan Heights. [After leaving the wine business], I worked in the aircraft business for seven years.  … However, in Israel, they say the criminal will come back to the place of the crime, so after many years I came back to the wine industry.”

In 2001, Welner decided he was tired of working for others, and the following year, with his wife Liora, Welner started selling wine through their family-owned corporation, Welner Wines.

While the corporate name Welner Wines may not be well known among kosher wine consumers, many of its brand names, such as Tierra Salvaje, Primo-V and Banero, are popular with novice kosher wine drinkers. Many new kosher wine producers have focused on trying to produce high-end wines, but Welner’s business model focuses on producing fairly priced budget wines. For Welner, it has been a successful model.

“I used to work for Kedem [i.e., the Royal Wine Corp.], and I can tell you it’s a good company. They’re my competitors, but I like them; and the difference between me and them is that they hire people like me,” says Welner.

“We are working now with 10 wineries, but we don’t make too much wine at each winery—a few thousand cases from each.”  Welner says that this means his capital is not tied up in warehousing stock.

But this approach has led to some criticism from within the industry. Since Welner rarely produces the same wine at the same winery for more than one year, the critics argue that Welner’s brands do not develop consistency from vintage to vintage.

During the interview, Welner frequently emphasized that the strength of his business is that he makes all of the wines himself, and that his approach does bring consistency and eliminates much of the overhead faced by kosher wine negociants (a type of wine wholesaler who buys wine and then sells it under his own label). Indeed, Welner was clearly offended when at one point I referred to him as a negociant. “I am not a negociant! I buy the grapes, I work with the people [at the wineries where he makes his wine] and I bring the mashgichim [kosher supervisors]. I do everything.”

According to Welner, he is also able to save money during production. “When I come to a winery, I will, for instance, move the crusher next to the tank; that way I can save some labor costs at the production floor … and use less workers, because they [the kosher supervisors] can see the tank from the crusher. This saves a lot of money.”

As the interview was coming to an end, I pointed out to Welner that he had now been running Welner Wines for longer than he had been in any of his previous positions. I asked him if he thought he would be making another career change. While he did not say no, he did say that Welner Wines is different. “It’s a family business.”

Daniel Rogov, the late wine critic for the Israeli daily, Haaretz, once described Welner to me as “a man who knows what the kosher consumer wants.”

Welner disagrees. “I just know how to make good wine,” he says.

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