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Kosher Wine Is Not Just for Passover

Alum wants to bring Israeli wines to the world

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Alex Haruni, owner of Dalton Winery in Upper Galilee, says one of his biggest challenges is convincing the world that Israel makes quality wines. Photo by Sabo Diab

In 1991, Alex Haruni left his family’s gemstone business, moved to the Israel-Lebanon border looking for a new trade, and settled on an unlikely occupation: winemaker.

Haruni (MET’95), a London native, owns and runs Dalton Winery in Upper Galilee. If he has his way — and if the winery’s reputation continues to grow — Israel’s kosher wines will finally make the transition from minor embarrassment to point of pride.

“The average consumer’s perception of kosher wines is that of sweet sacramental wine, such as Manischewitz,” he says, referring to the traditional preference for most American Jewish families as they gather tonight for the annual Passover seder. “But kosher wines have  been very unfairly lumped together.”

For nearly a year, Haruni and his father researched tourism-related businesses near Galilee, hoping to find a way to draw jobs, tourists, and new companies to the struggling region. They settled on a winery that was on the verge of bankruptcy and needed major investment.

His father helped him buy the fields and facilities in 1993. With a combination of “patience, perseverance, and very deep pockets,” Haruni says, the winery’s output grew from 30,000 bottles to 900,000 last year.

Haruni’s foray into the wine world coincided with his BU education. In the years leading up to Dalton’s launch, he earned a master’s in business through Metropolitan College’s part-time nonresidential degree program.

He learned some valuable lessons from that hectic time. One course taught pricing as both an art and a science, a relevant concept for a company that has to “build demand from below,” he says. “We were building a brand from nothing.”

If Israeli commercial winemaking was “more or less in its infancy” when Dalton wines debuted in 1995, then the industry is now experiencing an exciting, unpredictable adolescence. A decade and a half later, Israeli winemakers are still trying to make their product stand out.

The hard part, Haruni says, is convincing wine drinkers, especially in the United States, that a kosher merlot makes just as good a housewarming gift or dinner party offering as a nonkosher variety. He hopes to capture wine drinkers’ attention in Israel, where fine wines are finally going mainstream, and in Europe, where tastes have been refined by centuries of wine appreciation.

“The Israeli wine market has become a lot more sophisticated since we started,” says Haruni. The winery sells 70 percent of its wines — from standards like cabernet sauvignon to reserve-label zinfandel and shiraz — within the country. But developing an international demand means Dalton won’t rely too heavily on domestic sales — a pragmatic strategy, he notes, considering the “degree of political instability in Israel.” While the winery’s production hasn’t been affected by the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, a larger war could damage Israel’s economy enough to hurt producers of luxury goods.

Although kosher wines are commonplace in Europe, according to Haruni, Israeli labels barely register next to offerings from France, Spain, and Italy.

“Our biggest problem is that people don’t know Israel makes quality wines,” he says.

Other producers share Haruni’s vision. Dozens of boutique wineries have sprung up around the country. In the newly crowded field, Dalton has managed to make a name for itself, in part because of Haruni’s decisions to hire Israel’s only female winemaker and to promote wine tourism and education. In addition to offering guided tours of the vineyard, Haruni blogs about winemaking.

Dalton is more than just a challenging new venture or a potential profit engine. It’s a symbol of the roots Haruni has always hoped to plant in his spiritual homeland.

“It’s a business investment and a Zionistic investment,” he says.

Katie Koch can be reached at katieleekoch@gmail.com.

4 Comments

4 Comments on Kosher Wine Is Not Just for Passover

  • A concerned BU grad student on 03.29.2010 at 12:02 pm

    Despite Mr. Haruni’s assertion that his company’s biggest problem is “that people don’t know Israel makes quality wines,” his business venture faces a much bigger challenge: the active, vibrant European and American boycott of Israeli cultural goods in protest of Israel’s violent occupation of Palestine and genocidal history in Lebanon. Mr Haruni can make and market all the wine he wants, but those of us who believe in social justice will not buy it. BU Today would do well to provide more balanced and an ethical journalism in its coverage of such stories.

  • Anonymous on 03.29.2010 at 1:31 pm

    “Upper Galilee”? That this term is used matter-of-factly–and that no mention is made of the extremely charged political context in which Mr Haruni has decided to establish his “Zionistic investment”–is inexcusable. Any journalistic integrity Katie Koch or the editors of BU Today may have had went out the window with this article.

  • Anonymous on 03.29.2010 at 5:16 pm

    Again, BU Today?

    BU Today, will you PLEASE stop presenting incredibly politically-charged content as unbiased news?
    Wasn’t the “Noam Chomsky Rails on Israel, Again” article enough?
    I don’t understand – is the “news and information site of Boston University” pushing a biased agenda purposefully, or is ethical journalism just not a priority?

  • Anonymous on 03.31.2010 at 9:33 pm

    Not sure if the same person wrote all three postings, but I respectfully and vigorously disagree with the comments.

    In my opinion, the overwhelming majority of people behind the BSM movement against Israel are hypocrites who do not understand the true state of affairs in Israel.

    People concerned with “social justice” might first look to what Hamas is doing on its own in Gaza, what the PA is doing in the West Bank, or what Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Jordan and Syria (to name just a few) do.

    Those countries all have miles to go before they can even see Israel’s tail-lights. So when you earnest social justice types first clean up those countries, let us know.

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