A look at the growing emphasis on white wines in Israel and purchase of Beam by Suntory.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week January 15, 2014
It has been interesting to observe the subtle but steady shift in emphasis from red to white wine occurring in Israeli winemaking. The country certainly produces a number of flavorful, enjoyable, compelling and occasionally even truly outstanding red wines. But now there seems to be a growing appreciation of the potential inherent in white grapes when grown in the Mediterranean climate.
In this regard, there are some remarkable similarities to Greek winemaking. Both Israel and Greece are small — Greece has fewer square miles than Florida and Israel is often compared in its size to New Jersey. Both of these countries have limited cultivatable land. Sun and heat are abundant and can be problematic for both, while the proximity to the sea provides beneficial maritime influences. In ancient times, both countries had thriving winemaking industries that declined rapidly with the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, both Israel and Greece seriously revitalized their winemaking industries at the end of the last century.
Nearly 80 percent of current Greek wines are white, created from such grapes as Assyrtiko, Moscofilero and Roditis, including the pine resin infused “Retsina.” The styles are as diverse as the local climates, which range from Continental in the mountains to Mediterranean by the Ionain and Aegean seas. Again, very similar to Israel where there are a number of different micro-climates depending upon altitude, soils and juxtaposition to the ocean that also affect the character of the wine.
Israel, unfortunately, has yet to discover a genuinely indigenous grape varietal, and we are not aware of any Israeli wineries that are cultivating any of the traditional Greek varietals. But it wouldn’t surprise us if some do eventually appear on the market given Israeli winemakers’ history of innovation and experimentation. Until then we will be more than content to enjoy some other Israeli white wines including the Flam Blanc 2012 ($30), a blend of 55 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 45 percent Chardonnay from the Mata vineyard in the Judean hills that is wonderfully fresh and complex with apples, oranges and a pleasant grassiness on a lemon and spice frame. Grab some now to be enjoyed when the weather becomes warmer.
Spirits-wise, we are a more than a little uncertain about some possibly good industry news: Beam Inc., the parent company of Kentucky bourbons Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark, and Scotch whisky legend Laphroaig, as well as other top premium brands, announced Monday a merger with Japanese spirits and beverage company Suntory. The price tag: $16 billion. The boards of directors of both drinks companies unanimously approved the transaction, which is expected to close in the second quarter, subject to the approval of Beam shareholders and, of course, the regulators.
Suntory is a fine company with a seemingly solid long-term view and some great brands already. So far so good, as far as we are concerned.
It must be said, however, that for many folks, the idea of Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark coming under foreign ownership is most unwelcome news. The Facebook pages for both brands were immediately bombarded with angry posts by consumers planning to boycott the bourbons in favor of U.S.-owned brands. It is not clear what effect, if any, this will have on brand values, but the good folks at Beam were quick to respond.
Beam spokesman Clarkson Hine told Janet Patton of the Lexington Herald-Leader: “It’s business as usual at Beam. Our brands will continue to be made the exact same way, with all the heritage and authenticity they’ve always had. In fact, federal regulations require that bourbon be made in the United States. We operate in a global economy, and the fact is, international ownership is relatively common among successful Kentucky distilleries and bourbon brands. Suntory, with its more than 100-year history, shares much the same values and heritage as Beam.”
Again, we are totally cool with this part of the story and agree that Suntory is likely to do great things for Beam and for Kentucky bourbon. Established in 1899 in Osaka, Japan, Suntory is Japan’s leading company in alcoholic (and nonalcoholic) beverages, with sales of $17.6 billion in 2012.
The fact is, however, that there are folks who seem very agitated that this sale — once finalized — will mean that four major Kentucky distilleries will be foreign-owned. Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark will join Four Roses in being Japanese owned (Four Roses is owned by Kirin). Though it should be noted that Maker’s Mark had already sold out to a British company before Beam bought it in 2005, so it is really just shifting back again to foreign ownership. While Wild Turkey, a fourth major Kentucky distillery, is owned by the Italian spirits company Campari.
The remaining big players are still American: Brown-Forman (which has Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester and other major American whiskey brands in its large brand portfolio) is a publicly traded but the majority ownership is still held by the Brown family members; Heaven Hill (which has Heaven Hill, Elijah Craig, and Evan Williams American whiskey brands in its large brand portfolio), is owned by the Louisville and Bardstown based (Jewish) Shapira family. Similarly, Buffalo Trace & Barton 1792 (Buffalo’s sister distillery; they have Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, George T. Stagg, Elmer T. Lee and other major American whiskey in its large brand portfolio) is privately owned by New Orleans-based Sazerac company — which is owned by the (Jewish) Goldring family.
The only part of all of this that has us worried is our concerns about Laphroaig single-malt Scotch whisky. See Suntory already owns Morrison Bowmore Distillers which owns the Bowmore distillery and Scotch whisky brand. It has happened from time to time that when a drinks company with, say, one Islay Scotch whisky in its portfolio acquires another drinks company with a (now previously) competing Islay Scotch whisky in the portfolio, the new owners tend to consider their new Islay whisky brand to be surplus to requirements, and can diminish the new brand to ensure that their older, more familiar investment continues to grow and shine. Granted, there are many more sound financial reasons to not tinker with a solid performer like Laphroaig, but such things have happened before.
As we mull all this over, we do so over a dram of Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt 12-Year-Old Whisky (43 percent abv; $60): Aged in casks of three different kinds of oak — American, Spanish and Japanese, this rich, medium-bodied, whisky offers aromas of dried fruit, peach blossom, pear, coconut, anise, spice and clover honey, with delicate, lingering, mellow flavors of citrus fruit, peach, fig, toffee, toast, honey and a little cracked pepper, all with a medium, drying finish of caramel, fading tropical fruits and rum. A very satisfying whisky. L’chaim