This 8th-generation NJ business is the king of kosher wines. Passover is its 'Super Bowl' (2024)

BAYONNE — As forklifts zoomed around his sprawling corporate headquarters last month, Nathan Herzog sat at the head of a conference table and expounded on his favorite topic: wine.

Passover was only weeks away, and the president of Royal Wine Corp. — the world's leading importer, producer and distributor of kosher wines and spirits — was enthused.

Herzog, the eighth generation in a Jewish winemaking family that stretches back to 19th-century Europe, raved over the dizzying variety of kosher wines now available, a revolution for a product long stereotyped as cheap and syrupy-sweet.

He was also gearing up for the company's most lucrative and exhausting season. Royal Wine, which also makes Kedem grape juice, does 40% of its business around the Passover holiday, which begins at sundown on Monday this year. The business makes wine in 17 nations and distributes to 31 countries and throughout the U.S.

"Passover is like our Super Bowl," said Jay Buchsbaum, Royal's vice president of marketing, as he dashed around the company's cavernous warehouse and bottling operation during a recent visit. He pointed to boxes of fine wine, stacked floor to ceiling in a 200,000-square-foot plant abuzz with activity.

Kosher for Passover wine is only the start

Passover used to account for an ever bigger portion of sales but "was diluted because so much of our business now is from non-kosher and non-Jewish customers," he said. Royal, a private company, has seen annual sales growth of 5% to 10% over the past decade, Buchsbaum said.

"And every year, more of our wines earn awards from the industry," he said.

The weeklong Passover holiday commemorates the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt around 1,200 B.C., as detailed in the Book of Exodus. At its center is the Seder, a ritual feast where wine plays a starring role. The meal includes symbolic foods and prayers — and four glasses of the hard stuff for each adult participant.

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With an explosion in kosher wine options in recent years — Royal sells 800 varieties from 39 countries — Herzog said it's not just connoisseurs who can look to elevate their options for the Passover table.

"Why quench your thirst with the same red wine for all four glasses?" he shrugged. "Put a dozen bottles on the table and turn it into a fun experience."

Herzog suggests beginning the Seder with a lower-alcohol rosé or sparkling wine, like the company's Lineage Rosé (made in California), before moving on to Carmel Black Cabernet Sauvignon (from Israel) and then Pescaja Barbera d'Asti Soliter (an Italian wine). The night could be capped off with another California variety, Herzog Special Reserve Napa Valley.

This 8th-generation NJ business is the king of kosher wines. Passover is its 'Super Bowl' (2)

What makes wine kosher?

Kosher wine is made with the same fermenting process as traditional wine but uses only kosher-certified ingredients. Its creation — "from the crushing of the grapes to the sealing of the bottle" — must be supervised and conducted by Sabbath-observant Jews, Buchsbaum said.

Otherwise, kosher and non-kosher alcohol tastes the same, he added. Long associated with sugary reds, kosher wine now comes in numerous varieties, shades and flavors, catering to a clientele that has become more discerning in the past 20 years.

"They don't want the sweet sacramental wine anymore," Buchsbaum said as he stood amid the thousands of boxes and pallets. "Now they want the good stuff."

Royal's "good stuff" can trace its vines back to Rabbi Menachem Herzog, who founded a distillery in Vrbové, Slovakia, in the early 1800s. The wine would eventually find its way onto the menu of the Austro-Hungarian empire's royal court in Vienna. Menachem's grandson, Phillip Herzog, was declared a baron by Emperor Franz Joseph.

The company flourished for decades but was seized by the Nazis during World War II. Phillip's grandson, Eugene Herzog, survived the Holocaust, but his parents were killed in Auschwitz. He fled to America, arriving in 1948 penniless and with no means of providing for his wife and their six children.

"He needed to support his family, so he turned to winemaking, which was our family tradition," said Nathan Herzog, 64 and Eugene's grandson.

This 8th-generation NJ business is the king of kosher wines. Passover is its 'Super Bowl' (3)

Eugene found a job doing sales and delivery for Royal Wines, then a small winery on Manhattan's Lower East side. His bosses could afford to pay him only in company shares, which ended up being fortuitous for the family: In 1958, Eugene bought out his partners and become the business's sole owner, says the company's official history

The Herzogs subsequently opened Kedem Winery in the Hudson Valley hamlet of Marlboro, New York, producing a line of five wines. "They were all of the extra-heavy syrupy variety," Nathan recalled. He pointed to an oversized glass wine bottle dating back to the late 1950s that sat on the conference table.

Royal Wine Corp.'s kosher evolution

The company's evolution began with a nudge from Eugene's youngest son, David, who found work on Wall Street rather than in the family business. He was envious of the high-end, non-kosher French wines his colleagues were able to enjoy at fine restaurants. Why, he asked his father in frustration, couldn't those wines be kosher?

That started a decades-long effort to expand the business by producing and importing kosher wines from around the globe.

This 8th-generation NJ business is the king of kosher wines. Passover is its 'Super Bowl' (4)

Now Royal Wine ships bottles from almost every wine-producing region in the world: merlots from Argentina, pinot noirs from France, a vodka from Ukraine. The company also makes private-label wines for celebrities like Mariah Carey, Vera Wang and Amar'e Stoudemire. Kedem, meanwhile, is the second-biggest grape juice company in the U.S., after Welch's.

The demand for kosher beverages has grown in recent years, and that encouraged several wineries to create new varieties under kosher supervision.

Royal's bestseller is the Bartenura moscato from Italy, known for its iconic blue bottle. Nearly 9 million of them fly off the shelves annually, 70% to non-kosher drinkers, the company estimates. "It's the most popular moscato in the country," Buchsbaum said.

The drink took off after stars like Lil' Kim and Drake rapped about its sweet, bubbly taste in 2005. Buchsbaum saw potential in the moment. "We spent money marketing the product to fans of hip-hop," he said.

It was a runaway success.

Deena Yellin covers religion for For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives,please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

This 8th-generation NJ business is the king of kosher wines. Passover is its 'Super Bowl' (2024)
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