Guarding the entrance to Bodegas Barberis, a family-owned winery in western Argentina, is a small ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary, known locally as the Virgen de la Carrodilla.
“She’s our local patron saint and protector of the vineyards,” said Adrian Barberis, who with his three brothers owns the prosperous winery.
The virgin hardly would cause an eyebrow to be raised in this devoutly Catholic country — except for the fact that Bodegas Barberis, 15 miles south of the city of Mendoza, is a leading Argentine exporter of kosher wine.
Each year, the churchgoing Barberis family turns over 20 percent of its 100-hectare winery to a team of Chasidic Jews from Buenos Aires. For several months before Passover, Chasidim supervise every aspect of wine production — from _fermentation to bottle-sealing — to ensure that the laws of kashrut are observed to the letter.
By now, the winery’s 15 employees are used to seeing the half-dozen bearded men running around checking cooling tanks, tasting samples from wine vats and operating forklifts on the loading docks.
That’s not all. Honoring a Jewish tradition known as terumot vema’aserot, Barberis must intentionally spill on the ground or give to charity 10 percent of its annual kosher wine production. Other talmudic laws prohibit Barberis from using fruit produced during the first three years of a grape harvest, require all wine to be flash-pasteurized before bottling and demand that the land be allowed to rest every seventh year.
“We are allowed to cultivate the grapes and bring them to the bodega in plastic bins,” Barberis said. “We leave them in the truck, and the rabbis and their employees unload them and do the whole process in a special sector of the bodega. The only thing our oenologist does is explain to the rabbis and their people how to use specific machinery.”
Barberis said his biggest market is the United States, where an estimated one-fifth of Jews regularly drink kosher wine, mainly at weddings, circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, funerals and at their Shabbat tables.
The peak season for kosher wine is right before Passover, when hundreds of thousands of American Jewish families stock up.
“It all depends on production schedules,” said Barberis, who is familiar with basic kashrut terminology. “The Orthodox Jews don’t work on Pesach, so if Pesach coincides with fermentation and the grapes are mature, we can’t use our grapes, meaning we have to buy grapes from other wineries.”
This year, Barberis expects to sell $300,000 worth of kosher wine to Royal Wine Corp., an importer based in Bayonne, N.J.
Other wineries in both Argentina and Chile — a six-hour drive over the Andes Mountains from Mendoza — also are turning to the relatively small but lucrative kosher market to supplement exports in the face of weak internal demand.
That’s resulted in the appearance on U.S. supermarket shelves of relatively inexpensive brands such as Chile’s Layla Cabernet Sauvignon and Argentina’s Byblos Bonarda, both imported by Abarbanel Wine Co. of Cedarhurst, N.Y., as well as Chile’s Alfasi Merlot, imported by Royal Wine Corp.
“Currently, Argentina is exporting more than 50 percent of its total production. Some bodegas export up to 90 percent,” says Enrique Chrabolowsky, a Jewish wine critic based in Mendoza.
Chrabolowsky, who with co-author Michel Rolland, has just published a coffee table book, “Wines of Argentina,” said that last year, Chile exported a record $900 million worth of wine — mainly to Europe and North America — while Argentina exported $300 million. Both neighbors are taking advantage of the fact that they offer relatively cheap land, phylloxera-free soil, high productivity and low wages compared with more established wine-producing countries, such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Even so, less than 5 percent of the kosher wine bought in the United States comes from South America. That’s mainly because the cheaper sugary-sweet Concord varieties produced by Mogen David and Manischewitz in upstate New York still dominate 40 percent of the U.S. kosher market, and Israel also commands a healthy share.
In fact, a search for “Chile” at www.kosherwine.com, a Chicago-based online retailer, turns up 13 labels, while a search for “Argentina” brings up only six labels. Both countries pale in comparison with Israel, with 152 kosher wine brands on the market.
“Argentina never paid attention to exports, because almost all of its production went for the internal market,” Barberis said. “Then internal consumption began declining, which obligated us to export our products. We started later than Chile, which never had a big internal market and has been exporting since the beginning. But Argentina can grow rapidly and has big potential.”
According to Chrabolowsky, a Jewish entrepreneur named Samuel Flichman pioneered Argentine quality wines, though there are few Jews still in the industry. Probably the largest Jewish vintner in Mendoza today is Pedro Marchevsky; his wine is called Ben Marco and has a menorah on the label, but it’s not kosher.
Barberis, on the other hand, produces three varieties of kosher wine for export to the United States: Valero Syrah, Valero Malbec and Valero Tempranillo.
The Syrah, boasts the label, “is produced using carefully selected grapes harvested in Argentina’s world-famous Mendoza winemaking region. The wine displays a deep ruby red color with a bouquet of dark berries and licorice. The wine’s flavor is reminiscent of plums and raspberries.”
The winery also produces Tekiah Syrah and Tekiah Tempranillo for the local Argentine Jewish market, as well as for export to Panama.
As a Catholic, Barberis cannot serve Valero to Orthodox Jews because it is not mevushal, or flash-pasteurized. Tekiah, on the other hand, is mevushal.
But doesn’t heating the wine even for a fraction of a second destroy the flavor?
“Theoretically, yes,” Barberis replied. “But it must be good, because the Wine Enthusiast magazine has given Tekiah Syrah a score of 84 points.”