They experienced the Holocaust, survived communism and became the epitome of the American dream. They revolutionized the whole concept of kosher wine worldwide and have become the leading ambassadors of Israeli wine. I am referring to the Herzog family and their Royal Wine – Kedem empire. Now, the American chapter has just celebrated its 70th year anniversary, but the story began long before.
They started as winemakers in Slovakia, a country most well-known for white wines. Until today the Herzog family use only white wines for Seder Night. This is because red wine reminded them of the Blood Libel, which they experienced firsthand, but the customs of their homeland may also have influenced this choice.
They came from Vrbove in the Tranava region. Menahem Emanuel Herzog established the winery in the 19th century. His grandson Moshe added spirits to their portfolio. However, it was during the tenure of Philip Herzog (1843-1918), that the winery became well-known. Recognition came when the winery became official suppliers to the Emperor of the Austro- Hungarian Empire, Franz Joseph. In 1875, Philip was bestowed with the title of ‘Baron’, in honor of this status and the roots of the Baron Herzog brand were born.
The sixth generation was led by Eugene Herzog and he was to confront challenges that rocked the family to the core. In swift succession they had to cope firstly with the Nazis and then with the Communists. With the advance of the Nazis, Eugene and his wife Sarah had to flee for their lives with their five children. Deportations began in 1942 and the family had to go into hiding in Hungary. When the Nazis invaded Hungary, they then were smuggled back to Slovakia. However, tragically Eugene’s parents, Yohanan and Hava, were captured by border guards and sent to Auschwitz, where they were gassed. When deportations began again, the family was dependent on the kindness of Christian families. Miraculously, the children and grandchildren survived and it was a kind of poetic justice that a sixth child was born two weeks after liberation. That child’s name was David Herzog.
Having survived the Nazis, the family was then confronted by the Communists. To their dismay, their winery was confiscated and Eugene saw his family was again at risk. He saw no future in Czechoslovakia. Therefore, in 1948 the family imigrated to America. Lest the family should forget, the ship passenger manifest showing the names of the Herzogs and the date of arrival, is framed in the company offices. A constant reminder of turbulent times and new beginnings.
The Herzogs left everything behind and arrived in Williamsberg, NY with little more than the clothes on their back. This religious family did not even possess a white shirt for Shabbat, meat was an unobtainable luxury and their mother would take time to seek out the more inexpensive bruised fruit, that no-one else would buy.
They experienced real poverty. Eugene, who was already in his forties, had to start again from nothing. However, he knew wine and found work at the Babad Wine Co, named after the owner, which soon changed its name to Royal Wine. He was employed as a driver and salesman and helped in the winery. He worked a grueling fifteen-hour day, but was paid a pittance. The owner instead compensated him with worthless shares. This time, for a change, fortune favored the brave. When the other owners deserted what was a sinking ship, Eugene was left the largest shareholder. In 1958 he found himself as sole owner of Royal Wine, a modest producer of kiddush wines, like Concord.
This was the beginning and as Lao Tzu said, “even a journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step.” Eugene introduced the brand name Kedem (from the verse in the Bible ‘Renew our days as before’) and in 1958 the first Kedem Grape Juice was produced, which was to become an iconic product in America. This was not easy to make. As soon as grapes are pressed, all they want to do is ferment and turn into wine. It is a natural process. Therefore, it was a struggle to make a stable product. Hard to think of that today when it has become such a massive brand, which we take for granted. As production grew, the winery moved to Milton NY.
Ernest Herzog, his son, was the one to stabilize the company and grow it further. From old photos, one can see he had a kind, smiling face and twinkling eyes. Under his stewardship, Kedem became a national brand and the preferred choice of religious Jews. Eventually, they moved again to a new winery with up to date equipment and larger capacity in Marlboro, NY. It was an appropriate tribute, that when the first Californian wine was produced in 1985, it was Ernest who signed the back label.
However, it was the youngest brother David Herzog, the next CEO, who was to change the kosher wine world forever. He is a wise man with sharp blue eyes that see everything. When I meet him, I always feel he can see what I am thinking. He transformed Royal Wine into the powerhouse it is today. He made the first dry French kosher wines, which was then almost foolhardy. Who on earth would drink a dry kosher wine from overseas? Then he made the deal with Baron Edmond de Rothschild (junior) to make the first high quality French kosher wine in 1986. Rather like a winemaking Chabad, he sent mashgihim (religious observers) and winemakers to wineries all over the world in order to produce quality kosher wines. He founded Herzog Winery in 1985 and in 2005 built the state-of-the-art Herzog Wine Cellars in southern California. He also moved the distribution, warehousing and offices to a large facility in Bayonne, NJ. Today he is the Chairman of the company.
It is true that Hagafen Winery in California was the first to produce quality, kosher dry table wines in 1979 and the Golan Heights Winery was the quality pioneer in Israel. It was founded in 1983. However not taking anything away from their groundbreaking efforts, it was Royal Wine that lifted the whole category, introducing dry and quality wines as the norm, whilst enabling the kosher wine lover to enjoy wines from all the main wine producing countries and to experience kosher cuvees made by world famous wineries. They inspired and educated a whole generation.
David’s son Mordy Herzog is the current CEO. He is like a boxer. Pugnacious, probing, constantly on the move, throwing out brainstorming ideas like jabs, he is always looking for opportunities. Very dynamic and creative, he is usually a bubbling volcano of simultaneous projects and those that work with him are used to the fact that he is usually doing twenty things at the same time. When I used to go to America to talk about my wines, I would often be interrupted by a younger Mordy, who filled in what I omitted to say. Sometimes he knew the wines better than I did!
Under his watch, Bartenura, in its recognizable blue bottle, became a 5 million bottle brand. This at one stage made it the number one selling Moscato in America, and the number one kosher wine, outside the large kiddush brands (like Manischewitz and Kedem). An astonishing achievement. On a recent visit to Americas, I found it on the general wine shelves (far away from any kosher association) alongside Barefoot Moscato. This is owned by Gallo, the largest winery in the world. This great success was a reward for the quality and some extraordinary marketing, showing the ability to think out of the box and broach new markets. Mordy has also developed a larger range of quality whiskies in the portfolio, but that is wines and spirits. Many people don’t know that the large, up front Royal Wine Corp., is dwarfed by a larger sister food company called Kayco, which includes Kedem Foods. This is also managed by Mordy!
Those of us in Israel have particular affection for Nathan Herzog. He is President of Royal Wine and is the unofficial foreign minister. The fact that Royal represent no less than thirty Israeli wineries is largely because of him. His approach is more personal. A touch of an elbow here, a thoughtful comment there, constantly pushing and cajoling. He is a master of seeking the opportunity, making and maintaining contacts and endearing a lifelong loyalty. On these building blocks, Royal has developed its range. The company represents some of the largest wineries in Israel like Barkan-Segal, Carmel, Teperberg, Tabor and Binyamina and also some of the best small wineries like Castel, Flam, Yatir, Tulip, Matar by Pelter, Psagot and Shilo. It is a truly impressive portfolio. As Israel has struggled to get its wine marketing act together, Royal did not hold back and filled the void. As a result, it is the main importer and distributor of Israeli wine worldwide.
Ernest’s sons are also very important cogs in the wheel. Michael Herzog manages and makes the wine at the Kedem Winery in NY, Joseph Herzog manages Herzog Wine Cellars in California and Morris Herzog manages Kedem Europe, the main Israeli and kosher presence in the UK. Royal Wine remains primarily a Jewish company, with a Jewish heart and soul. One of David Herzog’s elder brothers, Hermon, is responsible for Tzedeka (charity) and Gemilut Hasidim (literally, loving kindness.) How many companies do you know, that have a senior director solely responsible for social support and charitable activities? It says something about the moral fabric of this family.
Now the Herzog family is already in its 9th generation of being in the wine trade and the Royal Kedem company has just celebrated its 70th anniversary. Royal Wine Corp. is the largest distributor and importer of kosher wines in the world. Herzog Wine Cellars is the largest quality table wine producer in America, which also happens to be kosher. Kedem Winery produces the wines and grapes juice under the Kedem label. The IWPA (Israel Wine Producers Association) is the largest grouping of Israeli wine being marketed together. Kayco is a giant of the kosher food industry. What would Eugene think today?
He was the founder, Ernest the stabilizer, David was the builder and the pioneer. Now Mordy has the drive and energy to take the business onwards and upwards. One of my regular sayings is that “we are not in the wine business, we are in the people business.” David Herzog says it far better “We are in the Simcha business.” He is right and his family’s wines will continue to give pleasure for generations to come.
Adam Montefiore has advanced Israeli wine for over thirty years and he is referred to as the ambassador of Israeli wines. He is the wine writer for the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com