As Jews around the world prepare for the new year and the High Holy Days — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — there’s one very important part of the table: the wine. And at these special meals, it’s kosher wine that most often accompanies the food. But despite kosher wine’s ancient roots (it traces back all the way to biblical times), some grimace at the thought of drinking a glass. But what if kosher wine was what held the standard for winemakers worldwide?
Kosher winemaking "is nothing new," says Christopher Sawyer, an internationally renowned sommelier and the advisor of wine directory likelii.com. "What’s interesting is that kosher wine is [going], in today’s standards, the same direction organic wine is going: growing organic grapes, adding no manufactured ingredients. It’s what this whole philosophy behind kosher wine has been based on for thousands of years."
What is it that differentiates kosher wine from the non-kosher wine at the dinner table? Contrary to popular belief, says wine tasting director at Wine Enthusiast magazine Lauren Buzzeo, there’s little difference. "The techniques used during production are almost identical; there are just some guidelines to be observed in order to achieve kosher status," she says.
For starters, there’s the matter of ingredients: Kosher wines contain no additives, or anything considered "trayfe" — or unfit, says Lisa Alcalay Klug, author of Cool Jew and her new book, out in October, Hot Mamalah. That includes commercial yeast and animal-based fining agents, such as gelatin, isinglass, or egg whites. However, while all ingredients in kosher wine must be kosher-certified, most wine ingredients are already kosher, says Buzzeo.
And then there’s the matter of the winemakers themselves. Throughout the entire winemaking process, kosher wine can be handled only by Sabbath-observant Jews — from harvesting the grapes through fermentation and bottling. The wine also has to be supervised by a mashgiach, who oversees production. However, there’s one category of kosher wine that can be handled by non-Jews — and it’s the wine that gives all kosher sips a bad rep. "Mevushal" wine, literally meaning "cooked," is wine that’s been boiled or flash-pasteurized. That’s what gives it the often rubbery, raisin-like, stewed fruit flavor that many of us associate with kosher wines — yikes. "Old-fashioned, sweet kosher wine, such as Manischewitz, is boiled or pasteurized, and for this reason, many kosher wines had a bad rap," Klug says. "But in recent years, with the introduction of gourmet kosher wines in the U.S., Israel, and abroad, that step is abandoned or substituted with flash pasteurization," Klug says.
11 Kosher-for-Passover Wines You’ll Actually Want to Drink
No offense to our friends over at Manischewitz! We love making charoset with it, but the concord grape, Kosher-for-Passover wine can be cloyingly sweet on its own. And when you’re supposed to drink four cups of it during a seder (and probably many more throughout the rest of the week), that’s a lot of sweetness.
Instead, Rabbi Josh Franklin of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, suggests opening a bottle of something else. “Opt for one of the many popular Israeli wines that have been breaking into the market,” he says.
Keep reading for his suggestions.
Kosher-for-Passover Wines You’ll Actually Want to Drink
If you want to splurge
If you’re willing to spend $20 to $30 a bottle
If you want a budget-friendly wine
Where can you find these wines?
Depending on where you live — or the size of the store — your local wine shop might have a limited selection. Or, take to the Internet and check out KosherWine.com, where you can order pretty much everything on this list and more. There’s also SkyviewWine.com, which offers free shipping in New York City and ships elsewhere for a small fee.
Why do you need so much wine?
Think of the four cups of wine as Jewish punctuation marks throughout the Seder. Some people say they represent four important women in the Pesach story, while others say they represent four different elements of freedom.
Whatever they may represent, they are to be consumed slowly and while reclining, because Jews are free now and can drink with leisure. Sweet wine is traditional, but any wine or grape juice is acceptable — as long as it’s marked as being Kosher for Passover, which means it’s been made according to Jewish rabbinical law.
What makes a wine Kosher for Passover?
Most kosher wines are already approved for Passover, but check the label to be sure. In order for wine to be Kosher, it has to contain only kosher ingredients and, once the grapes are picked and brought to be crushed, only Shabbat-observant Jews can be involved in making the wine.
There’s also Mevushal wine, which can be handled and served by non-Jews and is just heated up very quickly in a process called flash pasteurization. Mevushal wine is also acceptable for a Passover Seder.
Which is better — red or white wine?
Many Jews prefer to drink red wine during the Seder for several reasons, one being that it serves as a reminder of the lamb’s blood that was smeared on the doorposts as a sign for God to pass over those homes in Israel. Of course, Passover is seven or eight days long (some reform Jews only celebrate for seven), so even if your family wants to stick to red for the Seders, there are still many other nights, during which you can enjoy a bottle of Kosher-for-Passover white.
Kosher Wine and Kosher for Passover Wine
Along with Passover's many rules for food comes its guidelines for alcohol. Archeological evidence shows that wine was used in Judaism throughout ancient Israel for traditional and religious purposes. In the U.S., kosher wine eventually became associated with sweet Concord wines made from wineries with Jewish immigrant founders.
Kosher wine is a grape wine that is produced according to Judaism's religious and dietary laws. In order for a wine to be kosher, it must be created under a rabbi's immediate supervision, with only Sabbath-observant Jewish males touching the grapes from the crushing phase through the bottling.
While all wines require some sort of mold (yeast) for fermentation, kosher for Passover wine must be made from a mold that has not been grown on bread (such as sugar or fruit) and must exclude several common preservatives, like potassium sorbate. A wine that is kosher for Passover cannot include chametz, which includes grain, bread, and dough. The most kosher wine that is marketed and sold commercially has a seal of approval called hechsher. This typically comes from a kosher certification agency.
Ask the Expert: Kosher Wine and Kosher Mevushal Wine
Question: When I&rsquom at my local wine store I sometimes see bottles marked kosher and sometimes kosher mevushal. My wine guy says the mevushal stuff isn&rsquot very good. What&rsquos mevushal, and why is it bad?
Answer: L&rsquoChaim, David! Answering this question requires a nice glass of vino. You don&rsquot mind if I type and sip, do you?
In order for wine to be kosher, of course it has to contain only kosher ingredients. And according to traditional Jewish law, once the grapes are picked and brought to be crushed, only Shabbat-observant Jews can be involved in making the wine. From crushing to bottling, kosher wine must be handled exclusively by observant Jews.
Why the strict rules about only Jews? Because in the past wine was often used by pagans in their offerings to idol gods. When something good happened, you&rsquod pour some wine out on the ground as a symbolic thank you (if you were an idol worshipper, that is). The rabbis who set up the rules for kosher wine wanted to make sure that Jews never got a glass of wine that had been associated with an idolatrous offering, so they required that only Jews be involved in handling kosher wine.
Even after these rules were set up, some people worried that if you had a nice glass of kosher Chardonnay at a Jewish wedding, it&rsquos possible that the non-Jewish waiter or waitress might have spilled some of your Chardonnay in an idolatrous practice, while your back was turned. The solution: Mevushal wine. (Shulhan Arukh, YD 123)
Mevushal (literally &ldquocooked&rdquo) wine has been heated to the point that idol worshippers wouldn&rsquot use it for their nefarious purposes. It turns out even idol worshippers had standards for their wine. They wouldn&rsquot use wine for an offering if it had been boiled because boiling wine removes much of the flavor. So the rabbis ruled that in order to avoid the possibility of a Jew ever drinking wine that was idolatry-associated, only cooked wine could be served to a Jew by a non-Jew.
Today, people don&rsquot do a lot of pouring wine out for the gods. Still, because of the previous rulings by various halakhic authorities, some people are uncomfortable with a non-Jew pouring them a glass of kosher wine. So mevushal wine is often served at events where non-Jews will be doing the pouring and serving of wine. This stance, of only serving mevushal wine when non-Jews will be serving, is the norm among Orthodox Jews, and those who follow the regulations of the Conservative Movement&lsquos Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
The good news is that making a wine mevushal no longer entails actually boiling anything. I spoke with Scott Shumaker, the wine manager at kosherwine.com, and he told me that in order for wine to be called mevushal these days it&rsquos heated up very quickly in a process called flash pasteurization.
Red wine gets up to a temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit (white wine gets a slightly lower temperature) for less than a minute and then is cooled down very quickly in order to limit the amount of damage the heat might do to the flavors in the wine. This procedure is based on a responsum from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who ruled that flash pasteurizing could be counted as making something mevushal. There are other rabbinic authorities who have differed from this opinion, but in America today the most commonly held opinion is that of Rabbi Feinstein.
Your wine guy is right that many people don&rsquot think highly of mevushal wines, but Scott is my wine guy, and he recommended the Segal winery Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Binyamina Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve, both of which are mevushal, and sell for about $20 a bottle. The best kosher wines on the market these days aren&rsquot mevushal, but Scott says there are some pretty good mevushal options out there. I would take his word for it, but really, maybe I should do some sampling just to be sure.
What’s Cooking with the Temperature of the Wine
In the last installment, we discussed the prohibition of Yayin Nesech (wine touched by an idolater). Cooked, or mevushal, wine is not subject to the prohibition of Yayin Nesech, but there are various opinions as to what temperature halachically constitutes “cooking”. The main opinions and their sources will be presented in this installment.
The Gemara (Masechta Avodah Zara 30a), commenting on the Mishna 29b’s statement that wine of a non-Jew is prohibited, says:
Shmuel and Avleit (Rashi: He was an idol worshipper.) were sitting together and they were served cooked wine. Avleit (concerned that he should not make the wine non-kosher) removed his hands (from the space near the wine). Shmuel then said to him (that it was not necessary for him to refrain from touching the wine since) the Rabbis taught that cooked wine is not subject to the prohibition of Yayin Nesech.
The Ran’s 1 commentary on the Rif 2 quotes the Raavad in the name of Rav Hai Gaon 3 that as soon as the wine boils it is considered cooked. He then quotes the Ramban 4 that the wine is considered cooked when some wine (evaporates and) begins missing some of its quantity. The Ran (as well as the Rashba 5 ) concludes that maybe there is no argument, as both criteria are the same, for when it boils, it also evaporates. The Rosh 6 only brings the first opinion (as he probably did not see the second opinion) and he compares it to the laws of cooking on Shabbos where the criteria is “Yad Soledes Bo”, (a hand will be scalded [removed instinctively] in this water temperature). There are various opinions on the appropriate temperature for this criteria, ranging from 112-160°F.
(The Rosh then goes into a discussion as to whether the reason for this prohibition is to discourage social drinking and possible relationships between Jews and non-Jews, or if it is based on the laws of sacrifice in the Temple and the prohibitions of idol worship. There is also a lengthy discussion by many commentaries on this issue, as well as understanding why cooked wine is permitted. Some say because it degrades the wine, some say because it is unusual to cook it, and some say because the original source of the prohibition was only on uncooked wine. This article will not be able to clarify these questions, I am merely bringing them up to whet your appetite to continue researching, and gain insight into some of the later mentioned opinions.)
The opinions mentioned above are the basis of the Bais Yosef’s 7 decision in the Shulchan Oruch 8 : When is it considered cooked wine? When it boils on the fire. The Shach 9 , in Sifsei Cohen, his commentary on the Shulchan Oruch, then comments: When it lessens its quantity (evaporates), and he quotes this from the Rashba and the Ran.
In today’s wine making industry the wine, or more precisely the grape juice, is pasteurized shortly after it is squeezed and fermentation is caused by the introduction of commercial yeast. Pasteurization at this stage helps ensure that each bottle of wine in the production will taste the same, giving a consistent experience to consumers.
In order for the grapes achieve optimum quality each year, specific levels of moisture, sunlight and temperature are required. If these are higher or lower than the ideal, the fruit will not reach optimum quality. Consequently, the quality of the wine suffers, as the acidity level or sweetness level (brix percentage) of the grapes was not optimal.
Hashem, in His unlimited kindness and wisdom, created grapes with the quality of carrying its own (ambient) yeast. This is sometimes called the grapes’ bloom, or blush. This yeast is what causes the grape juice to ferment (and bubble), turning its sugar (sweetness) into alcohol. This should not be confused with the sweetness imparted in some wines. That sweet taste is what remains when the fermentation process is stopped before all of the sugar is converted into alcohol.
In the mid-19th century, a famous scientist, Mr. Louis Pasteur discovered that there were many living organism that could spoil or ferment the wine. In 1856, Pasteur was called to investigate why the wine of a local vintner was spoiling. He came up with the discovery that bacteria is a living organism and, therefore, if one would cook the grape juice to 60 – 100°C (140 – 212°F), it would kill all of the bacteria. Afterwards, if the vintner wanted to ferment the wine, he would have to introduce new, cultured yeast in order to turn the juice into wine.
This idea of killing the bacteria (and introducing yeast) is widespread in the wine and dairy industries, as well as the production of other fermented products. It is also the foundation of food safety practiced in most companies today to help control the spread of unwanted bacteria and contribute greatly to the shelf life of products.
The standard procedure in the wine industry today is to pasteurize all of the grape juice to 165°F and then add yeast, ensuring that only healthy bacteria grows and that all of the wine has a uniform taste. (Even after heating it to 165°F some of the bacteria can possibly reawaken during fermentation therefore, some scientists recommend heating it to 212°F.) Some smaller vintners do not pasteurize their juice and choose to monitor it carefully and add or change chemical additives as needed.
Due to the serious prohibition of Yayin Nesech it is clearly easier to use cooked wine, since the wine might be handled by non-Shomer Shabbos Jews and even by, l’havdil, non-Jews however it is considered more mehudar by some to use uncooked wine for Kiddush and especially for the Pesach Seder.
Reb Moshe Feinstein concluded 1 that grape juice cooked to 165°F is considered cooked wine. He explains that Rav Hai Gaon’s opinion that as soon as it is boiled it is considered cooking is similar to the laws of Shabbos where it is considered cooking at the temperature of Yad Soledes Bo. He further says that evaporating also starts at that time. Later on, in his fourth sefer on Even HaEzer, Reb Moshe adds a few words towards the end of siman 108 saying the juice must reach 175°F to be considered mevushal, but he does not explain why he changed the requirement from 165°F to 175°F.
The exact temperature that wine boils depends on the altitude, as well as the percent of alcohol in the wine. As noted, wine boils at a lower temperature than water and, therefore, a mixture with 12% alcohol would boil later than wine with 16% alcohol. Those who accept a lower temperature for mevushal would probably point to distilling where cooking starts at a lower temperature. It is well known that the Tzelemer Rov, OB”M, (who used to certify Kedem and Royal wines) opined that wine must be heated to 190°F in order to be considered mevushal. This policy has been adopted by Kedem and many other wineries. The OK requires a minimum temperature of 86°C (186.8°F).
The relatively recent innovations of ultra- and flash-pasteurization, where the juice is pasteurized at different heat levels for a few seconds and immediately cooled, helps minimize the degradation caused by pasteurization. Since pasteurization is done in a closed, pressurized system, no vapor can leak into the atmosphere and evaporate. The halachic question is whether this affects the Ramban’s opinion that the liquid must lessen in quantity to be considered cooked.
The widespread use of ultra- and flash-pasteurization in closed loop pressurized systems throughout the wine industry has introduced a new set of questions as to whether the original intention of cooking the wine, outlined in the Gemara, has been preserved.
Rav Elyashiv, OB”M, questioned whether cooking wine is considered “an uncommon occurrence”, since one of the opinions permitting cooked wine was based on the fact that most wine at the time was uncooked. Since pasteurization is now the norm in the grape juice and wine industry, Rav Elyashiv questioned whether cooking could still be considered a heter to avoid Yayin Nesech.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, OB”M, questioned 11 whether the taste is changed during the cooking process. The heter for cooked wine, according to some opinions, is due to the inferior quality of the wine once it was cooked. Today, when the cooking does not noticeably degrade the wine, and some of the highest rated kosher wines are mevushal, the heter might not apply.
Rav Ben Tzion Abba Shaul argues 12 that the wine must evaporate in order to be considered mevushal. The lack of evaporation in a closed loop system could invalidate the heter.
Those that permit closed loop pasteurization would argue that when the pasteurization loop is sealed, it merely forces the evaporated gases to revert to liquid. The liquid really is cooked to the level of evaporation, yet the plumbing system and technology forces the evaporation to reincorporate into the mixture and revert to a liquid state. The OK does not allow a fully closed system there must be a way for some steam to escape. As for the lack of degradation and current commonality of pasteurization, the original takana was made only to prohibit uncooked wine. It never stipulated that the decree would need to be altered if time and circumstances changed and cooking became common.
Some bottles of kosher wine bear the designation “mefustar” (pasteurized). Those who follow the p’sak of Rav Elyashiv, Rav Auerbach or Rav Abba Shaul may not consider those wines to be mevushal according to halacha however, Rav Ovadia Yosef, OB”M, argued 13 that pasteurized wine is also considered mevushal.
Due to the serious prohibition of Yayin Nesech it is clearly easier to use cooked wine, since the wine might be handled by non-Shomer Shabbos Jews and even by, l’havdil, non-Jews however it is considered more mehudar by some to use uncooked wine for Kiddush and especially for the Pesach Seder.
Our prophets tell us that wine is M’Sameach Elokim v’Anashim (it has the ability to bring much happiness to the Almighty as well as to people) if used properly. May we merit to experience much happiness and joy in our personal and family lives, as well as in our spiritual lives!
I hope this helped uncork some of the confusing opinions on kosher wine processing. This article is meant for educational purposes. As in all matters of Halacha, please consult with your local Orthodox rabbi to determine which opinions to follow.
Please send any questions or comments to [email protected]
In my previous article, I explained that crushed grapes can be purchased from a non-Jew if the grapes and the wine have not been separated. Once the juice begins flowing, the juice can become Yayin Nesech and must be handled by a Shomer Shabbos Jew.
I was asked by some of the readers to clarify this further.
When we buy grapes in a retail store, we usually check first to make sure that the grapes are not crushed. If we are buying a case of grapes, they usually come in a wooden crate which protects the grapes from becoming crushed. Even if the grapes were crushed, it would still not pose a Halachic difficulty, as the liquid would drain out from the holes of the crate. There would not be any leftover juice.
When a large wine producer purchases grapes, they are usually delivered in totes or trucks. A tote is usually a 6’x6’x6’ plastic container, which does not have drainage holes, allowing the leaking juice to be used by the producer. Since all of the grapes are packed together in one container, and weigh about a half ton, the weight crushes the grapes and forces some of the liquid to come out. Of course, the same is true with a truckload of grapes.
Halachically, as long as the juice is mixed with the grapes and not separated at all, it is not considered wine. This is why the Mishna (Avodah Zara, Daf 55a) says that we are permitted to buy crushed grapes from a non-Jew.
As soon as the juice separates from the grapes it must be handled exclusively by a Shomer Shabbos Jew. The Gemara’s example is “piling it on a mound”. If all of the grapes (all of the solids) are piled high on the mound, leaving the liquid to flow nearby (even before it was sifted), this liquid is treated as wine.
Therefore, if the tote or truck is delivered by a non-Jew, it would be permissible (provided that it is handled properly in the field, as we will explain) since the grapes and juice have not separated. When the totes or truck are tipped in order to empty the grapes and juice into the processing machines, one may encounter a problem. When the tote or truck is tipped, naturally, the solids will pour out first. At the very end, there will be a few seconds where the container will only have the remnants of the liquid. At this second, the liquid can become Stam Yaynom, or non-kosher. Later, when this juice is poured on the grapes, the whole pile will become non-kosher. Therefore, only a Shomer Shabbos Jew should work the controls to tip the containers.
In addition, the mashgiach should make sure that the workers do not pour from one tote/truck to another at the field, as this can cause the same halachic problem. Lastly, the mashgiach must make sure that any grapes that are crushed and tested in the field are disposed of, as the juice is halachically considered wine. This can potentially cause all of the grapes to become non-kosher.
1. Rabbeinu Nissim (1320-1380) of Gerona, Spain.
2. Rabbi Yitzchok Alfasi (1013-1103). Lived in Algeria, Fez, and then Spain.
3. Headed the great Talmudic academy of Pumpedesia (now part of Baghdad, Iraq. Lived 939-1038.
4. The Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (1194-1270) of Gerona, Spain.
5. Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderes (1235-1310) of Barcelona, Spain.
6. Rabbeinu Asher (1250-1327) of Cologne, Rome and then Toledo, Spain.
7. Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Oruch, who lived in Spain, Portugal and Tzfas, Israel.
8. Yoreh Deah, Siman 123, S’if 3.
9. Reb Shabsi Cohen (1621-1662) of Lithuania, and then Moravia.
10. Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah, volume 3, siman 31.
11. Minchas Shlomo, volume 1, number 25.
12. Ohr L’Tzion
12. Yabia Omer, Yoreh Deah vol. 8/15.
Passover : Kosher Wine for Wine Lovers
Kosher wine has improved dramatically in the last decade, and now the best of it can take its place beside the best non-kosher wine. These days, makers of kosher wine insist their wines aren’t just for Passover anymore.
Traditionally, kosher wine has not been fine wine. Most of the Jews fleeing Eastern Europe 100 years ago came here by way of Ellis Island. And the only kosher wine made on the East Coast was a syrupy dessert wine based on Concord grapes. As a result, “kosher wine” came to mean something sickly sweet that did not go well with any food, but had to be consumed by Seder edict.
The Passover Seder is a generally happy meal in which children are an essential part of the service. So the children and grandchildren of Eastern European Jews grew up with this kind of kosher wine. And though many of these second- and third-generation Jews drink only dry table wine the rest of the year, they continue to endure the “Tradition of the Square Bottle” (i.e., Manischewitz Concord) during the Seder.
“There’s a saying that if it’s kosher it can’t be any good,” says Peter Stern, consulting winemaker for the Baron Herzog line of kosher wines. “It happens all the time. I guess the only way (to gain respect) is to have blind tastings.”
A blind tasting proved the point a few weeks ago. At the New World International Wine Competition in San Bernardino, a kosher wine proved best in its category. The 1993 Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc won a gold medal and the award for the best Chenin Blanc.
Other kosher gold-medal winners at the event were 1993 Herzog White Zinfandel, 1993 Weinstock White Zinfandel and 1992 Weinstock Chardonnay. A silver medal went to Hagafen’s 1993 White Table Wine, a blend of Chardonnay and Riesling.
Ernie Weir, president of Hagafen, admits that he started the winery (with former partners Zach Berkowitz, Norm Miller and Rene di Rosa) in 1979 because of the dearth of kosher wine made in the United States and the generally woeful state of kosher wine made elsewhere.
“I felt there was an element of cultural pride that could be encouraged,” he says. But as time went on and he explored the various ways wine could be made and certified kosher, he came to believe he could make wine that was the equal of any non-kosher wine.
Besides a few arcane rules about cleanliness and who can do what with the grapes and the wine, one key rule is that for a wine to be mevushal, or universally kosher (so it doesn’t lose its kosher status if a non-Orthodox person serves it), it must be heated during production--a technique that in the past would have ruined the aroma of any fine wine. Such wines were more broadly marketable than kosher wines that were not pasteurized, but some producers, Hagafen among them, felt the heating process too deleterious and they rejected it.
However, within the last few years, it has become possible to make a mevushal wine by using a bit of high-tech wizardry. This technique, approved by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of New York. calls for the white wine grape juice, before fermentation, to be flash-heated to 175 degrees, pasteurizing the liquid. The juice is then quickly re-chilled and a traditional fermentation conducted.
The process seems to actually improve some wines, says Baron Herzog’s Stern, the top kosher-wine consultant in the business (he also helped make excellent kosher wines for three Israeli brands, Yarden, Golan and Gamla).
Weir was also convinced. He began flash-pasteurizing Hagafen wines in 1993.
Another California producer of kosher wines, Gan Eden in Sonoma County, makes only non- mevushal wines. Since these wines will not retain their kosher status if served by a non-Orthodox Jew, the wines are not used in catering events such as weddings or bar mitzvahs if the servers are not Orthodox.
Kosher wine from Israel has had a spotty track record, but Stern says great strides has been made in Israeli kosher wine during the last six to eight years.
“The evolution starts with the grapes,” he says. “After the Golan Heights were taken in the 1967 war, grapes were planted there, but the only buyer was (the large cooperative winery) Carmel.” All wines were mevushal , but the technology was still primitive, so many wines were ruined before they were even bottled.
Moreover, says Stern, the grapes weren’t always planted in the right regions or grown for fine wine. Then in the late ‘70s, Cornelius Ough of the University of California at Davis visited the Golan Heights and advised growers on planting. By 1983, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon were planted, and the Yarden, Golan and Galil brands were developed to compete with Carmel.
Meanwhile, in 1988, a rare cooperative effort by several producers of kosher wine helped sponsor the research of an orthodox enology student at UC Davis, an Israeli by the name of Shlomo Rauschberger, who continued to develop methods to make mevushal wines more palatable than they had been, and that research became widely used by the 1992 harvest.
Today, the leading producer of kosher wines is Baron Herzog, with more than 130,000 cases being made annually--more than half sold specifically for Passover use, Stern says.
Hagafen, which focuses on high-quality Napa Valley grapes and ages its best wines (Cabernet and Chardonnay) in expensive French oak barrels, now sells just 6,500 cases of wine, most of it aimed at a more upscale crowd than Herzog. Gan Eden, with half of Hagafen’s production, also is an upscale brand.
1991 Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.50)-- From the Hess Collection winery’s second label, winemaker Randall Johnson was able to coax real quality from modestly priced grapes through careful blending. This superb vintage has an earthy, herbal/cherry aroma with hints of anise and pine. An excellent value.
Kosher Wines for Passover
No kosher Passover feast is complete without some wine: We finally found two gorgeous options from the Napa Valley that are sure to take your Seder up a notch (sorry Mr. Manishevitz).
Jeff Morgan on Covenant Wine
I wish I could tell you that Covenant wine was born from some highly spiritual quest. But it really started with a dare. Back in 2002, my friend and now partner in Covenant wines, Leslie Rudd, told me he didn’t really think we could make a great wine that was kosher. We were both making non-kosher wine in the Napa Valley. But as non-practicing Jews, we didn’t have much faith in those syrupy sweet, weird Concord grape wines we’d grown up drinking at Passover.
Prior to becoming a winemaker, I had been a wine writer, most notably for Wine Spectator. I’d learned over the years that there is no “kosher winemaking” method. In fact, all wine starts off kosher. But to keep it kosher, it can only be handled by Sabbath-observant Jews. Leslie and I found grapes in an old Napa vineyard originally planted in 1889. We were then able to convince one of only three kosher wineries in California to lend us their cellar crew to help with our project. We used the same time-honored winemaking methods that our non-kosher friends and colleagues—many of whom make some of the most famous wines in California and Europe—employ for their own wines. The right grapes paired with the right winemaking techniques yielded some excellent results.
I’ve been generously welcomed into the fold by a Jewish community I would never have known had I not become a kosher winemaker. This powerful bond that I now feel with Jewish history has given me a greater sense of belonging.
As we drink the four cups of wine at Passover this year, I’ll be pouring Covenant. The wine has been a gift to me. And it’s a gift that I am happy to share. And if anyone reading this is planning a trip to the Napa Valley, come visit us for a taste of Covenant too!
Jeff Morgan is the winemaker and co-owner of Covenant wines. He lives with his wife and two daughters in the Napa Valley.
Getting to Know Israel's Wine Country
From cosmopolitan beach towns to ancient archeological and historic sites, from desert landscapes to the lowest point on earth at the Dead Sea, Israel has much to attract travelers. Set among all of this is a rapidly expanding and improving wine industry that combines exciting new boutique estates with producers more than 100 years old, making the country’s wine regions well worth a visit for wine and food lovers.
“Wine is a product of place we are making wine in a place where it has been made for 5,000 years, in an area where wine culture was created,” said Lior Lacser, winemaker at Carmel Winery. “Israel is a great place to make wine.”
Grapegrowing spans much of the country, from the rolling hillsides and mountains in the north to the desert and forest in the south, divided into five official regions: Galilee, Shomron, Samson, Judean Hills and Negev. With its variety of microclimates, soils and temperatures, Israel can grow numerous different grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache and Chardonnay.
Today, Israel has more than 200 wineries, more than 10 times the number of table-wine producers just 10 years ago, and the largest 17 are all kosher. But gone are the days when the country produced mainly sweet sacramental wines and inexpensive bottles for local consumption. And the term “kosher wine” is no longer equated with mediocrity, in part thanks to flash pasteurization techniques that allow producers to make mevushal wines without actually tasting as if they've been boiled. “The kosher aspect doesn’t make a difference in the quality,” says Domaine du Castel winemaker Eli Ben Zaken.
Large wineries, such as Carmel and Golan Heights, are producing dry reds and whites that are widely exported, while new boutique wineries (both kosher and non-kosher) have helped push Israel’s wine industry to new heights with their experimentation. More of the country’s wines are earning “very good” ratings, sometimes even “outstanding.”
At the same time, Israelis have been adopting a wine culture. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa all feature wine bars and restaurants with serious wine lists stocked with Israeli and international wines. Ben Zaken says, “In the 1980s, we couldn’t even have a [restaurant] wine list of good Israeli wine and, today, you can find really fantastic wine lists of only Israeli wines. Things have changed completely.”
Wine Spectator talked with three winemakers, each located in a different region. From spilled Mouton to kosher quality to farming in California, here is what they had to say about winemaking passion, techniques and culture in Israel.
Lior Lacser, Carmel Winery
The largest wine producer in Israel, Carmel Winery has vineyards all over the country, but the biggest is on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, south of Haifa, at Zichron Ya’acov. Though the historic winery there dates back nearly 120 years, Carmel also features state-of-the-art equipment and tourist attractions such as a restaurant and an education center with a library, film theater and private tasting seminars. From its hand-dug underground cellar to its experimental micro-winery, Carmel’s story represents the timeline of Israeli wine.
Lior Lacser is working with Mediterranean varieties including Carignane, Shiraz and Petite Sirah.
Carmel was founded with the help of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, a member of the famed Rothschild family. After visiting the Shomron area in 1887, Baron Edmond de Rothschild saw winemaking potential. He purchased the property, changing the name from Zamarin to Zichron Ya’acov, which means “in memory of Jacob,” after his father, Baron James Jacob de Rothschild who had acquired Bordeaux’s famous Château Lafite.
Today, Carmel Winery produces 1.25 million cases at four wineries under five collections: Limited Edition, Single Vineyard, Appellation, Private Collection and Selected. Winemaker Lior Lacser, who joined Carmel in 2003 and became head winemaker in 2005, leads a team of eight winemakers at the different locations. A former attorney, he trained as a winemaker in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Australia smiling, he quips, “I threw the law book away, and I studied in Beaune.”
Lacser is working to shift Carmel from mass-market wines toward more high-quality production. Although he has previously made non-kosher wine, at Carmel all the wine is kosher. “I am proud to make the best wine I can, that just happens to also be kosher,” he said. “Israel is the world’s expert on kosher wine, in the same way Champagne makes the best sparkling wine. Nothing wrong in making wine that all Jewish people can drink.”
Lacser is continuously experimenting, especially with the Appellation series, which focuses on single varieties and simple blends, such as Viognier and a Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz. “We are currently checking out Grenache and Mourvèdre, which could be ideal for the climate,” Lacser said. “We are on a journey. No one is saying we have arrived, but we are aiming high and having a lot of fun.”
Eli Ben Zaken, Domaine du Castel
Between Jersualem and Tel Aviv lies Israel’s most rapidly growing wine region, the Judean Hills. Cooler than the well-known Golan Heights and Galilee regions in northern Israel and just 25 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, this area had an ancient winemaking history. But in the modern era, Domaine du Castel was among the first small, family-run wineries to establish itself here. (For more wineries, read "Tasting in the Judean Hills".)
Eli Ben Zaken has always worked with his sons, Ariel and Eytan, first with a restaurant and now at the winery.
Founder Eli Ben Zaken owned a popular restaurant in Jerusalem, called Mamma Mia, before purchasing and planting the Castel property in 1988 his sons, Eytan and Ariel, put in the starter vineyard by hand. “Israeli wines were not really great at the time,” Eli explained. “I decided to make some myself. Everyone told me I was crazy, that I should go north. But this is where wine was made during biblical times.”
Completely self-taught as a winemaker, Eli nonetheless found success early on his wines were received well by some international critics and the public from the first vintage, 1992. What began as a 50-case release has evolved into an annual production of more than 8,000 cases, and nearly half of that is exported. Eytan has taken over many of the winemaking responsibilities, while Ariel handles more of the business side.
“It’s an adventure to work with your family,” said Etyan. “When my father started, he was making good wine, but he didn’t know how he was doing it. So we had to look at it more closely. But it’s much more positive working with your father and brother. For us, it’s something we are proud of.”
The family produces three wines, two Bordeaux-style blends, Grand Vin and Petit Castel, and a Chardonnay, “C.” All the grapes are sourced from their 37.5 acres of vineyards or nearby properties under their supervision.
Eli has a soft spot for Bordeaux: He has a collection of 1,000 wines, mostly French. (Among them was a 1982 Château Mouton-Rothschild that slipped from his hands and onto the dusty, concrete floor, shattering on impact. “I got down on the floor and took a sip. It was the most memorable sip of wine I’ve ever had.”) Though he also drinks Burgundy, that won’t influence his plans for Castel. “Pinot Noir would be very difficult to make in Israel. I’m not even thinking about planting it.”
With the 2003 vintage, the Ben Zakens switched to making their wines all kosher. “Kosher is done by religious Jews,” Eli explained. “We had to adapt, like on Saturdays, you can’t work. We can’t get into the winery at all. With the holidays, that’s three days we can’t do anything. So that’s the biggest adaptation. But there’s no difference in quality between kosher and non-kosher wines. It was much easier than I thought.”
Victor Schoenfeld, Golan Heights Winery
Located in the north, Golan Heights Winery is one of the most recognizable names in the Israeli wine industry and one of the powerhouses of the Golan Heights wine region. Begun in 1984, the winery produces wine under three labels, Yarden, Gamla and Golan. One-fifth of its 380,000 cases are exported, to a total of 25 countries, making up almost 38 percent of Israel’s wine exports.
Victor Schoenfeld took a year off during college to manage a vineyard, then changed his major to viticulture when he returned.
The winery is run by Victor Schoenfeld, who studied at the University of California, Davis, and leads a team of three associates all also educated in California. Schoenfeld, a native Californian, spent time in Israel before college and on a later trip in 1986, met winemakers at Golan Heights he saw the region’s potential and decided he wanted to be a part of a developing wine area. “I wanted to combine my affection for Israel with my love of winemaking,” he says. “After close to 20 years, I have never looked back.”
Israel has one of the most southern Mediterranean climates in the northern hemisphere, Schoenfeld explained. “Being further south gives us an advantage of having shorter days during the hottest months and relatively long days as the weather cools, which is very good for high-quality ripening. Our high altitudes cool off our southern latitude. Our clay loam volcanic soils, which we have in the Golan Heights, combine good water holding capacity and good drainage. No other place on the planet has our unique combination of characters.”
But much is still unknown about the best grape varieties and viticultural methods for Israel's distinctive terroir, so Schoenfeld is constantly questioning. “I still feel like the Golan Heights has a huge amount of untapped potential,” he said. “My challenge is to study and understand our conditions so that we can better exploit that potential over time.”
Since 2002, he has worked with American winemaker Zelma Long on a technical project to improve quality in the vineyard and determine which grape varieties are best suited to their sites. Additionally, he uses satellite, ecological and landscape mapping systems to get a better understanding of the terroir, while a network of meteorological stations in the vineyards provides climate data. He even runs his own plant propagation project to study plant physiology, as the local representative of Entav, a technical association for viticultural improvement.
It may sound like a lot of work, but he finds it particularly rewarding, sharing a story from when he was just starting out at Golan Heights. “As a young winemaker, a friend and I went out to dinner at a very nice restaurant,” he said. “It just so happened that all the other tables around us were celebrating something, and coincidentally they were all drinking some wine that I’d made. It was a very special feeling to see something that I made help these people celebrate life. How many people make or do something that brings so much enjoyment to so many people?”
The Definitive Guide To Kosher Wine
There are a number of misperceptions when it comes to kosher wine. Some of these include the belief that all kosher wines are blessed by a rabbi, all are sweet, they appeal only to Jews, and they’re automatically kosher if they come from Israel.
But as it happens, the kosher wine world is ultimately not that different from the regular world of wine.
The modern history of kosher wines in this country really began with the immigration wave from Europe in the latter part of the 1800s, mostly through New York. Vinifera (the genus of noble European varieties) grapes were not available, so instead, concord grapes became the go-to for winemaking. Wines were made to be sweet, which was the custom.
This Is The Last Corkscrew You’ll Ever Buy
If you ask an older Jew about Schapiro’s Wine, which was founded in 1899 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, they may mention the tagline: “the wine you can almost cut with a knife.” Manischewitz, perhaps more recognizable, opened about fifty years later in Brooklyn, along with the Royal Wine Corporation (aka Kedem), headquartered in Williamsburg.
Schapiro’s has since closed shop, but Manischewitz is strong, and still makes its wine sweet, though it’s no longer family owned. The Herzog family, which owns Royal, has influenced the kosher wine market internationally. Starting with traditional sweet wine made in New York, they slowly but continuously expanded into dry wines. Over the last 20 years in particular, they have produced, sourced and imported an ever-growing selection of classy wines. Their portfolio of kosher wine is the largest in the world, and ranges from virtually every country and type. To accommodate their growth, they moved their headquarters and warehouse to New Jersey. They maintain a winery in upstate New York for their traditional wines and have another modern facility in Oxnard, California, which produces most international varietals from all over California, under several labels that they own.
Other large conventional importer/distributors have recognized the trend, and are now growing their own portfolios of kosher wines (examples are Allied Importers, Monsieur Touton, and Apollo). Yarden, one of Israel’s largest producers of kosher wine, follows the model that Royal started by making, importing and marketing its own production. Carmel Wines, a cooperative that is the largest and oldest kosher certified Israeli producer, started with cuttings supplied by Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1882. It is currently handled by Royal, though they used to be their own importer. It is not unusual for producers – kosher or not – to switch importers, whether it is for marketing, distribution or other reasons. In addition to these major players, there are also boutique import companies that mostly deal with Israeli wines, such as Happy Hearts Wine, and The River. The cost to maintain certification has to be included in every bottle sold, so the production must be large enough to make it worthwhile. Even if a non-certified wine doesn’t contain anything non kosher, it still wouldn’t be acceptable to the observant, whether it was from Israel or elsewhere.
To be considered kosher, wines and other foods must adhere to interpretations of biblical rules from rabbinic authorities that have come to be accepted over many centuries. Books have been written on the topic, but in the simplest terms, there are allowed (kosher) and disallowed foods (mostly concerning animals), and a prohibition against mixing dairy and meat. There is also a category of food that is neither dairy nor meat, called parve, which can be consumed with no restrictions.
Since wine serves sacramental as well as enjoyment purposes, there are some kashrut (kosher) practices that are very specific to wine. The accepted basics include the following:
- All rules of kosher observance must be followed, including avoiding contact with non–kosher materials
- Grapes may be picked by anyone, but once they reach the winery, rabbinic supervision and Sabbath observant workers are required
- To ensure the wine is parve, dairy or animal based products such as casein or gelatin for fining must be avoided, even if kosher
- Sealed bottles of wine can be handled by anyone however if an open bottle is handled, poured or even touched by a non-Jew or non-Sabbath observant Jew, the wine is no longer considered kosher for the very observant
- To allow non-Jews, or even non-observant Jews to handle an open bottle without rendering it non-kosher, the wine may be made “mevushal” by heating it
- In the old days, such wine was actually cooked before bottling, which is what the term “mevushal” actually means
- It has been deemed acceptable by modern sources to make a wine mevushal by flash pasteurization, at various temperatures (between 74C and 90C) depending on the authority looking over the directing winemaker’s (who might not be Jewish) shoulder
- Wines with certification will have the certifying agency listed on the label, as well as if it mevushal
Opinions vary as to whether the modern mevushal process destroys the character of a fine wine. Indeed, most low to moderate priced kosher wines (including the sweet ones) sold in the U.S. market are mevushal, while premium wines, especially those from Israel, are not. So if you have a choice, non-meshuval is the way to go.
Now for the marketplace. We all know the feeling of walking into a wine shop and being hit with a deluge of choices in terms of regions or varietals. Though there may be fewer choices on most stores’ shelves when it comes to kosher wine, it is no less daunting. Add to that the fact that retailers aren’t always as familiar with kosher wines, and the overwhelming feeling gets even worse.
But don’t despair: just like in the non-kosher world, regional and varietal characteristics tend to run true. So everything you already know about California Chardonnay is still valid: new world in style, lots of fruit, perhaps some pineapple and lots of new French and/or American oak. Into White Zin? The kosher versions will be off dry, pink with strawberry notes. That Rioja Crianza will be Tempranillo, at least two years old, with at least 12 months in mostly used oak barrels, just like non kosher versions. Right bank versus left bank Bordeaux will be what you expect, as will New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc compared to one from the Loire.
Across the Table: Kosher wine worth passing around
How did Jeff Morgan morph from a nice Jewish boy from New York into a sax player and bandleader in sequined tuxedo, then into one of the leading wine journalists in the United States, and finally into a kosher wine maker in the Napa Valley? And one who makes not just any kosher wines but a Cabernet Sauvignon that garners big points and can easily hold its own against the big boys’ Napa Valley Cabs?
It’s a long story filled with digressions.
As a young musician, Morgan went to France to study flute, then got a job as sax player and eventually bandleader at the Grand Casinoin Monte Carlo, developing a love of food and wine. That led to his decision to become a winemaker. But nobody in France, it seems, was interested in hiring an American sax player with zero winemaking experience. “So I moved back to the land of opportunity and found a job at a winery on Long Island, basically as a wine slave, doing vineyard and cellar work, learning the ropes and playing gigs at night.”
After several years of this, he thought it might be easier to write about wine than make it, so he started at a local newspaper and eventually worked his way into the New York Times and a job as the West Coast editor of Wine Spectator magazine.
His first assignment in 1992? To write a story on kosher wine for Passover. “My response was, why me?” I didn’t know a thing about kosher wine. I hadn’t even been bar mitzvahed” he recounts. “But I took the job.” In the process, Morgan learned that among the many questionable kosher wines available 21 years ago, there actually were some really good ones.
He wrote that story almost every year for the next seven. “I learned that kosher wine could be made exactly the way non-kosher wine is made. There is no kosher technique. What matters is who touches the wine.” And also that all of the ingredients, including any fining agents, need to be kosher.
Flash forward to 1999, when Leslie Rudd of Rudd Vineyards hired Morgan as wine director at Dean & DeLuca in Napa Valley. The two became friendly. At the same time Morgan started a small (non-kosher) rosé project called SoloRosa. Rudd organized a Jewish winemaker tasting group that invited an Israeli kosher wine maker to present his wine.
“It was a Bordeaux blend — and delicious, so much better than either of us had grown up drinking at Passover,” remembers Morgan. “Those wines were lousy because they were made with the Concord grape.”
The light bulb went on. Morgan told Rudd that if he gave him 10 tons of his best grapes, they could make the greatest kosher wine in 5,000 years. “It was a moment of chutzpah.”
Rudd’s response was, “Are you crazy? What if you screw it up? It will be the worst kosher wine in 5,000 years — and from Rudd Vineyard!” That was that — until Rudd came back with an offer: If Morgan found some other grapes, he’d be his partner.
They decided to call the wine Covenant.
Next step: Morgan had to find Sabbath-observant Jews for his cellar crew. The only ones who knew how to make fine wine were at Herzog Cellars in Southern California, so he persuaded Nathan Herzog to help him out, and in exchange, Herzog could distribute the wines in New York and New Jersey.
For the first harvest in 2003, Morgan brought the grapes down to Herzog in a refrigerated truck. “We used my grapes, my winemaking protocol — and the Herzog cellar crew’s hands,” Morgan says.
The wine got great reviews when it was released in 2005: 93 points from Robert Parker and 92 points from Wine Spectator.
“I did a little celebratory dance. It was nice to know that we made a kosher wine that got serious recognition by the media,” says Morgan, adding that they weren’t the first and only kosher wines ever to get good scores. However, Covenant consistently gets 90-plus scores from the major publications that rate wine.
In 2008, he was able to move the Covenant operation up to Napa, because Jonathan Hadju, one of Herzog’s cellar crew, had moved to the Bay Area. “I asked him to be my associate winemaker. Though I had my bar mitzvah at 54, if Iwant to taste the wine or pull wine out of the barrel, Jonathan has to do that,” says Morgan. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of cleanup I can still do.”
Covenant wines, which range from $24 to $150 per bottle, are available from its website, https://www.covenantwines.com, or by phone (707) 963-7385. In Los Angeles, Cask Wine Shop at 8616 Pico Blvd. has an excellent selection of kosher wines.
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S. Irene Virbila is a former restaurant critic and wine columnist for the Los Angeles Times. She left in 2015.
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