Taking a plunge into kosher wines
Some months ago I was in a downtown Manhattan liquor store looking for a kosher wine to bring to the home of an Orthodox friend. Scanning unfamiliar labels—Ramon Cardova, Alfasi, Tishbi—my eyes started to glaze over. “Excuse me, but what are you looking for?” asked a fellow shopper, dressed in a floor-length skirt and long sleeves in spite of the Indian summer. “I’m not sure,” I said. “Something kosher.” “Well,” she asked, “do you need something mevushal?”
“Meh-VOO-shul?” I must have looked perplexed by the foreign-sounding word. “Yeah, like, are there going to be non-Jews where you’re going?” she replied. By then, my befuddlement was plain. The young woman continued. “Mevushal—it’s like, the wine you’re allowed to drink around people who aren’t Jewish.” Suddenly, an “aha!” moment; rolling her Yiddish-soaked pronunciation in my head, I realized it was a word I knew: meh-voo-SHAL, Hebrew for cooked.
Raised in a kosher home, I thought I was fluent in the basics of what’s permissible to eat and drink. But mevushal—cooked wine—was an entirely new concept to me. Pardon the forthcoming cliché, but we had Manischewitz in our house growing up. It was, of course, overly sweet and made from Concord grapes (not considered at all good for making wine), and its use chez Ivry was limited to the Kiddush prayer on Sabbath and holidays. After screwing its top back on, we’d transition to other kosher wines from winemakers like Baron Herzog and Carmel. These days, those stalwart labels have had to make room on the shelf for newer kosher vintages, like Abarbanel’s pinot blanc, from Alsace and chardonnay from Beckett’s Flat, a winery in Western Australia.
Unlike the rules governing what foods are kosher, explicitly detailed in Leviticus, the single allusion to restrictions on wine consumption appears late in the Hebrew Bible. In the first passages of the book of Daniel, the third-to-last text of the Old Testament, the prophet politely declines to partake of the food and wine offered to him and his companions by King Nebuchadnezzar, their boss.
Consumed by a non-Jew, the wine was “taboo and it’s not clear why,” explains David Kraemer, a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the author of the forthcoming book Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages. “We know from later rabbinic practice that wine of foreigners was prohibited because firstly, it might be used in foreign worship,” Kraemer says, “and secondly, if you drink wine with people, it tends to lead to familiar relations and you don’t want overly familiar relations with them.”
The rationale reminded me of my father’s weary joke: Be careful who you hold hands with—it could lead (gasp!) to dancing.
Borscht Belt hobbyists aside, kosher wine rules set forth in the Talmudic tractate of Avoda Zara—idol worship—cement the idea that the restrictions are ultimately “about staying separate,” Kraemer says. Contrary to what I had assumed—that kosher rules were imposed on winemaking to guard against the introduction of impure microorganisms—”there is no fear expressed in these discussions that there might be prohibited substance in the wine. The prohibition is because of what the wine might have been used for and what it might do.”
The power projected onto the wine—what it might do—gave rise to the practice of cooking it. That’s because the Talmud also asserts that idolators would not use boiled wine in their worship, Kraemer tells me. The text offers no citation for that claim; it is simply accepted as truth. Since boiled wine is off-limits for idol worshippers, it’s also supposedly immune to their fantasies of using it in pagan practice. Thus, Jews began boiling some of their wine. Traditionally it is only that boiled portion that can be shared with non-Jews or served to Jews by them; even today, at Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, and other Jewish celebrations, Orthodox hosts or strictly kosher caterers will likely purchase mevushal wine on the chance the waitstaff are not Jews.
There is, arguably, an air of hocus-pocus to this cooking business, a taste-killer if ever there was one. (Exactly how many idolators who use wine in their rites do you know?) Mercifully, the thousand-plus-year-old mevushal process underwent one monumental change about 15 years ago. It no longer requires boiling. Instead to make wine mevushal, the vitner flash-pasteurizes the wine, heating it to around 180 degrees Farenheit for a few seconds in a process some consumers say has no discernable impact on taste. In fact, some think it enhances the wine; the Burgundy-based Maison Louis Latour, (a winery whose pinot noir I’ve drunk and, if my spirit-addled memory serves, I’ve enjoyed) uses flash pasteurization even though it is not a kosher outfit.
It’s difficult to know exactly how much kosher wine today is mevushal. Howard Abarbanel, the president of the Abarbanel Wine Company on Long Island, estimates that about half of what’s available in the United States is mevushal, a share, he says, that has not much changed in recent years. To a not entirely refined palette—such as mine—the difference between a mevushal wine, like the red Primativo di Manduria from Borgo Reale and a non-mevushal wine, like the Sion Creek red from Golan, is entirely indiscernible.
Still, the stigma attached to kosher wine as an inferior product overall has resilience, whether because of Manischewitz’s dominance, or the assumption that making it mevushal will ruin it, or a more general ambivalence about the quality of all things kosher. More than one person guffawed when I invited them to a kosher wine tasting.
;But, the tide is shifting. According to Alice Feiring, a wine blogger and author of the memoir The Battle for Wine and Love: Or, How I Saved the World from Parkerization, due out next year, in the past few decades Americans “going to Israel found that there were good wines being produced there. They brought them back, started asking for them in stores.” This recent ascent, though, can be misleading to wine novices, she says. Good kosher wine is not an entirely new phenomenon. “Before World War II, there were a lot of good kosher wines from Hungary, Czechoslovakia,” Feiring points out. “The Italian Jews made wine, and the French Jews and the Algerian Jews.”
Costas Mouzouras, the kosher wine buyer at Gotham Wines and Liquors in Manhattan, cites 1987 as a turning point for kosher wines. That’s when a 1984 cabernet from Yarden, produced in the Golan Heights, captured the gold medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition. “Israeli wine started gaining recognition. Israeli winemakers brought in winemakers from California to help with planting, vineyards…and everything followed from there,” he says.
Bear in mind that many of Israel’s wineries did not exist much before then; according to wine critic Howard Goldberg, it was not until 1976, after Israel reclaimed land in the Golan in the 1967 war and then again in 1973, that Israeli vintners were able to start growing grapes in earnest in that region. Now in addition to the proliferation of kosher wineries in Israel, companies like Abarbanel and Herzog have established working relationships with non-kosher wineries in Europe, South America, Australia, and elsewhere to help them produce kosher vintages.
;Just how do they do that? The essential criterion for kosher wine is that only Sabbath-observant Jews are allowed to handle production from the point that juice is expressed from the grape onward. That doesn’t mean, explains Howard Abarbanel, that there are legions of Orthodox vintners and their minions running wineries around the world; rather, a non-observant person, or even a non-Jew, may be on the premises, standing behind a Sabbath-observant employee and instructing him what buttons to push. Think of it as the reverse of a Shabbos goy, though kosher wine cannot be produced on the Sabbath, nor on any other religious holiday.
Beyond making sure that Sabbath-observers oversee this winemaking process, wineries must take additional steps toward product kosherness. They can’t use gelatin to clarify the wine since it’s made from boiled-down pig bones; instead, kosher vintners use small pieces of bentonite clay (about the size of Corn Flakes, Abarbanel says) in the fining process. In triggering fermentation, kosher vintners use kosher yeast and enzymes derived from sunflowers or other flora (as opposed to yeast and enzymes from animal byproducts) so that the wine can be paired with either milk or meat meals.
Equipment—grape crushers, tanks—must be blasted three times with water more than 185 degrees Fahrenheit before being used. Anything that’s not removed in that triple scald gets hit with a blowtorch. As Abarbanel notes, “There’s a fanatical level of Felix Unger-type cleanliness.”
How that translates to taste is anybody’s guess.
A Kosher Wine Sampler
Seder attendees making their way through the Haggadah next Monday and Tuesday nights will recite blessings over four cups of wine, each with its own significance. As David Kraemer explains it, the reasons behind three of those cups are straightforward: the first is for Kiddush; the third accompanies the blessing after the meals; and the fourth is in connection with the recitation of the Hallel prayer.
The oddball is the second cup of the evening, since it does not correlate to any specific ritual. We pour it as the maggid portion of the Haggadah gets underway (that’s when we tell the actual story of the Exodus from Egypt), which seems random but is arguably quite shrewd in spurring discussion, a hallmark of the seder process. Coming when it does, says Kraemer, the second-cup pouring “provokes questions. It’s a time when you don’t need to pour wine; it’s out of place. And then you’ll ask, why?”
Rabbinical interpretations suggest the four cups symbolize elements of Jewish redemption in the past as well as future redemption, when the Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt.
For his part, Howard Abarbanel, the president of the Abarbanel Wine Company, uses the four cups as an opportunity for a kind of taste test: a very dry wine, like an Alsatian pinot noir, for the first cup, to a semidry red, like one from Efron’s Cave, for the second; a semisweet wine, such as Byblos bonarda for the third; and finally, a dessert wine, like Noah’s muscat, for the final glass.
“I think that people don’t drink enough on Passover,” he says. “If you’re drinking the four cups, the story is going to be a whole lot more interesting and you’re going to tolerate your Uncle Izzy a lot more. That’s what the holiday is about—you shouldn’t be abstemious.” Spoken like a true wine salesman.
With the help of writer Alice Feiring and wine buyer Costas Mouzouras, I conducted my own mini taste test of kosher wines. Here are some of our findings:
Primativo di Manduria, 2004 (mevushal)
An Italian wine from the Puglia region, this wine has a deep bouquet that made me think of a luscious port. It had, Alice observed, “something rosy about it in a hot, musky way.”
Red Wine, 2004
Made from a slew of grapes—sangiovese, syrah, gamay noir, pinot noir, nebbiolo and Napa gamay—this wine was balanced and its taste emitted a cherry-cedar quality.
Pinot Blanc, 2002 (mevushal)
In spite of a distinct aroma of Silly Putty that wafted upwards from my glass, this wine was light and particularly ephemeral, leaving no aftertaste. Costas disagreed, remarking “it tastes old and almost tired.”
Pinot Noir, 2005 (mevushal)
Hailing from Alsace, this wine seemed pliable, chameleon-like, and versatile to me. Alice felt it had a little bit of interest. Costas said it “displays everything a pinot should be; it’s soft and easy drinking.”
Chardonnay, 2006 (mevushal)
Don’t be put off by the fact that the bottle has a screw top instead of a cork. This wine was light and refreshing and had, on my tongue, a hint of sparkle. Too light, perhaps, to bring out nuances in food, it’s certainly pleasant enough to serve as a starter drink.
Shiraz, 2004 (mevushal)
“A home run,” said Costas, who felt it was very well-integrated and observed dark fruity flavors of plum, blackberry, and cassis in it.