- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
Kosher Wines: Best Blessed Bottles
My 90-year-old Jewish Mother likes to tell a story about me and my first encounter with wine. According to Mom, when I was five years old I tasted wine for the first time, as part of the Passover Seder ritual. The Seder features a wonderful, almost opulent meal, but you have to sit through about an hour or two of storytelling, blessings, prayers, and songs before you get to eat. Children must ask The Four Questions (in Hebrew, even though nobody at our table understood the language) which boiled down to one big question: “Why is this night different from every other night?”
One of the big differences was that I got to taste wine with my matzo. The Seder calls for the drinking of four small cups –preferably silver cups - of wine (and pouring a fifth for the prophet, Elijah, messenger of the Messiah, for whom the youngest child at the Seder must open the door. As everyone sings in honor of Elijah, they all swear that they see some of the wine in the silver cup magically disappear). The children drink kosher grape juice, but often the parents, or an indulgent aunt or uncle, will allow a child to taste a drop or two of the kosher wine served to the adults. And so it was in my house at the family Seder.
According to my mother, when I tasted a few drops of the Concord grape-too sweet-too alcoholic-food hostile-bad boogie-Manischewitz, I recoiled and asked, “Don’t we have anything better than this?” Mom almost cries with laughter as she comically laments, “Even at five years old, you were a wine snob, Stevie!”
The image of kosher wines, until recently, has been very close to the wine I rejected in my youth. There is little doubt that the traditional, ceremonial, virtually undrinkable kosher jug of Mogen David or Manischewitz (made from Concord grapes grown in the Finger Lakes and Lake Erie of New York State, produced by Canandaigua Wines, which over the years has morphed into Constellation Wines, recently (in partnership with BL Hardys of Australia becoming the largest wine company in the world. Familiar brands include: Franciscan, Simi, Veramonte, Ravenswood, Banrock Station, Almadén, Paul Masson, and dozens of others) will always be available for those who, by either habit or desire, choose to drink the stuff on High Holy Days or with their Friday night Sabbath dinner. I am happy to report, however, that kosher wines do not have to be the product of God in His or Her wrathful phase. The “new” kosher wines can only be described as great wines that just happen to be kosher, and for that all of us, Jewish or not, can only sing out, “Amen!”
Recently, I have had the pleasure of tasting a few dozen kosher wines from all over the world – the United States, Italy, Spain, France, Australia, Chile, and of course, Israel. The differences between these wines and the Concord jugs of my youth are palpable and pleasurable. I no longer feel as though I am atoning for what must be some pretty serious sins when I taste kosher wines. Instead, these blessed bottles allow wine lovers of all religious persuasions and permutations - including those who worship only Bacchus – to enjoy, indulge, and luxuriate, without suffering, without guilt (a big step forward for anyone who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, where guilt is a dish best served either hot or cold, but repeatedly).
So what makes a wine kosher? This question is not as easy to answer as it might seem. For example, a majority of Conservative and Reform Jews, many of whom do not eat and drink only kosher food and wine on a daily basis, believe that all wines - like all fruits – are kosher, and do not need any further elaboration. This secular interpretation flies in the face of Orthodox Jewish law and custom. Essentially, the Orthodox approach to kosher wine includes the following rules:
• As with all kosher food products, the wine must be made under the general supervision of a rabbi who must be certified or licensed to perform such duties;
• All equipment and machinery used to make the wine must be used to produce only Kosher wines. If a wine is certified as “Kosher for Passover,” equipment and machinery must undergo a special cleaning and sanitizing procedure and can be used only for that purpose;
• Any yeasts, filtering agents, or clarifying agents must be certified as kosher. Since no milk or gelatin can be used for clarification, the overwhelming majority of kosher wines are clarified with Bentonite clay or Diatomaceous earth.
• No artificial coloring or preservatives can be used.
• Only Sabbath-observant Jews can be involved in the growing of the grapes, the winemaking process, the service of the wine, and the consumption of the wine, unless the wine has gone through a pasteurization process known as “Mevushal.”
In the modern kosher wine industry, both non-Mevushal wines, which are produced by and for Orthodox Jews, and Mevushal wines, which can be produced and consumed by anyone regardless of his or her religion, are available. “Mevushal,” which in Hebrew means “Boiled,” is actually a flash heating and cooling process that is perhaps as much ritual as it is science, and harkens back to the origins of Judaism itself. The most revered rabbis insisted that all wine must be boiled so that the wines would not taste good enough to enjoy for pleasure; just barely good enough to drink to observe the sacraments of faith (again with the guilt!).
White and rosé wines that undergo “Mevushal” are flash-pasteurized before the juice is fermented; reds immediately following alcoholic fermentation, but before malolactic fermentation. The pasteurization process occurs as either the juice or the wine (depending on if the finished wine is white, rosé, or red) is heated to 185ºF for a few moments, and then cooled very quickly. According to the University of California at Davis, Mevushal wines do not even come close to the time and temperature threshold at which a wine drinker can perceive any difference in color, nose, or taste of the wine. A good rule of thumb for identifying a Mevushal kosher wine is if you are purchasing your kosher wine in a shop or restaurant that is open on Saturday – the Jewish Sabbath day – then you are probably buying a Mevushal wine, unless the label indicates otherwise.
Good kosher wines – both Mevushal and non-Mevushal - are increasingly available to the general public in wine shops and restaurants (Mevushal) and via the internet (both Mevushal and non-Mevushal). These wines are worth tasting by all those who enjoy good wine, and also make a thoughtful gift if you’re having dinner at the home of a friend who “keeps kosher.”
Some of the exciting kosher wines that I’ve tasted recently include (unless indicated otherwise, all wines are Mevushal and Kosher for Passover):
FOUR GATES WINERY
SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS CHARDONNAY 2000 AND SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS PINOT NOIR 2000 (NON-MEVUSHAL).
Benyamin Cantz produces certified organic, estate-bottled wines produced from 3.5 acres of dry-farmed vineyards on a south-facing slope of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. At a total production of 3,600 bottles (300 cases), Four Gates is the smallest kosher winery and the only certified organic kosher winery in the United States. Both the Chardonnay ($18) and the Pinot Noir ($20) are two of the purest, most balanced, terroir-driven wines I have tasted from California in quite some time. Showing beautifully now, both of these wines will improve with a bit of age, especially the Pinot Noir. Four Gates also produces estate-bottled organic Cabernet Franc and Merlot (both $20). True artisan wines made by a dedicated mensch. Best wines and best values of my entire kosher tasting. To find out more about Four Gates, or to purchase wines, do yourself a mitzvah and contact Benyamin Cantz at: www.ecojew.com/fourgates/ or call 831.457.2673.
GAN EDEN WINERY
CALIFORNIA SYRAH 2000, and 1997 CABERNET SAUVIGNON LIMITED RESERVE MENDOCINO COUNTY (NON-MEVUSHAL)
Craig Mitchell, a native of Louisville, Kentucky is the CEO, winemaker, and only permanent employee of Gan Eden, located in Sebastopol, where he lives with his Chinese Christian-turned Orthodox Jewish wife and their six kids. Mitchell is known as an idiosyncratic guy who makes kosher wines his own way; big and brawny, but with good structure and assertive tannins. The Syrah ($18) is a benevolent monster; fermented on its own yeasts, the wine is a whopping 16% alcohol, which brings out the classic Syrah “pepper” in the nose and on the palate. The Mendocino Cabernet ($40) is especially high in acid, and is rich, ripe, tannic, and heavily oaked, but is beginning to mellow and show some real balance; may very well become a true classic from a great vintage.
BARON HERZOG ZINFANDEL “OLD VINES” LODI 2001, AND HERZOG CABERNET SAUVIGNON SPECIAL EDITION WARNECKE VINEYARD CHALK HILL 2001 (NON-MEVUSHAL)
Herzog is the major California line of wines produced by the Royal Wine Company, the largest producer of kosher wines in the world. In January, the company broke ground for a 77,000 square foot wine production facility in Oxnard, near Los Angeles. I have tasted many Herzog wines over the years (Royal also owns Weinstock kosher wines in California, which are also pretty good), and have found a steady and impressive improvement in both grape sourcing and wine making. Today, some of the wines are amongst the best available from California. I have singled out the Zinfandel ($10) and the Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) because they really are extraordinary. The Zinfandel is sourced from 65 year old vines grown in the Richard Watts vineyard, and is a testament to the flavors derived from an older single vineyard and good winemaking: blackberries and pepper, coupled with some gentle oak overtones. This minimally filtered Zin is an incredible value. The Cabernet is also a single-vineyard wine and is unfiltered. Chalk Hill is a district within Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, and the Warnecke Vineyard produces some outstanding fruit, which winemaker Joe Hurliman has treated with great care: 20 months in French oak help to round the structural edge of the wine, which is redolent with the flavors of blackberries and cassis.
BINYAMINA CHARDONNAY SHOMRON 2002 AND CARMEL VINEYARD SELECTED EMERALD RIESLING/CHENIN BLANC SHOMRON 2002
Both Binyamina and Carmel are part of the Royal Wine Company. I really enjoyed the blend of 60% Emerald Riesling and 40% Chenin Blanc (about $8); a perfect hot-weather fruity off-dry sipper, great for spicy foods, lighter fish dishes, and salads. The Chardonnay (about $15) is well made, with luscious fruit and toasty oak, but as I have found in so many Israeli wines, lacking a sense of place. Drip irrigation was invented in Israel, and is essential to grape growing in the dessert. However, the roots of the watered vines have no incentive to go deep in the soils in their search for water and nutrients, and the resulting flavors in the grapes and finished wines lack complexity, the sign of a great wine.
I also tasted good non-Mevushal 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($13) and Merlot ($12) from Israel, made by Galil from fruit grown in the highly regarded region of Upper Galilee.
Note: Israel produces both kosher and non-kosher wines; check the label if you are looking for kosher wines only.
Several Champagne producers, including Perrier-Jouët and Nicolas Feuillatte produce kosher versions of their wines, as do about 20 Bordeaux châteaux (including Giscours, Leoville-Poyferre, and Fonbadet). Fortant de France makes kosher versions of their vin de pays varietals. Roberto Cohen is a major kosher négociant in Burgundy, producing everything from Beaujolais to Chablis to Grand Cru Burgundy (Clos de Vougeot 2000: $324; Charmes-Chambertin 2000: $295). Kosher wines are available from Alsace (look for Abarbanel), the Loire and the Rhone, as well.
In Spain, Tio Pepe, the Sherry that even rival Sherry producers bring as a gift, makes a lovely kosher Fino Sherry ($13). I very much enjoyed a lively 2002 Rioja Cosecha from Ramon Cardova ($12), made from 100% Tempranillo grapes picked from old vines in Haro. Tierra Salvaje, which extends its reach to kosher wines made in Chile and Argentina as well, produces a kosher Brut Reserva Cava ($16.)
Italy, too, produces some good kosher wines, with Bartenura importing wines from Piemonte and Veneto. Rashi makes a good Barolo (the 1999 is $34), while Borgo focuses on the province of Puglia in the South.
Alfasi is the major kosher producer here, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec/Syrah bottlings all selling for about $7.00. The wines are well made and true to their varietal types; good values.
Estate-bottled kosher wines are made buy Beckett’s Flat in the Margaret River region. Reds: Shiraz and Shiraz/Cabernet (both about $26); Whites: Chardonnay ($23) and Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon ($21). Teal Lake is the kosher category leader here with solid wines at about $10-15 from the South Eastern Australia mega-appellation. I enjoyed the Teal Lake Shiraz quite a bit.
Kosher wines are a fast-growing segment in the wine industry, and I have just scratched the surface here. Retailers and restaurateurs are bound to have some of the wines; the internet is a good place to start exploring what is available. Go to www.kosherwine.com for a good selection and www.machers.com for a basic introduction to kosher wines in general.
The evolution of quality kosher wine has been exciting to watch and to taste. The wines have certainly come a long way since I was five years old, tasting wine for the first time at the family Seder table. However, this sea change in quality leaves the same burning question I asked my mother 50 years ago: “Does Elijah drink only Manischewitz?”