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Rosh Hashanah wines: it’s a fine time to pour some fruit of the vines

by J.D. Smith

September 14, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Do you know that song, "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)," by the Temptations? I probably heard that song about a million times before I ever stopped and paid attention to the words. Turns out, it's a lament about a guy who never even talks to the girl of his dreams. Who knew?
 
Do you know the blessing over wine? Nine words, pretty straightforward stuff: Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam, boray p'ree hagafen. Amen. Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who created the fruit of the vine. That's it. Thank you God for the wine.
 
I must have mouthed the words to that prayer a thousand times on Friday nights. It turns out that wine is a blessing the Creator gave to man. Who knew?
 
It's no coincidence that wine plays a supporting role in every Jewish holiday and festival, from Purim to Passover, weddings and bar mitzvahs, right up to the High Holidays.
 
I never really thought about it much until I participated in the wedding of two friends, neither of whom happened to be Jewish, and gave the blessing over the wine. I told them that wine should serve as a reminder that there are blessings all around us, if we only open ourselves to receive them. Benjamin Franklin said, "Wine is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
 
One could make the argument that there is nothing else that quite captures the entire world in one place as well as a single glass of good wine. It's got everything in it: the earth and sky, artistry and technology, science and luck and even international monetary policy.
 
For an agricultural product, it commands a good deal of religious attention -- much more than tomatoes or potatoes or anything else except, perhaps, bread, which got its own prayer.
 
One could further argue that most of the trouble in the world seems to come from places where the religious leaders don't recognize that wine is a blessing and see it as the handiwork of the devil. Have a glass of wine and relax a little bit ayatollah.
 
With the High Holidays coming, I ventured to try some kosher wines. Testing the "you don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's" theory, I assembled an expert tasting panel consisting primarily of Catholics who rarely drink wine.
 
We found that kosher wines have come a long, long way since the days when they were made of Concord grapes with artificial flavors added, until they could fairly be mistaken for alcohol-fortified pancake syrup.
 
So what blessings shall we receive over the High Holidays?
 
One nice thing about the High Holidays is that you know pretty much what will be served. The traditional erev-Rosh Hashanah meal usually consists of brisket and chicken, potato latkes, some sweet carrots, a green vegetable and maybe a nice noodle kugel. This is a mess of a wine pairing that suggests taking the obvious red wine choice: cabernet sauvignon.
 
But why be obvious? The gates are closing on another year and you made it! You said you were going to keep an open mind, try new things, and here's a great opportunity to make good on your year-old new year's resolution. Be daring. Try a syrah: the Kiddush Hashem Syrah from Great Oaks Ranch Vineyard 2002 (around $38) ought to stand up nicely to that brisket but won't overpower your kugel. Yom Kippur demands something lighter after a long day of fasting. In my recent experience (Hi Aunt Loraine!) the break-the-fast buffet usually turns out to be a crazy mix of tuna salad, lox and chicken enchiladas, with about a 1,000 desserts.
 
Kosher-wise, you simply can't beat the Yarden Katzrim chardonnay from Israel. I've put this wine to the blind taste test against non-Kosher wines to very impressive results. (I still don't know if it's good news or bad to say that a wine you like doesn't tastes "too kosher.")
 
Can't commit to red or white? Take the Buddhist middle path and a pour the Yarden Galil rosé 2004 made principally from Sangiovese. It's the perfect wine with which to say goodbye to the endless summer in Southern California. At 14 percent alcohol on an empty stomach, you'll be lucky if you can find the middle path.
 
As for next year's bounty, the Israeli-Lebanese cease-fire came just in time to save this year's wine harvest. Growers were unable to tend their vines during the 34-day conflict as rockets pelted the Upper Galilee, home to Yarden and Dalton wineries, among others. Though there were few direct strikes on vineyards, winemakers had difficulty reaching their crops to prune them, adding stress to the vines and lower yields, which may actually result in better wine from this harvest. How can you not love these wines when you hear this story?
 
Will we see a 2006 Katyusha special reserve?
 
My choice to help ring in a happy, healthy 5767 is the Kosher Laurent Perrier rosé (about $95). This nonvintage Champagne really does add a sparkle to the day. It may be a little more expensive than everyday wines, but, come on, this is the High Holidays -- it's New Year's Eve and the Super Bowl of religion all rolled into one. What are you going to celebrate with, cheap Champagne? Paraphrasing some ancient rabbi: If not now, when? Go ahead, live a little. Is it any wonder that the most famous (and only?) Jewish drinking song is "L'Chaim...To life!"

J.D. Smith's contributions to The Journal's Singles column were cut short by his marriage a couple years ago. He is the author of "The Best Cellar" (Volt Press).

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