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March 29, 2007

Confessions of a kosher wine snob

http://www.jewishjournal.com/passover/article/confessions_of_a_kosher_wine_snob_20070330

Passover is finally here and while the family is wrangling over who will play host and who's invited, I'm wrangling with which wines to serve. The seder is a feast, after all, not just a long, drawn-out dinner party with responsive reading and some especially catchy tunes. We all know the story of Moses vs. Pharaoh, the plagues, the epic escape from slavery through the Red Sea. (It turns out that the story of Passover is actually older than the Cecil B. DeMille epic "The Ten Commandments.") The seder is like a Harlem Globetrotters "game" -- you know the ending before you even sit down to enjoy the show, but it always satisfies.

I went to the market the other day with an eye toward getting all my Passover seder fixings. There, screaming at me from a shelf as soon as I walked in was a kosher wine in a square bottle with a screw-cap promising it was "extra sweet." It might as well have said "extra awful" alongside the "extra day-old bread" and "extra-moldy cheese." This stuff has the body of a can of 10W-40 motor oil and almost all the aromatic charm. It pairs nicely with the pink horseradish condiment served alongside gefilte fish, if only because it's a fair fight.

All of which raises the question: If the ancient Hebrews threw off the chains of slavery and got out of Egypt all those years ago, why are we modern-day Jews still tradition-bound to this treacly, awful mess that passes for wine?

I say it's time we, as a people, escape the chains of wine bondage and let our palates taste the Promised Land. To be fair to critics who worship the Golden Calf known as Robert M. Parker Jr. and his vinous gospel, writ not on parchment but on creme colored paper and mailed six times yearly, there is a proportionate percentage of plonk among kosher offerings.

("Plonk" is not a Yiddish word, though it could and should be. It is wine snob slang, meaning "cheap, bad wine.") Some are of the Two-Buck Schmuck variety, while some others aim high and miss wide, but there are more and more good kosher wines from all over the world that deserve a place on your table, and not only at Passover.

What better way to start off any feast than with a sparkling wine? No self-respecting wine snob is going to mistake the bubbles of the 1998 Yarden Blanc de Blancs from Galilee (around $25 per bottle) for that treif Dom Pérignon, but Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France, and this is a more-than-suitable substitute. Serve very cold either straight or with a dram of kosher creme de cassis for a delightfully refreshing Kir Royale.

Alternately, you can greet your mishpachah with the 2005 Bartenura Moscato, a sweet, lightly effervescent white aperitif from Italy in a striking cobalt blue bottle. At 5 percent alcohol this barely qualifies as wine and may seem more like hard cider, but it is absolutely delicious (about $12), and should be perfect alongside bubbe's chopped liver with the shredded egg on top.

At the dinner break, the intermezzo in the hagaddah, uncork one of the very good kosher Cabernet Sauvignons available. I tried several at a blind tasting with a panel of experts (consisting of a bona fide wine snob and some other guy we pulled in from the office), and two smaller production Israeli wines stood out. The 2003 Barkan Altitude Series +624 (about $40) is a no-nonsense wine with good backbone that suggests you should either decant it about an hour before serving or save it for your seder in 2009.

This is only partly intended as a joke. One problem with kosher wine is that many people only serve it at Jewish holidays and then run to the store to pick up the best thing they can find. Many of these wines are comparable to some of the better Napa Valley Cabernets and will benefit from ageing, so as long as you're up get a couple bottles and put one away for next year.

The 2003 Carmel Winery Limited Edition (about $50) is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec and a bissel of Cabernet Franc selected from their best vineyards. This is a real mouthful of purple wine that will dance the hora with your sweet-and-sour brisket. Also highly recommended are Covenant from Napa Valley (any vintage will do, $90), and 2002 Château Pontet-Canet from Pauillac in Bordeaux, virtually identical to their non-kosher offering ($125).

Any true bacchanal deserves a dessert wine, and there's a doozy waiting in store for you this season, the fine Ruby Porto Cordovero, made by the proprietors of Taylor Fladgate and Yeatman, one of the premier producers in Oporto.

This is the first-ever kosher Port wine. Imagine that!

One of the requirements for a wine to be kosher is that it must be handled exclusively by observant Jews. The grapes that go into Port are crushed by foot in giant vats, and I have it on good authority that this wine was crushed by observant Jewish feet. Serve slightly chilled and drink while seated. At 20 percent alcohol, you should remember this little saying: Never have more than two glasses of Port, no matter how good an idea it seems at the time.

Two glasses, then say "dayenu."

J.D. Smith is the author of "The Best Cellar."

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