March 30, 2006
Wines to Test the Palate, Pocketbook
Before I got married, the rabbi told us that there would be certain rituals, including the part where we drink twice from a Kiddush cup. The first sip represents our engagement, then some Hebrew stuff gets said, then the second sip symbolizes our marriage. I suggested that the wine be something extra special, perhaps the 1983 Chateau d'Yquem. The rabbi insisted that we have a kosher wine.
"They're not so bad," he said.
"That's the sales pitch?" I said. "That's the best you can do?"
I wasn't going to stop the wedding, but I considered changing rabbis. With time running out, we worked out a Solomonic compromise: one cup of his Galilee Chardonnay from Israel, and one cup of my '83 Y'quem from Sauternes. The kosher wine lived up to its billing, and so did the Y'quem -- it was the sweetest thing I've ever tasted. Amen!
Kosher wine has got a bad reputation, some of which is justly deserved. Along with rabbinical supervision of the winemaking process, strict rules about cleaning barrels, the prohibition of animal products and other laws regarding viniculture, wine was actually boiled (mevushal) as part of the traditional koshering process. And what's Rule No. 1 in the making and storing of wine? Excessive heat is bad. The resulting product was completely free of bacteria, but tasted, well, boiled. The best thing you used to be able to say about a kosher wine was that it didn't taste too kosher.
Further adding to the justly deserved bad rap is that much American kosher wine was traditionally made of Concord grapes, indigenous to New York (a galaxy far, far away from Napa Valley), known to have high residual sugar and a distinctly "foxy" flavor that is better lent to grape jelly than fine wine. These wines (I'm not naming names here) are sometimes flavored with fruit brandies, creating a sickeningly sweet concoction that has poisoned thousands of young palates with the promise of getting mildly looped on something that approximates drinking a bag of Skittles.
The good news is that a lot has changed. Kosher wine is now made all over the world (including Italy, Spain, Australia and New Zealand), and from all kinds of grapes. And while some mevushal wine is still boiled, most undergoes the equivalent of a flash pasteurization, and a lot of these are quite good -- good enough that even the most discriminating palates wouldn't vilify them as being too kosher.
On that cheery note, with Passover just days away, here are some suggestions, and they are all kosher:
I always say that the most important bottle of wine you own is the bottle of champagne you keep in the fridge. And that should be really good champagne because, really, what are you going to celebrate with lousy champagne? The kids are sick? The picture bombed? The Jews got stuck in Egypt? No.
Start the evening with an excellent Laurent Perrier Brut Rose Kosher non-vintage Champagne (around $90). Heidsieck and Nicholas Feuillate also make enticing bubbly for around $60. One of the many great things about champagne is that it goes well with practically everything, including bubbe's matzah ball soup.
If you need something stronger to help cope with the relatives, kick off the seder with Mishka kosher vodka from Israel ($27, about the same price as Absolut). It comes in a cool bottle and no one will know you're observing anything other than the cocktail hour ritual. I recommend a Gimlet (3 parts vodka, 1 part Rose's lime juice) served very chilled, straight up, in a big martini glass to help you choke down some chopped liver with schmaltz on matzah.
There are several good, reasonably priced kosher Chardonnays that will go well with charoset (Castel Blanc du Castel, $35; Baron Herzog Reserve, $30), but if you're ready to step up to the plate, go for the French whites from Domaine Labet (2002 Meursault and Puligny Montrachet $50; Corton Charlemagne $130). Some of the French may be anti-Semites, but you'd never know it from tasting these little darlings. Their bracing acidity will go well with charoset.
Sadly, nothing goes with maror, and maybe it's best not to enjoy the bitter herbs symbolizing the bitterness of slavery. (For our purposes here, we will not even mention the roasted egg.) But the nightmare, the one that keeps sommeliers up at night, is not written in scripture. The true horror is trying to find the perfect beverage to pair with gefilte fish and pink horseradish sauce. The answer is ice cold Evian water served in a fancy crystal glass from your wedding registry. Horseradish can turn a bottle of Petrus into plonk. In a pinch, try a chilled shot of Jellnek kosher Czechoslovakian Slivovitz (around $35); it'll put up a fair fight.
The main course at our family seder table is usually brisket and chicken, both of which pair up nicely with red wines. Try the 2000 Chateau Fonbadet from Pauillac ($40), the estimable 2001 Chateau Leoville Poyferre from St. Julien ($65), or the 2000 Smith Haut Lafitte from Graves ($170). The best alternative from California is Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon ($75). Covenant, get it? Like the deal Abe cut with the Boss? One taster acknowledged that some of these were possibly overpriced, but how many seders do you have every year? Didn't the Jews suffer enough getting to the Promised Land?
If you're still able to walk back to the living room after this bacchanal, keeping in mind that it took Moses more than 40 years ... and he never quite made it to the living room, polish off the evening with a Sabra Coffee Liqueur ($22), Leroux Peppermint Schnapps (only $16 -- I'm not making this up) or the Royer Cognac VS ($56).
You may need to take two kosher aspirin.
J.D. Smith's contributions to The Journal's "Singles" column were cut short by his marriage a couple years ago. His new book, "The Best Cellar" (www.thebestcellar.com), comes out in April from Volt Press.