Ask wine distributor Ira Norof if he carries kosher wines, and he'll automatically correct you: "I carry fine wines that happen to be kosher." The wines are good enough, adds Dennis Bookbinder, director of Western division sales for Royal Wine Corp., that "we don't use the 'K' or 'J' word" when marketing them.
Indeed, for years, the makers and marketers of kosher wines have claimed that their products can stand up favorably to their non-kosher counterparts. Passover is peak kosher wine-buying season, so it seemed the perfect time to implement a novel test. Assemble a panel of wine experts from across Los Angeles, people whose passion or livelihood has allowed them to sample all the best wines the world has to offer, and have them pass judgment on kosher wines.
The event took place March 19 at Alto Palato on La Cienega Boulevard. Owner Danilo Terribili hosted and took part in the tasting. Part of his livelihood depends on sampling wines: He does so at least twice a week ("Too much," he moans) and presents $25 prix fixe Italian regional wine dinners each Wednesday night at his restaurant. But he had never tried kosher wines.
Most of the others on the panel had similarly limited exposure to kosher wines, but all had long, grapey resumes. Scott Einbinder, a principal at Sandstorm Entertainment and wine aficionado, organized the tasting. His panelists: Elizabeth Schweitzer, director of wine and spirits at the Beverly Hills Hotel, one of the handful of women in the world to hold the title of master sommelier; recording industry pioneer Joe Smith, an avid wine collector who moonlights as KCRW's wine auctioneer; chef Suzanne Goin, co-owner of Lucques, one of Los Angeles' hottest restaurants; Marvin Zeidler, owner-partner of the Broadway Deli, Capo Restaurant and Brentwood Restaurant, and an international wine judge; and cookbook author Judy Zeidler.
Norof, who is director of education for Southern Wine and Spirits of California, introduced the bottles that he and Bookbinder provided, along with a short course on wine kashrut. To be labeled as kosher, the entire wine production process following the grape crush must be carried out by a Shabbat-observant Jew. To render kosher wines ritually impervious to handling by non-Shabbat observant Jews or non-Jews, many, though not all, are pasteurized (mevushal in Hebrew). Once an impediment to quality wine-making, producers now employ methods that flash pasteurize only the must (the juice of the wine grapes before fermentation). Non-kosher winemakers, such as Mondavi, are copying their techniques in some cases.
Education aside, the tasters wanted wine. Bookbinder and Norof poured in separate flights, grouped by wine type, from bottles whose labels were disguised in plain brown wrappers. Panelists judged each wine on a scale from 1 (below average) to 4 (exceptional), and scribbled notes alongside the numbers.
This was, admittedly, a tough audience. These were the types who, in their tasting notes, were able to identify the wines by grape and year, and get it right. No wine received a 4, though a handful rated "3 plus." Among the surprises:
A dessert wine. Terribili gave the Bartenura Moscato d'Asti a 3 plus. Goin praised it with a 3, as did Einbinder. Marvin Zeidler noted it was "appley, lycheey, spicy" and gave it a 3.5.
A standout Cab. The Baron Herzog Cabernet, Alexander Valley Reserve, 1998, earned glowing comments. It had a "bigger nose," wrote Goin -- that's a compliment -- and was well-balanced and redolent of cherry, according to Einbinder. Smith pronounced it "quite good" and Schweitzer noted it had a "lovely perfume, perfect ripe fruit."
A winning Aussie. The Teal Lake Shiraz was roundly liked. The wine, which Wine Spectator rated an 85, was "light, youthful, jammy," said Schweitzer. Judy Zeidler liked its "nice balance," and Smith gave it 3.5.
A bizarre white Merlot. "Weird nose, too sweet," said Einbinder. "Nothing," pronounced Smith. "Odor," wrote Schweitzer.
Schweitzer explained that kosher winemakers have a hard time measuring up against non-kosher wine makers who have "centuries and centuries" of wine-making history behind them. Even so, she said she has found some very good kosher wines for kosher events at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
A show of hands at the end of the tasting produced some front-runners (see box). In fairness, it must be said many fine kosher wines were not represented, including some of Abarbanel's recent French and German vintages, Weinstock and Fortant de France. The best way to sample more is to visit your local kosher wine outlet and explore. Or, next year in Bordeaux.
And the Winners Are...
By a show of hands, these wines won best in class from the panelists.
Favorite Sauvignon Blanc
Baron Herzog Sauvignon Blanc, 1999
1998 (Israel, $16.99)
Favorite "Other" White
Baron Herzog Chenin
Blanc, 1999 (California, $6.99)
Baron Herzog Merlot,
Paso Robles, 1999
Favorite Cabernet Sauvignon
Baron Herzog Cabernet, Alexander Valley Reserve, 1998
Favorite "Other" Red
Teal Lake Shiraz, 2000 (Australia, $10.99)
Favorite Dessert Wine
Bartenura Moscato d'Asti, 2000 (Italy, $8.99)
Zakon Muscatini, Red, 2000 (Italy, $8.99)
These wines can be found at Kosher Club and Wally's, as well as at hundreds of other retail outlets.