Legend has it that when Jews first came to America, they couldn't afford quality grapes. To make wine palatable they would add tons of sugar. Thus came the red, syrupy wines that have long been associated with the kosher winemaking industry.
But these days, David Eskenazi, manager of Kosher Club on Pico Boulevard, can't find enough room on the shelves of his wine aisle to accommodate Dalton wines, Israel's newest addition to the Los Angeles wine market.
The dilemma -- if you can call it that -- is proof that kosher wine is evolving.
"The variety of kosher wines has never been better," Eskenazi said. "Winemakers are trying to get away from kosher wine being sweet, heavy wine."
In recent years, the kosher wine industry has picked up momentum. As new companies come into the market and existing companies "break out of the box," drinking kosher wine is fast becoming more than a chore -- for some, it's an indulgence.
Whether the goal is to find the most complementary wine for a meal, the best tasting wine at the right price, or to find yet another way to support Israel, the result these days will certainly be less syrupy and far more sophisticated than decades past.
While there are many different opinions about the details involved in making kosher wine, the only real key is that the wine must be made by Orthodox Jews -- from the moment the grapes arrive to the moment the cork goes in. The same guidelines apply to making wine that is kosher for Passover, ruling out only those wines that contain "flavorings added or types of yeast used to ferment the wine, or fining additives that may not be Passover grade material," said Rabbi Reuven Nathanson, Orthodox Union West Coast director of kashrut. But while 99 percent of kosher wines are kosher for Passover, the varieties are nearly limitless.
Eskenazi segregates his wine aisle according to country, with wines from California and Israel in the center.
"We recently reorganized. We've been pushing Israeli products," Eskenazi said, pointing in the direction of the section sporting Barkan, Carmel, Binyamina, Golan, Gamla and Yarden (see page 55). Since Israeli wine companies have been attempting to establish markets overseas as a result of the loss of tourism in Israel and the near disappearance of the restaurant and hotel industries, the selection of Israeli wines has never been better.
Dalton is one such company. "I realize that we can't rely on Israel because the market is unpredictable," said Alex Haruni, proprietor of Dalton Winery Ltd. "If every so often there's a bomb that goes off which affects the psyche of the country, or we now have the specter of a Gulf War over us and the recession, people aren't in the mood to start celebrating and start spending lots of money on wines. So we realize that we have to develop other markets."
The result is an extensive selection of Israeli wines for consumers elsewhere.
"They have cheap and expensive wines just like everybody else," Eskenazi said of the Israeli wine selection.
Eskenazi, who just received Dalton's shipment the day prior, said that company's Reserve Cabernet and Chardonnay are excellent. He also recommends the Yarden Katrin Chardonnay ($26.99) to accompany fish or chicken and the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon ($24.99) to accompany meat.
For those who like California wines, the selection is extensive as well. The larger companies include Herzog, Baron Herzog, Weinstock and Hagafen -- many of which are also contenders in the mainstream wine market. Eskenazi recommends Hagafen's 1999 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($34.99) and Herzog's Reserve wines, such as the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.99) and the Reserve Russian River Chardonnay ($28.99).
California kosher wines are not the only ones picking up popularity in the mainstream market. Eskenazi likes to draw his customers' attention to wines coming out of California's boutique wineries, such as Gan Eden, Hagafen, and Kiddush Hashem.
"These are small wineries doing limited production and competing well in the non-kosher market," Eskenazi said, adding that Gan Eden's 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Limited ($29.99) has won many gold medals competing against nonkosher wines.
While Kedem Concord grape is still Eskenazi's best-seller at $2.99 a bottle, the kosher wine industry has come a long way from its syrupy past. From the cheapest to the French wines, which dominate the most expensive categories, such as Mouton Cadet, Dauphins and Château Maine Gazin, the choices are many.
With so many available options, there is now a focus being placed on educating kosher wines suppliers like Eskenazi. Royal Wine Corporation, the largest producer, importer and distributor of wines and spirits bearing kosher certification in the world (Baron Herzog, Weinstock, Kedem, Bartenura, Herzog, Carmel, Barkan, Givon, Binyamina and Gamla are among the companies they own), is leading the effort by bringing samples to suppliers and even talking about hosting a wine seminar.
"There's a shift toward educating people," Eskenazi said. "There has to be some education of why you should buy an expensive, rare vintage."
Prices quoted are based on Kosher Club's pricing. Please check with other retailers for their pricing. Â