Posted by Jeff Morgan
Not long ago, I received a call from a young lady who was driving to Napa Valley with her husband for a friend’s wedding. She asked if she could come visit our winery while she was in the neighborhood. Had she ever tasted our wines? No, but she’d heard about them.
OK. If someone goes to the trouble of calling us to come visit, I’m game for a tasting. The couple, bright and personable observant Jews from Los Angeles, arrived at our door and were obviously taken by our Napa Valley lifestyle. We grow things. In addition to vineyards that dot the valley, my new friends were astonished to see the fig, walnut, pomegranate, olive, plum, peach, grapefruit and orange trees on our property. They liked seeing our chickens, too.
But when we sat down to taste some wine, I was informed that only the young lady would be tasting. Her husband didn’t drink wine. Sometimes that’s a good thing, particularly when someone has issues with alcohol or might be a designated driver. But in this case, a problem with alcohol wasn’t the case. Plus, we were only tasting one wine, and—as a precondition for the tasting—we would be spitting.
“What do you normally make Kiddush on?” I asked my non-drinking visitor.
“Grape juice,” he responded.
“And what do you drink with, say, cholent?” I asked.
“Grape juice,” came the reply.
“Oh, I guess you just don’t like wine,” I ventured.
“Actually I’ve never tried it,” came the response.
That surprised me. “Why?” I queried.
“Because my brother doesn’t drink it; my father doesn’t drink it; and my grandfather didn’t drink it. He was very anti-alcohol.”
“Yes,” I countered, “but since wine is considered holy in Jewish tradition, and we use it to sanctify just about every special moment in our culture, don’t you think it might merit a little investigation? I mean, you might want to see what it tastes like.”
“Nope. I’ll just keep drinking grape juice,” he replied, a bit smugly.
Nonetheless, we spent an enjoyable hour together. My non-drinking guest acquiesced to smelling the wine, and his wife learned how to taste like a pro—sniffing, swirling, slurping and spitting, then experiencing the “finish,” which is where a wine truly reveals its taste secrets. We talked about how wine is made and where its flavors come from, why mevushal wine may not actually be appropriate for making Kiddush, and how crazy it is for American kosher restaurants to allow only flash-pasteurized (mevushal) wines to be served in their dining establishments.
We even talked about how silly it was my guest not taste wine because, well, he never had. Ultimately, if it feels right for him, I can’t argue with that.
But my new non-drinking friend reminded me of just how disconnected so many Jews are from what wine represents and what its place should be in our daily lives. It’s ironic, considering our people’s longstanding covenant with wine. Adding fuel to the fire, my new friends told me that they attend a shul in Los Angeles where the rabbi is, in their words, “anti-wine.” Apparently, they held a wine tasting there once, and someone drank too much and behaved badly. The rabbi has since forbidden any such consumption in the shul.
My friends also described how other folks they know in Los Angeles have stopped serving wine during shabbos. The wine and scotch used to flow liberally until someone drank too much. So now they have a “dry” shabbos with grape juice only.
“Scotch?” I asked.
“Yes, everyone drinks lots of scotch now,” my young friends explained.
It’s true. Scotch is the new “wine” for many Jews. They can drink really good single malts without worrying about halakic considerations (except during Passover). So why drink second rate kosher wine when they can drink first rate scotch?
Don’t get me wrong. I like a good scotch now and then, too. But we’re talking apples and oranges. Scotch is front-loaded with alcohol and should be consumed in relatively small quantities, preferably after eating with (in my opinion) a good cigar. It’s not something we drink with a meal, and it’s certainly not something we make Kiddush with.
I believe there’s a problem in the Jewish trenches with over-consumption of distilled spirits like scotch and under-appreciation of how good a good wine is with a meal.
The problem stems from our longstanding Jewish disconnect from drinking good wine and integrating it into our meals the way our ancestors surely did in the Holy Land long ago. And….there is still way too much lousy kosher wine out there—from the Concord grape variety (not even the right species of grape for making fine wine) to botched versions that have been unsuccessfully flash-pasteurized. Let’s also remember that just because a wine isn’t mevushal doesn’t mean it’s any good either. You can still screw up a fermentation without flash pasteurization!
Fortunately there are good kosher wines on the market. But Jews need to pay attention to what they’re drinking and look for the good ones. They need to taste and assess. Do they like it or don’t they like it? If they don’t like it, it’s probably not good.
But let’s get with the program that our ancestors put in place several millennia ago: We drink wine when we make Kiddush, and we keep on drinking it through dinner. (We can also drink it for lunch!) In fact, we can drink it with meals all week long. This is not a novel concept. We shouldn’t confuse scotch (or vodka) with wine.
I loved watching the look of discovery on the face of my new friend (the one who was drinking) when she tasted all the flavors and became consciously aware of how a simple glass of wine could speak to her. It was a beautiful thing. Her husband, who was smelling his glass, also was amazed at how many aromas he could detect in his glass and was fascinated to learn that all these flavors and aromas exist naturally in the grapes that make the wine. Both husband and wife are ready to come back to Napa and help us at harvest; it’s a great way for them to better understand what’s in a bottle and why it’s so special.
Still, there remain many Jews who just don’t get it. For them, wine is insignificant or—at best—something distasteful they need to swallow (in that sweet Concord grape form) once or twice a week on shabbos. It’s a shame. The quality of their lives is not only compromised, but I believe that their connection to Judaism is in some way diminished as well.
If you’re not part of this group, and you drink good wine regularly, you can help rectify this Jewish disconnect. Turn your friends and family on to the essence of yayin. We owe it to our brothers and sisters. It will be a mitzvah that honors our history and our heritage.
Jeff Morgan is an author and winemaker who lives in the Napa Valley, where he makes Covenant and RED C Wines. www.covenantwines.com
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April 18, 2010 | 8:15 pm
Posted by Jeff Morgan
A friend was recently invited to his rabbi’s home for shabbos dinner. “It was wonderful,” he told me.
“What wine did you drink?” I asked.
He paused for a moment and then said, “Come to think of it, there wasn’t any wine.”
“Not even for Kiddush?
“Oh, yes,” he explained. “There was a thimble-full of sweet, Concord grape wine. Then everyone drank diet soda or water. After dinner the rabbi brought out some scotch, which we all enjoyed.”
Celebrating the Sabbath is a mitzvah. And it’s not my intention to disparage anyone’s efforts to that effect. But I must admit I was disappointed to hear about this apparent disconnect with the holiest of beverages—and also the one that tastes best with dinner. There seems to be a pattern here. In my travels among Jewish communities throughout America, I’ve found good wine to be a rarity at dinnertime, even when local wine shops carry it in profusion. The sad truth is that many American Jews don’t have much of a wine culture.
Native American Concord grapes—which are used for old-style kosher wines—are part of the problem. They do not even belong to the same species as European fine wine grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Concord grapes make funky, weird wines—sweet or not. It’s not surprising that many Jews still assume kosher wine tastes like the bizarre stuff their grandparents and parents drank on Fridays and holidays. Even worse, I’ve met Jews who have developed a taste for this stuff. They actually call it “traditional Jewish wine.” But it’s not what our ancestors drank in ancient Israel or, more recently, in Europe and North Africa.
A good meal without a good wine is, for me, a disappointment. Like the Jews of old, we drink wine at dinner (and often at lunch) every day at our house. Wine transforms each meal, no matter how simple, into a festival. (And a glass or two while eating should not affect any normal adult’s ability to function. It’s the drinking before or after that knocks people out.)
In fact wine, in moderation, is good for you. I can’t say the same for sodas and scotch. And water is kind of anti-climactic. It quenches thirst, but it doesn’t highlight what you’re eating.
By the way, I like to drink a good scotch now and then. But it’s not really meant to accompany a meal. And the high alcohol makes me drowsy. As for sweet drinks like soda—they tend to overwhelm savory dishes. So you’re not doing your cholent any favors by killing it with cola or Concord grape wine either.
I don’t pretend to know why we make Kiddush on wine. But I do know that a good bottle enhances almost any meal. This Friday night (or any night) you can celebrate Jewish tradition and eating well with a glass of good-tasting wine that fits your budget. It will change your quality of life—and make your dinner guests happy too!
Author and winemaker Jeff Morgan is co-owner of Covenant Wines in Napa Valley. More information about Covenant can be found at www.covenantwines.com.
April 4, 2010 | 8:16 am
Posted by Jeff Morgan
With Passover upon us this year, we were treated to a tsunami of web and print articles concerning kosher wine. Some were correct, but others were riddled with misinformation.
To set the record straight, let’s clarify a few basics from my perspective as a kosher winemaker:
What makes a wine kosher? The fact is that all wine is inherently kosher. However to keep it kosher, it can only be handled by Sabbath-observant Jews.
Does kosher wine need to be blessed by a rabbi? No. But if a commercial winemaker wishes to have a widely accepted kosher certification, the certification will typically be provided by an organization that employs rabbis charged with making sure kosher requirements are honored.
What techniques distinguish kosher winemaking from non-kosher winemaking? Aside from not working on the Sabbath or other holy days, there is no such thing as a kosher winemaking technique. Kosher wines are made exactly like non-kosher wines, which leaves the door open to a wide variety of methods. Both kosher and non-kosher winemakers may choose to vary their techniques. But this typically has nothing to do with the wine’s being kosher. It’s just about making wine.
Is there a kosher wine style? Kosher wines come in all styles and colors. During the last 150 years in America, native Concord grapes became the foundation for something mistakenly referred to as “traditional” kosher wine. Unfortunately, Concord grapes are not even the right species of grape for making quality wine. Concord grape wine’s foxy “sweet-and-sour” aspect remains an unfortunate chapter in the history of kosher winemaking. This is not what our ancestors in Jerusalem drank! And it is certainly not “traditional.”
Kosher wines are not boiled. Yet some kosher wines may be flash-pasteurized. These flash-pasteurized wines are called, “mevushal,” which means, cooked, in Hebrew. What’s that all about? Sad to say, it’s about some two or three millennia of weird notions that have done nothing to improve the quality of Jewish wine or the reputation of Jewish winemakers.
Why mevushal? Personally, I don’t really understand what drove Jews to boil their wines and render them undrinkable back in the Old Days. Many theories abound. Some say that certain rabbis didn’t want Jews to enjoy themselves too much when drinking. (An ancient guilt-building complex?) Other folks say it was a way of sterilizing the wine—aka a health concept.
Still other theorists postulate that cooking kosher wine was a way of keeping non-believers from profaning otherwise holy wine. The idea must have been to make the wine taste so bad that no self-respecting idolator would dream of drinking it in the service of Bacchus!
Technically—according to Jewish tradition—a mevushal wine is not really even wine. That’s why anyone—observant or not—is allowed to handle it. (Those of you shaking your heads in disbelief should remember that religion is a question of faith. You can interpret it as you wish; but don’t try to write the rules.) With heat-treated mevushal wine, the “who-can-touch-it?” issue becomes irrelevant. This makes mevushal the wine-of-choice for most American kosher restaurants and catering halls, where a non-observant or non-Jewish wait staff may serve mevushal wines for Sabbath-observant Jews with impunity. (European and Israeli kosher restaurants don’t seem to subscribe to this decidedly American custom. More on this subject in a future blog.)
It’s interesting to note that mevushal wines were not allowed to be used at the altar of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Was this because a wine that was “technically not wine” wasn’t good enough for G-d? Or was it because the Cohens and Levis couldn’t stomach the boiled stuff? We’ll probably never know. Whatever the reason, the 12th-century Jewish sage, Maimonides, wrote that if mevushal wine wasn’t good enough for the Temple, then it wasn’t good enough to make kiddush. You can interpret this as you see fit.
So, is non-mevushal wine better than mevushal wine? Not necessarily. There are plenty of lousy non-heated wines—both kosher and non-kosher. And in all fairness to the boatloads of mevushal wine currently being sold today, it’s important to remember that these wines are no longer boiled. They are flash pasteurized, which means they are quickly heated to around 180 degrees F and then rapidly cooled down. The process is less destructive than the old method of slowly heating wine a big pot or tank.
Some people maintain that heating grape juice will enhance aromatics or that flash-pasteurization is so quick that it has no effect on the wine. I’m not sure. But as a winemaker, I can tell you that flash-heating is not a technique I would consider in my quest for quality. If flash-pasteurization offered a passport to greatness, you can be sure that a whole lot of non-kosher winemakers would be doing it too!
I figure if I go to the trouble to make the best possible wine that I can, then I’m not going to mess around with something that, at best, won’t hurt the wine. It makes absolutely no sense from a qualitative perspective. But if I had a plenty of kosher wine that I needed to sell in kosher restaurants and catering halls throughout the land, then mevushal might be the way to go.
Are we Jews crazy? When it comes to wine, maybe we are a little bit. But like I said, it’s hard to argue with religion. So, for the moment, I’m just making the best kosher wines I can. And that means “non-mevushal.”
Jeff Morgan is the winemaker and co-owner of Covenant and RED C Wines, in Napa Valley. www.covenantwines.com.
March 26, 2010 | 7:55 pm
Posted by Jeff Morgan
What makes kosher wine holy? Since I’m hardly a Talmudic scholar and certainly no rabbi, you’ll have to take my opinion for what it is: that of a Jewish winemaker who deals in everything from fermentation science to drinking (often and a lot) with other members of our tribe.
From my perspective, there is no other comestible—food or beverage—that has the power to bring people together like wine. And with Kiddush, wine actually bonds us to G-d. I’m down for that! So what makes kosher wine so special?
Well, let’s start with the seemingly mundane. It’s important to remember that kosher wine is made only from grapes. Not strawberries, peaches, blueberries or bananas. Why? Well, my secular theory is that grapes have a greater concentration of essential oils (also known as terpenes and esters) than other fruits and vegetables. These essential oils are the chemical compounds that create aromas and flavors in fruits and vegetables. Think about it: can you describe what a grape tastes like? Not really. Aside from artificial “grape” flavoring, a grape’s flavor is not easily defined in the way a strawberry’s is. Come taste wine grapes in the vineyards with us at harvest, and you’ll see what I mean. The grapes are bursting with flavors ranging from all sorts of berries and stone fruit to chocolate and herbs. It’s incredible. There’s a reason we don’t make great wine from strawberries. And by extension, there must be a reason we don’t say Kiddush with strawberry wine either.
Like I said, I don’t pretend to fully understand the unique essence of yayin—especially from a spiritual perspective. But I can tell you that wine brings people to together in a way that promotes social and spiritual bonding. And drinking kosher wine, which according to our tradition is only handled by Sabbath-observant Jews, provokes us to focus not only on simply eating and drinking, but also on our common heritage and spiritual bonds.
Is there another drink or food that does this? (Perhaps matzoh….But somehow it’s just not as inspiring to me.)
That said, as we prepare for Passover, let’s remember it’s no accident that the meal revolves around four cups of wine. We Jews have the oldest codified relationship to wine of any people on earth. Our culture is special; our people are special; and we need to honor ourselves and our history with only the best. And that includes kosher wine. This Passover, when you make a covenant with Judaism and G-d, make sure you’re drinking the good stuff.
March 16, 2010 | 5:54 pm
Posted by Jeff Morgan
Now’s the time to imagine which lousy kosher wines you need to serve with your magnificent Seder meal(s), right? Wrong. There’s plenty of good stuff out there. But you’ll need to take the time to find it. Here’s a tip: If you rush off to your wine shop a few hours before Seder and buy some cheap kosher plonk, you’ll probably reinforce your negative perceptions of kosher wine. (The same thing will happen if you buy cheap non-kosher plonk. It’s just not so easy to blame 5000 years of Jewish tradition on something that tastes bad but isn’t kosher.)
For special occasions, you gotta reach for the gold. G-d forbid you should share it with a whole lot of people you love on Pesach! (Full disclosure: I’m a Napa Valley winemaker and the co-owner of Covenant and RED C wines. Yes, of course we want you to buy our wines…but that’s not what this blog is all about. What I want you to do is start drinking wine in a way that honors our freakin’ heritage. Why would any thoughtful, lucid Jew celebrate Jewish history and our traditions with anything less than the best?)
Now, I really don’t want to get into the old “not your mama’s Manischewitz” rut here. That stuff’s not even made with the right species of grape for producing fine wine! But you can read that in a bazillion different publications that are going to be pumping out requisite Passover articles momentarily. Just trust me; there’s good, dry (not sweet) kosher wine out there for a great meal. In fact, the best kosher wines are made just like non-kosher wines. What keeps them kosher is simply that only a Sabbath-observant Jewish cellar crew touches the wine prior to bottling.
Basically there are four kinds of wine (kosher or not): great, good, bad, and “in between.” The bad stuff you want to avoid. The good and the “in between,” you can drink daily. (You are drinking daily, right? I mean I hope you’re not drinking, like diet Pepsi with dinner. Just fyi, sweet tastes kill most savory dishes. So those who drink soda with meals are essentially rendering themselves taste-impaired. No matter what you eat (dessert excepted), a nice glass of (dry) wine will generally make it taste better.
Unfortunately, we Jews have been drinking a whole lot of plonk for the last 2,000 years or so. We got a bad break for nearly 2 millennia without access to good vineyard land. And then we dreamed up some cockamamie notion about boiling our wines (now flash pasteurizing)—which at best doesn’t hurt the wine much. Back in the old days, they just boiled the wine in a big pot. That must have made some pretty miserable yayin. But boiling or flash pasteurizing is not required to render a wine kosher. In fact technically, mevushal (or cooked) wine is not even wine. (More about this and what makes a wine kosher in a blog-to-come.)
But let’s get back to drinking good kosher wine. Here’s what you want to look for in both reds and whites: Fresh fruit aromas; a refreshing, appealing mouthfeel that leaves your palate ready for another bite of gefilte fish or whatever; silky smooth texture and pleasing acidity. This is what good wine tastes like, whether it’s kosher or not.
In theory, your friendly neighborhood wine merchant will actually know how to direct you to the “good stuff” among the kosher wines for Passover. If he or she doesn’t have a clue, you’re probably shopping at the wrong store. You might even consider buying a few bottles before Passover. Drink them to make sure they are what you’re looking for. It never hurts to know what you’ll be serving your guests or bringing to the party!
And what about price? Well, sometimes you get what you pay for. If you’ve got bucks, why skimp on one of the most important holidays in our tradition—especially one that celebrates eating and drinking? And if you don’t have much of a budget, then buy within your means. There’s good kosher wine at the lower end of the price spectrum too. Trust your palate. You’ll know a good wine when you taste it. And if you still insist on drinking wine made from Concord grapes because you actually like it, I’m afraid this blog’s just not for you.