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.
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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.