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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