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.
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