Holy Terroir

Micah Halpern / April 2007

Judaica scholar Micah Halpern celebrates the many blessings of kosher wine as it has evolved from tolerable sacramental symbol to desirable quaff.

Long ago kosher wine was used for ceremonial and sacramental occasions only. A special blessing—the kiddush, or sanctification—was pronounced before the wine was imbibed. The response to the sanctification was not "cheers" or "salut" or a clinking of glass; the proper response was "amen." The wine was there to be drunk, but there was no decree that it be palatable. It was the symbol of the land of Israel and the abundant blessings that God had bestowed on the land. The Bible recounts the story of the 12 spies sent to scout out the Promised Land. In a vividly described passage we are told that two of the spies returned from their mission carrying a gargantuan cluster of grapes. Today the logo chosen to represent Israel's Ministry of Tourism is an enormous cluster of grapes carried by two ancient Israelites.

Judaism is replete with images of wine and the power of wine. The Bible has a total of 141 references. The original source of the classic Jewish toast "L'chayim," or "to life," is the Talmud (Megillah 16b). The Midrash Rabbah of Genesis goes so far as to assert that Adam ate of the vine—and not of that "other fruit"—and Rabbi Eliezer writes that aged wine is one of the treasures of Egypt that Joseph sent to his father. There is even a story in the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zara about a rabbi who is cured of an intestinal ailment by drinking 70 year old apple wine. "Where wine is absent, medicine is necessary," explains the Talmud (BB 58b). "Yayin yisamach levav enosh" ("wine gladdens the heart of man") the psalmist declared. At the time, it was probably wishful thinking, but thanks to the kosher wine revolution of the past 25 years, the psalmist's wish has been fulfilled.

Kosher wine was rarely enjoyed. It was never sipped, it was gulped. You either tolerated it or developed a taste for things sweet and sticky. There were those who tried to modernize it by adding a spritz of seltzer, creating the spritzer. Much like cheap vodka, the brand of wine hardly mattered. The American market could choose from Manischewitz or Kedem or Shapiro. The choice was made as a matter of tradition rather than taste—you put on your table what your parents had put on theirs. Israel's Carmel wineries, established by the Rothschild family over 100 years ago, had their own version of a sweet thick wine just like in America. Carmel still produces that wine, but now it also produces Cabernets and Chardonnays.

Kosher has been revolutionized. Kosher is no longer relegated to that tiny corner in the supermarket with boxes of matzoh ball and potato latke mixes. It's no longer just chicken soup and chopped liver. It's is a multibillion dollar industry. Kosher is Coke and Pepsi and Starbucks coffee. Certification is not only commonplace, it is sought after. Even Oreo cookies are now certified kosher. And kosher restaurants are no longer exclusively hybrid delis selling Jewish pastrami with a Chinese egg roll on the side. Both modern and traditional Kosher restaurants are attracting non-Jews. And kosher wine is on the wine lists of some of the world's top traif (nonkosher) restaurants.

The revolution began in the early 1980s, when the first good kosher wines were uncorked, wines made from California grapes. Suddenly there were new brands, new varieties, and a new lexicon to be learned. Cabernet. Merlot. Was the "t" silent or was it pronounced? And a Gewürztraminer—twist your tongue around that. Wineries named Gan Eden and Weinstock Cellars and others were born, and quality kosher wines started to invade the marketplace. For years people had said that Jews don't drink, that Jews would not support an upscale product. They were wrong!

Israel joined the competition with Golan Heights Winery. They had three tiers of wine quality and price: Golan, Gamla, and their top shelf Yarden. It was in Israel that the greatest competition for quality kosher wine took place. After generation upon generation of nothing but sweet, sweeter, or sweetest kosher wines, there was competition for dry and semidry whites and reds. Carmel needed to play catch-up, to seriously revamp their product. Golan wines were good if not excellent, and Carmel's best product was tolerable. Carmel is still trying hard to catch up. And now they are competing not only with Israel and California but with the kosher wineries of France, Spain, Italy, Chile, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, Gruzia (the former Soviet Republic of Georgia), and the other great wine growing nations.

Kosher wine is not blessed by rabbis, it is supervised. And today rabbis are supervising quality, award-winning wines from around the world. Kosher Jews are demanding it. The job of the mashgiach, rabbi supervisor, is to make sure that no Gentile or even no Jew who is not religiously observant comes into contact with the product from the time the grapes are cut until after the wine is securely bottled, corked, and sealed. It might be politically incorrect, but that specific supervision, that 100 percent adherence to Jewish-only handling of the entire process, is what makes a wine kosher. More rabbinic ink has been spilled on the question of kosher wine than on almost any other subject in Judaism.

During the Period of the Rabbis (70–500 A.D.), wine had different strengths and was diluted to meet the various tastes and needs of the occasion. It was so concentrated that it could even be lethal, and various strengths were also used as medicine. Pagans and Gentiles used wine for ceremonial purposes much like the Jews used wine. During the Middle Ages right up to the modern period, Christian monasteries produced wine. They poured libations. Kosher laws concerning wine were strictly enforced to make sure that no pagan or even Christian wine was used for Jewish Kiddush or any other Jewish ritual.

These rules of separation and supervision still apply today. Wine produced by Gentiles is called stam yeinam (basic wine) and as a precaution, the rabbis still forbid their consumption. But rabbis are not forbidden from entering plants owned and operated by Gentiles and "koshering," through their supervision, the wine.

Nowadays it is not uncommon to find kosher wines carrying the same labels as nonkosher wines. There are even kosher versions of top shelf French wines and Champagnes. It is not chicanery. It is the work of rabbis who supervise the handling and bottling of a limited, specific run and seal each bottle with their special symbols certifying that the wine is kosher. The seal and supervision is called a hashgacha, and most often it is simply a small letter unobtrusively placed on the wine's label and cork. The symbol is a shorthand abbreviation of the rabbinic body that supervised the process. Other than that there is no difference between the kosher and nonkosher version of the same wine. There is just more limited availability.

Just like nonkosher wines there are better vineyards and worse, there are better years and worse, there are better corks and worse, and sometimes the product is unbalanced and uneven. Quality for dollar value is always an important consideration, but there is certainly a growing demand for good, better, and excellent kosher wines. According to Herb Rose, director of special events of The Pierre Taj hotel in New York City, kosher events account for 20 percent of the volume of catering sales and that number has remained steady even as the overall volume has increased over time. Wine producers are meeting that demand.
Kosher wine has definitely come of age. Long live the revolution. L'chayim—To Life!