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The Long Winding Road to World-Class Wine
by Daniel Rogov

In 1875 British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was given a bottle of kosher red wine from Palestine. After a few sips, Disraeli, a connoisseur of fine Claret wines, observed that it tasted “not so much like wine but more like what I expect to receive from my doctor as a remedy for a bad winter cough.” A century later and well into the 1980s, kosher wines continued to suffer from a justifiably bad reputation, being far too sweet and coarse to appeal to knowledgeable drinkers.
 
However, the days when Israel, the United States, and Europe were producing primarily sweet red wines for sacramental purposes are long gone, and today a good many kosher wines are acknowledged as competing comfortably with the best wines of the world. Although Israel remains the world’s major producer of fine kosher wines— created from highly prized grape varieties at 150+ wineries scattered throughout the country—quality kosher wines are also produced today in California, France, Italy, Spain, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand. The construction of modern wineries, an ongoing importation and cultivation of good vine stock from California and France, experimentation with new wine varieties and blends, and the enthusiasm and knowledge of young, well-trained winemakers has yielded an abundance of fine kosher wines that can win the hearts of even the most devoted of wine lovers.
 
Wine in the Land of Israel
The history of wine in the land of Israel is as old as the history of the people who have inhabited the land over the centuries. As early as 5,000 years ago people cultivated vines and made, stored, and shipped wines. The first mention of wine in the Bible occurs early in Genesis; Noah is said to have planted the first vineyard and to have become intoxicated when he drank the wine (9: 20–21). In a later reference, the spies Moses sends to explore the land of Canaan return with a cluster of grapes said to have been so large that they had to carry it on a pole (Numbers 13:23). The vine is also mentioned (in Deuteronomy 8:8) as one of the blessings of the good land promised to the Children of Israel.
 
Vintners in ancient times knew, as we do today, that situating vineyards at higher altitudes and thus in areas with greater temperature changes between night and day would cause the fruit to ripen more slowly, adding to the sweetness of the fruit and its ability to yield fine wines. Two ways of growing vines were known then: in one, the vines were allowed to grow along the ground; in the other, the vines were trained upward on trellises (Ezekiel 17:6–8). It was widely accepted then, as today, that vines cultivated by the second method almost always produce superior grapes.
 
Remains of ancient wine presses may be found today throughout Israel, from the Galilee to the Judean Hills and the Negev Desert, and archeologists have uncovered hundreds of jars for storing and transporting wine. Many of these amphorae indicate in detail where and by whom the wine was made, as well as the year of the vintage, demonstrating the importance placed on the source of the grapes and the quality of the harvest.
 
As much as these wines were prized, they were very different from the wines we know today. Often they were so intense and coarse they needed a fair amount of “adjustment” before they were considered drinkable. To improve the bouquet, the Romans were known to add spices and scents: to make the wine sweeter, they mixed in a syrup made by heating grape juice in lead containers over a low flame for a long period; and to improve flavors and hide faults, they added honey, pepper, chalk, gypsum, lime, resin, herbs, and even seawater.
 
The Moslem conquest of the Holy Land in the seventh century and its consequent ban on alcoholic drinking put an end to what was by then a prosperous wine industry. The only wines to be allowed were the small amounts which Christians and Jews required for sacramental use. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Crusaders attempted to revive the wine industry in the Holy Land, but soon abandoned the project, realizing that shipping wines from Europe was easier and more efficient.
 
The local winemaking industry was not reestablished until the nineteenth century, a time of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land. Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, who visited the land of Israel seven times between 1827 and 1875, encouraged Jews to work the land and replant vines. With his support two Jewish wineries, Schorr and Teperberg, emerged in Jerusalem (in 1848 and in 1870, respectively), both dedicated to the production of sacramental wines. In 1870 Montefiore also helped found the first Jewish agricultural school, Mikveh Israel, near Jaffa, which featured an experimental vineyard planted with European vines.
 
However, the modern wine industry in the land of Israel would owe its birth to the generous donation of another Jewish philanthropist—Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of the famed Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux. A dedicated supporter of the Jewish colonies in the Holy Land, Rothschild envisioned the establishment of a local wine industry which could provide a solid economic basis for the new Jewish communities and serve as the source of kosher wines for Jews the world over. Investing a significant sum of money, he planted vineyards with many varieties of European grapes (among them Alicante Bouschet, Clairette, Carignan, Grenache, Muscat, and Semillon) and built two large wineries (one at Rishon le-Zion in 1889, and the other at Zichron Ya’akov in 1892).
 
Unfortunately, not all ran smoothly. The first harvests were lost to heat, and in 1890–91 the land was overrun by phylloxera, a plague of aphid-like insects that destroyed all the vines. The vineyards had to be dug up and replanted with vines grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. In 1906 Rothschild helped set up the Societe Cooperative Vigneronne des Grandes Caves-Carmel, better known as the Carmel Wine Growers Cooperative, that managed wine cultivation and export for both wineries. However, in the years to come, his dream of viticulture providing a major source of income for the region would be shattered. Three major events—the Russian revolution, the enactment of Prohibition in the United States, and Egypt’s ban of imported wines—virtually eliminated the fledgling industry’s three largest potential markets and led many vintners to uproot their vines.
 
In 1957 Rothschild’s heirs sold their share to the cooperative, which subsequently took the name Carmel Mizrachi and continued to play a dominant role in the local wine industry, along with several newer wineries (Segal, Eliaz, and Stock). But the wines produced in Israel through the early 1980s were not up to international standards because of inferior varietals and outdated methods.
 
Then in 1972, during a visit to Israel, Professor Cornelius Ough of the Department of Viticulture and Oenology at the University of California–Davis suggested that the soil and climate of the Golan Heights (captured from Syria in the Six-Day War) would prove ideal for raising grapes. In 1976 the first vines were planted there and in 1983 the newly established Golan Heights Winery released its first wines, all kosher, under the labels of Yarden, Gamla, and Golan.
 
Ideal growing conditions were only one of the Golan Heights Winery’s competitive advantages. Unfettered by outdated winemaking traditions or by a large, stagnant corporate structure, the young winery soon imported excellent vine stock from California, built a state-of-the-art facility, and hired enthusiastic young American winemakers trained at UC–Davis. Equally important, the winery began to encourage vineyard owners to improve the quality of their grapes and, in the American tradition, paid bonuses for grapes with high sugar and acid content while rejecting substandard grapes. Realizing as well that wines made from Grenache, Semillon, Petite Sirah, and Carignan grapes would not put them on the world wine map, the Golan Heights Winery focused instead on planting and making wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, white Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and other noble grape varieties.
 
In a few short years it would become apparent to wine consumers and critics both inside and outside the country that Israel was capable of producing wines of world-class quality. In the 1990s the Golan Heights Winery’s Yarden wines won a host of medals and trophies in the most esteemed wine exhibitions in Europe—three gold medals at consecutive competitions in Bordeaux, and back-to-back gold at England’s International Wine and Spirit Competition. On the heels of their success, new wineries began to emerge. The Baron Wine Cellars (today Tishbi) opened in 1985, followed by the first boutique wineries (Meron, Margalit, and Domaine du Castel), foreshadowing the establishment of dozens of boutique wineries in the late 1990s. Although the industry would suffer an economic crisis in the 1980s—Carmel Mizrachi encountering substantial losses and Stock declaring bankruptcy—there was no turning back. The Israeli wine industry had entered a new era.
 
Over the years Israeli wineries continued to upgrade the quality of their products. Carmel, Binyamina, and Barkan installed more modern technologies; new medium-sized wineries such as Recanati, Dalton, and Yatir constructed fully modern facilities. And nearly all of the wineries began to follow the Golan Heights Winery practice of rejecting inferior grapes and cutting back on vineyard volume in quest of quality.
Today five major wineries, twelve medium-sized wineries, and more than 100 small wineries are flourishing in the country. Many produce kosher wines of high quality, and several produce kosher wines good enough to interest connoisseurs all over the world.
 
America
Starting in the seventeenth century, when Jews began to settle in the American colonies, kosher wine was made primarily for at-home consumption. The commercial production of kosher wines would begin to blossom in the United States only in the late nineteenth century, and for many years such New York State wineries as Manischewitz and Schapiro dominated the kosher wine scene with wines made from the Concord grape.
 
This grape, native to North America, became popular as an alternative to European varietals that did not acclimate well to the East Coast. According to one myth, an amateur farmer, Ephraim Wales Bull, began to cultivate grapes near Concord, Massachusetts. They were small and sour, however, and produced wines with offensive aromas and flavors. In 1869 the New Jersey dentist Thomas Welch, a devout Methodist, tried his hand at the new process of pasteurization, added sugar, and brought “Dr. Welch’s Church Wine” to market; his son would later rename the product “Welch’s Grape Juice.”
 
The year 1895 saw the genesis of America’s first commercial kosher wine operation—in a tenement basement on New York City’s Lower East Side. “My wine,” boasted Manhattan entrepreneur and restauranteur Sam Schapiro, “is so thick you can cut it with a knife.”
 
Like Welch, Schapiro’s Winery covered up the not-always-pleasant aromas and flavors produced by the Concord grape with sugar. And over time—even though Jews had been producing dry red and white kosher wines for centuries in the land of Israel and in Europe— many American Jews came to associate Kiddush wines with the sweet red wines made from the Concord grape. (Interestingly, during the years of Prohibition, only kosher wines and wines made for medicinal purposes were legally available in the United States. Several enterprising growers and producers managed to stay in business by making and selling kosher wines, and many private drinking clubs masqueraded as “synagogues.”)
 
In 1958 another significant development occurred when the Herzog family (whose winemaking roots trace to nineteenth-century Slovakia) took over a small kosher winery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and renamed it Royal Wines. Over the decades the Herzogs proceeded to revolutionize kosher winemaking in North America. In 1986 they introduced the Baron Herzog line in California under the guidance of winemaker Peter Stern, with kosher wines made from noble grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay, becoming the first to plant vineyards with such varietals for kosher wines. And two years ago they finished building a 77,000-square-foot state-of-the-art winery in Oxnard, California dedicated exclusively to the making of kosher wines. Royal Wine Corporation is now the largest producer, importer, and distributor of kosher wines in the United States.
 
Today six wineries in the U.S. produce only kosher wines, and about a dozen produce mostly non-kosher wines along with one or two kosher wines as well. Royal, the largest and leading kosher-producing winery in the States, is renowned for its Herzog Special Reserve and Special Edition wines and has also earned a very good name for its Baron Herzog line of California varietals. Other California wineries—among them the well-established Hagafen and the relatively new Covenant—are also producing world-class wines. Under the guidance of UC–Davis-trained Ernie Weir, Hagafen produces often superb Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay wines in its Napa Valley Series. Covenant, the artisinal winery of talented winemaker Jeff Morgan, has two labels, Covenant (a Cabernet Sauvignon) and Red Sea (a Bordeaux blend), both of which have won worldwide acclaim.
 
Europe
Jews have been engaged in kosher winemaking in the Diaspora since antiquity. By the time of the great Bible commentator Rashi (1040–1105), almost all of the vineyards of Champagne, including one owned by Rashi’s family, were under Jewish patronage.
 
Unfortunately, by the late Middle Ages new restrictions in Europe—in particular the prohibition against Jews owning land—put an end to Jewish involvement in viticulture. From then on, every Jewish community took care of its own kosher wine production in the form of small cottage industries (although, in some cases, documents indicate shipment from place to place). Later, kosher wines were required to be formally certified. In Prague during the 1570s, the kosher certification of wines was verified by none other than Rabbi Yehuda Loew, known as the creator of the Golem.
 
The production of kosher wines in Europe on anything beyond a cottage-industry level started in the 1980s, when it became apparent that Jews the world over had begun to perceive wine consumption as not only for sacramental purposes but as part of a cultured lifestyle. With demand for high-quality dry red and white kosher wines on the rise, several large wineries in Europe (first Fortant de France in Provence and then Capcanes in Spain) began to produce a line of kosher wines. Following the pattern set by Israel and California, these wineries relied on noble grapes and thoroughly modern production methods.
 
As the demand for fine and even expensive kosher wines became increasingly apparent, several well-known chateaux of Bordeaux and Sauternes in France—including the producer of Mouton-Cadet, the largest-selling Bordeaux wine in the world—began to produce kosher editions of their wines. So, too, France’s Champagne region, with houses such as Pommery, Laurent-Perrier, and Nicolas Feuillatte, began producing world-class kosher Champagnes.
 
Today nearly every winegrowing region in Europe produces and exports kosher wines—of varying quality—to the United States, the United Kingdom, and even Israel. Wherever in the world Jews reside, the communities are evincing an increased interest in wine, taking wine appreciation courses, subscribing to wine publications, and playing an important role on Internet wine forums. Jewish consumers are moving in the same directions as all other wine lovers: from sweet to dry, from white to red, and, most important, from low to high quality. The renaissance in the kosher wine industry enables consumers all over the world to enjoy fine kosher wines as never before.

Daniel Rogov is Israel’s preeminent wine critic, writing weekly wine and restaurant columns in Haaretz and in the Israeli edition of the International Herald Tribune . He is the author of the bestselling annual Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines (Toby Press) and contributes regularly to two international wine books, Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book and Tom Stevenson’s Wine Report . Rogov’s wine and culinary internet site and forum can be found at http://www.stratsplace.com/rogov/home.html.

 
Defining:
What Makes a Wine
Kosher?

The rules of halachah (Jewish law) are far more stringent concerning making kosher wine in the land of Israel than the rules for making kosher wine elsewhere in the world. In order for an Israeli wine to be certified as kosher, several requirements must be met. None of the following requirements has a negative impact on the quality of the wine, and several are widely acknowledged to be sound agricultural practices, even by producers of non-kosher wines.
  1. According to the practice known as orla (Leviticus 19, 23–25), the grapes of new vines cannot be used for winemaking until the fourth year after planting.
  2. No other grains, fruits or vegetables may be grown in between the rows of vines (kalai hakerem) (Deuter­onomy 22, 9).
  3. After the first harvest, the fields must lie fallow every seventh year (shnat shmita) (Leviticus 25, 2–4).
  4. From the onset of the harvest, only kosher tools and storage facilities may be used in the winemaking process, and all winemaking equipment must be cleaned to ensure that no foreign objects remain in the equipment or vats.
  5. From the moment the grapes reach the winery, only Sabbath-observant Jews are allowed to come in contact with the wine. Because many of the winemakers in Israel are not Sabbath-observant, handling the equipment and making the wine are the responsibilities of Sabbath-observant Jews who serve as kashrut supervisors (mashgichim).
  6. All the ingredients (e.g., yeasts) used in the production and clarification of the wines must be certified as kosher.
  7. Ten percent of the wine, representing the tithe once paid to the Temple in Jerusalem, must be poured away (truma vema’aser) (Deuteronomy 14, 22). Today, with the approval of the rabbinical authorities, it is customary in Israel to pour only one percent of the wine in a special ceremony which takes place in the winery.
Many of these rules (such as shmita, orla, and ma’aser) are traditionally valid only in the land of Israel (Mishnah, Qiddushin 36). Outside of Israel only three rules apply: once the grapes have reached the winery, the grapes and the wine must be handled by Sabbath-observant Jews; the yeasts and all other materials involved, such as those used in filtration and clarification in the winemaking process, must be kosher; and the equipment and machinery in the winery must be used exclusively for the production of kosher wines.


Defining:
What Makes a Wine Kosher for Passover?
 
Kosher for Passover wine must be made with specially produced leavening agents that are kosher for Passover; in addition, during the period preceding Passover, the entire winery must undergo a special cleaning procedure to make sure that no leavened bread (chametz) remains on the premises. Almost all large kosher wineries find it more economical to make their full line of wines kosher for Passover throughout the year. Those who are concerned with such issues will find the information they require on either the front or rear label of the wine bottle.


Producing:
Are All Israeli Wines Kosher?
 
Surprising to many, not all Israeli wines produced today are kosher. While every large Israeli winery (including Carmel, Barkan, Golan Heights Winery, Efrat, and Binyamina) and the majority of medium-sized wineries (such as Tishbi, Segal, Dalton, and Tabor) produce only kosher wines, the smaller wineries often produce non-kosher offerings. Still, a large proportion of Israelis, even non-observant Israelis, consume only kosher foods and beverages, which are the only products allowed to enter Israel’s large supermarket chains. Given that the majority of wines produced in the country continue to be purchased in supermarkets, no large winery can relinquish this sales potential. Moreover, Israel’s large wineries have expanded their market by targeting export sales largely to kashrut-observant consumers worldwide.
 
At the same time, medium-sized producers (among them Chateau Golan, Galil Mountain, and Ella Valley Vineyards) and many of Israel’s boutique wineries producing under 50,000 bottles annually (including Margalit, Flam, Bravdo, Saslove, Sea Horse, Clos de Gat, and Amphorae) have chosen to manufacture upper-end non- kosher wines because they have a somewhat different customer in mind—discerning and not necessarily kashrut-observant wine consumers both in Israel and abroad. Restrictions placed by rabbinical authorities over the years prohibit Israeli wineries from making both kosher and non-kosher wines; thinking this would limit their sales, quite a few of the boutiques and medium-sized wineries which originally started up as non-kosher have switched over to kosher in the hope of expanding both local and export sales, especially to markets in North America and the United Kingdom. For some small wineries the production of kosher wines can become prohibitively expensive; it means additional staff (rabbinical supervisors, for example) as well as fees to the rabbinical authorities, which can significantly affect the eventual retail price of the wine.



Defining:
What Is Mevushal Wine?
 
Some observant Jews insist that their wines be pasteurized (mevushal), especially in restaurants and at catered events, where there is the possibility that a non-Jew might handle the wine and then, if the wine is not mevushal, it would be rendered non-kosher (Yen Nesech). This tradition dates to ancient times, when wine was used by pagans for idolatrous worship; to distinguish their sacramental wines from the pagan wines, the Israelites used to boil the wine, changing its chemical composition to the point that it was considered unfit for pagan worship.
 
Today, to render a wine mevushal, rather than boil it the common practice is to rapidly raise the temperature of the liquids to 176–194° Fahrenheit (80–90° Celsius) in special flash pasteurizing units, hold it there for under a minute, and then return the temperature, equally rapidly, to 60° Fahrenheit (15° Celsius).
 
Modern technology has reduced the impact of these processes on the quality of the wine, but most winemakers and consumers remain in agreement that, with very few exceptions, wines that have been pasteurized lose many of their essential essences. Often, because these wines are more inert, they are incapable of developing in the bottle over the years as many wines do, and quite often they impart a “cooked” sensation to the nose and palate.
Some Israeli kosher wines are marketed in two versions, regular and mevushal, the mevushal editions destined for highly observant Jews within Israel or abroad. Many of the wines produced in Italy, Chile, Argentina, Spain, France, and the United States are also pasteurized, largely because many kosher restaurants and catering establishments, especially in the United States, will not serve wines that are not mevushal. Top-of-the-line series, however, are usually not pasteurized, as, for example, Covenant, as well as some of Herzog’s and Hagafen’s California wines. In any case, one should bear in mind that a mevushal wine is no more or less kosher than a wine that is not.



Purchasing:
Where to Buy Fine Kosher Wines
 
Finding some of the wine gems listed in our “Top 50 Kosher Wines in the World” can be like going on a treasure hunt. So don’t delay! Here are 3 search approaches to try: 1. Visit http://www.wine-searcher.com. 2. Inquire about wine availability at Daniel Rogov’s Wine Forum, http://stratsplace.zeroforum.com/zeromain. 3. Contact these 12 wine merchants with online sales that carry many of the brands (e.g., Golan Heights, Recanati)—though not necessarily the exact wine selections. Clue: the wine sellers at the head of the list carry the greatest number of matching brands; however, the brand you’re seeking might be available elsewhere on the list.
  1. Gotham Wines & Liquors, www.gothamwines.com, 212-932-0990 (New York, NY)
  2. Kosherwine.com, 847-674-8008 (Skokie, IL)
  3. Wine Library, www.winelibrary.com, 888-980-9463 (Springfield, NJ)
  4. Shopper’s Vineyard, www.shoppersvineyard.com, 973-916-0707 (Clifton, NJ)
  5. Varietal Wines & Spirits, www.varietal.us, 516-365-5077 (Manhasset, NY)
  6. Morrell & Company, www.morrellwine.com, 212-688-9370 (New York, NY)
  7. Rosenberg Judaica and Wines, www.judaicaandwines.com, 215-884-1728 (Jenkintown, PA)
  8. Hi-Time Wine Cellars, www.hitimewine.com, 949-650-8463 (Costa Mesa, CA)
  9. PJ’s Liquor Warehouse, www.pjwine.com, 212-567-5500 (New York, NY)
  10. Union Square Wines & Spirits, www.unionsquarewines.com, 212-675-8100 (New York, NY)
  11. WineLegend, www.winelegend.com, 973-992-4441 (Livingston, NJ)
  12. Bottle King, www.bottleking.com, 973-994-4100 (Wayne, NJ) see ad this page
In addition, we encourage you to support the particular wine brands/distributors/publishers that have advertised in this guide.
They include:



 


Union for Reform Judaism.