People of the Vine: Rob Eshman talks Jews, wine and history with Jeff Morgan
Jeff Morgan is winemaker and co-owner of Covenant Wines, based in Napa Valley, where he makes kosher wine under the Covenant, RED C and Landsman labels.
Rob Eshman: To start, let’s put aside, for a moment, the distinction between kosher and non-kosher wine and pose a more fundamental question: Why is wine so critical to Jewish life and celebration?
Jeff Morgan: In every ancient Mediterranean grape-growing community, wine was an integral part of the dietary regimen as well as religious practice. The Greeks and Romans ultimately lost faith in Dionysus and Bacchus, but they kept their vineyards. And their modern-day progeny continue to grow grapes and drink wine daily.
History led the Jews down a different path. In ancient Israel, viticulture was also an essential part of Jewish life. This is reflected in the Torah, where wine is regularly alluded to, beginning with Noah. We lost our land after the Roman destruction of the Temple 2,000 years ago. Still, our ancestors managed to maintain their customs and religion throughout the ensuing millennia. For much of this time, Jews could not plant vineyards, and wine production was problematic.
RE: If you accept modern historical thinking that the Bible was composed around 500 B.C.E. by exiles returning from Babylon to Persian-controlled Palestine, did the wine rituals and customs reflect surrounding customs or were they passed-down ancient traditions, or both? Were they unique to Jews or common to other religions and peoples of that time? Is there scholarship on the roots of Judaism’s wine customs?
JM: Whatever your theory on the Bible’s origins, its stories bear witness to our people’s long history. Whether written or oral, Jewish wine tradition is the result of longstanding cultural practice.
Still, the Jewish relationship to wine has remained rooted in religious practice. Despite challenges in simply finding a bottle [or an amphora] of wine, our ancestors were able to maintain their wine traditions. I would venture to say that we Jews have the oldest codified relationship to wine of any people on earth. In this light, how could wine be anything but critical to Jewish life?
RE: Is wine seen as a gateway to God in the way some tribes use hallucinogenics? Or was it simply a common beverage elevated by religious authorities?
JM: There’s some truth to both. You don’t need to be a talmudic scholar or have a Ph.D. in anthropology to understand that the mind-altering effects of [too much] alcohol might have caused early Jews to suspect that wine could open the door to an alternative reality.
You refer to wine as a “common” beverage. I would counter that it is a thoroughly “uncommon” one. The early rabbis recognized wine’s unique qualities and so incorporated wine into Jewish religious life. But I would hardly say they elevated it. It was a natural development.
RE: Was wine limited to ceremonial, ritual and festive use, or did it play a role in daily Jewish life?
JM: The people of every wine-growing nation drink wine daily. In this respect, why should the Jews in ancient Israel have been different? Wine aided in digestion by stimulating salivary glands. It also provided significant amounts of vitamin B, along with manganese and iron. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a glass of fine wine knows that it also can soothe mind and body at the end of a hard workday. In short, a daily dose of wine is and was a no-brainer!
RE: Islam bans alcohol and many Christian sects oppose it. Did Judaism ever give rise to a “temperance” movement?
JM: Not that I know of. How can you make Kiddush with “temperance”? Let’s remember that Kiddush [with wine] was legal even during the United States’ misguided experiment with Prohibition.
Rudd Vineyard. Photos by Steve Goldfinger
RE: So you’re saying the relationship of Jews and wine was codified in our holy books and customs. How did it translate to real world Jews in history? If the surrounding cultures opposed alcohol, did Jews follow suit? I noticed in Morocco, Jews owned the vineyards around Mogador.
JM: Well, we weren’t always so successful in maintaining our tradition. I believe the Muslims ripped out most of the vineyards in Israel once they took over back in the eighth century. I would hope that we benefited from a “benign neglect” attitude. During many of these historical periods, the “abstainers” were probably happy to know where they could find a good bottle of wine!
RE: And in Eastern Europe?
JM: It’s unlikely that the Jews in the shtetl had enough wine stashed away for daily enjoyment. It was easier to grow good wine grapes in Morocco than Poland. Their priority was to make certain enough Kiddush wine was available for Shabbat and other holy or festive occasions.
RE: And in the United States, how did the idea of sweet kosher wine come about?
JM: I guess Concord grapes are the culprits. New World Jewish immigrants adopted them 150 years ago; they were the only grapes around. A native American member of the species vitis labrusca, Concords, in my opinion, were never meant for wine. They are better for eating. Fermented, they have a “foxy” quality — that is, an earthy, musky flavor — that needs to be disguised with sugar. The wines of Israel and Europe traditionally were made with grapes from the species vitis vinifera, like Cabernet and Chardonnay, for example. Unlike Concords, these vinifera grapes are delicious when fermented dry.
RE: Passover is a holiday structured around wine — was that a Jewish innovation?
JM: I don’t believe so. As I’ve already said, most ancient Mediterranean cultures were celebrating important occasions with wine. Nonetheless, the Hebrew term for feast or banquet — mishteh — comes from the word lishtot, to drink. For me, this is further confirmation that wine has long held a pivotal place in Jewish celebration.
RE: Was there ever a strain in Judaism that opposed wine and alcohol consumption?
JM: I hope not.
RE: I think the Nazirites did. That didn’t last long.
JM: And Maimonides, no less, castigated the Nazirites for abstaining from wine, rather than just drinking in moderation.
RE: For all the embrace of wine in the Bible, there’s clear condemnation of drunkenness. “Do not drink wine nor strong drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest you die: It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations” (Leviticus 10:9). The message is: Enjoy wine, but not too much?
JM: There is a lot of common sense in the Bible. That message should be right up there with the Ten Commandments!
RE: Christianity uses wine as a sacrament — it is the blood of their savior. Does that idea have Jewish roots?
JM: Aside from some poetic license that might associate the color of wine with blood — and this is common to all wine-drinking cultures — I really have no sense of a wine and blood connection in Judaism. Sure, Christianity borrowed from Jewish tradition regarding wine, but I have no idea who came up with the blood thing. For the record, you can make Kiddush on white wine!
Rudd Vineyard is owned by Leslie Rudd, business partner of Jeff Morgan.
RE: The blessing of the wine does not use the word for wine. It simply refers to it as “the fruit of the vine.” But wine is so much more than that — the result of technique, fermentation, yeasts, sugars and other ingredients. Do you find a spiritual lesson in referring to it simply as “the fruit of the vine”?
JM: Wine is naturally blessed, or holy. Kiddush helps us experience or recognize the holy nature of special moments such as Shabbat. In the same way, we don’t bless just “the bread,” we bless “the bread brought forth from the earth.” Our prayers always make the connection between God, man and earth.
Maybe the wording of our blessing has to do with the fact that grapes are purely a creation of God, but wine requires human intervention. As a winemaker, I can tell you I pray a lot during the harvest. Sure, we humans make the wine. But we are not totally in control. I set things up as best as I can for success, but someone else is driving the wine train.
RE: What percentage of Jews will drink only kosher wine?
JM: That number probably coincides with the number of Jews that are “Sabbath-observant” or [in this country] Orthodox. My guess is, maybe, 10 to 15 percent.
RE: How do you explain the boom in quality kosher wine — of which, truth be told, Covenant stands as a shining example?
JM: Thank you for the compliment. It’s all about demand and supply. A more sophisticated public wants to drink better. And wines the world over — kosher or not — are better than they used to be. Better viticulture; better winemaking across the board.
RE: As a winemaker, how do you explain the laws of kosher wine: Are they there to make wine better, or to keep Jews separate, or what?
JM: I really don’t presume to able to explain the laws of kashrut. But my guess is that they are linked more to religious practice and societal control than wine quality.
RE: Kosher wine gets a bad rap because people assume the process of pasteurization, what is called in Hebrew mevushal, degrades the wine. Do you agree?
JM: If so-called wine experts knew just a little bit about kosher wine, they would know that it doesn’t have to be pasteurized at all. In fact, most of the fine kosher wine coming from the 300-plus wineries in Israel today is not pasteurized (or mevushal, in Hebrew). The same goes for the best French and Spanish kosher wines. Our kosher Covenant wines from California have never been pasteurized either. In fact, they are not even filtered, as are so many other wines — both kosher and not kosher — today.
In the old days, they really boiled the wine. That probably made it undrinkable. Today flash pasteurization — which rapidly heats and cools the juice or wine — has far less negative effect. In fact, sometimes heating can enhance aromas, making them more fruit forward. There is nothing simple about wine — except drinking it. Let’s just say flash pasteurization involves complex technology that, when used properly, can produce excellent wine.
RE: So if you could tell contemporary Jews one thing about wine, that would be?
JM: Wine, as our heritage demonstrates, is for every day — not only the Sabbath and holy days. If you are not drinking good wine in moderation at most meals, you’re missing out on one of the great joys of life.