An opulent showcase for kosher wines and food
“I’m not even Jewish!”
This is not the conversation I expected to have with an expert winemaker who has been involved with the production of kosher wines for more than a dozen years. But such was the case with the affable Philip Jones, senior winemaker and managing director of Goose Bay from New Zealand and the Pacifica label from Oregon.
His Oregon pinot noir is certified kosher, and a terrific value for any Oregon pinot, really. The Bay Area native was raised Catholic but found himself intrigued by the idea of getting into kosher wine when a friend suggested it to him over dinner one night in Santa Maria, Calif., more than 20 years ago.
The exchange I had with Jones, during which he talked about the challenges of bringing Jewish winemakers from Melbourne, Australia, to his remote New Zealand vineyard to produce Goose Bay’s kosher vintages, was one of the many unexpected pleasures of the Kosher Wine & Food Experience held March 2 at the Petersen Automotive Museum.
Sample iconic French label Laurent-Perrier rosé and classic Champagnes, and taste vaunted Rothschild kosher wines? Nosh on short rib cavatelli and pastrami-style cured cod on a rye blini from the chefs at Herzog Wine Cellars’ flagship Ventura Country kosher restaurant, Tierra Sur? See the range of the famed enterprise’s kosher production, including reserve bottles and its special edition Camouflage blend that combines 12 varietals? All this, plus a chunk of Israel’s wine industry all present under one roof in L.A.? Twist my arm.
For the sixth annual Los Angeles event that originated in New York City, organizer Royal Wine Corp. moved the tasting extravaganza with approximately 50 wineries and eight spirits brands to the Petersen from last year’s location at the W Hollywood hotel. Attendees tasted Israeli wines while snapping photos of Maseratis, rare alternative-fuel cars, vintage motorcycles and the like.
The Cask serves up kosher wines for connoisseurs
In the past, trying to put together a kosher wine tasting was a challenge because it seemed the major stores offered so few choices. A quick look at the inventory of some of the more sympathetic non-kosher wine shops around Los Angeles reveals a mere page of choices, but if you look a little further, there are only a couple each of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, or whatever varietal you choose. It’s like they looked at the broad spectrum of wine and decided it was better if they had one kosher selection of each varietal and left it at that. Look further still, and you’ll see only a couple of options that cost more than $30. On the one hand, the frugal oenophile may see this as a plus, but I see it as a kind of dismissal that implies kosher wines probably aren’t that good, so why go to the trouble of putting any of the more expensive juice on the shelf?
This lack of choice and of higher-end titles is self-perpetuating — you don’t get very good selections, or much of a selection at all, and it reinforces the sense that kosher wine overall — and Israeli wines in particular — aren’t very good. Well, there’s a case to be made that they weren’t very good for a very long time, but that the tide has turned, and a new crop of more artisanal winemakers has come into their own over the past several years.
Winemaking has been part of Jewish history from the very beginning (Noah gets drunk and passes out naked in Genesis 9:21) and from the very earliest references to Israel. However, for generations in modern times, the landscape was completely dominated by Manischewitz, about which I will not write another word in the name of common decency.
Of course, making better wine is one thing, but selling it is another. Enter Michael Bernstein and The Cask on Pico. With a selection of nearly 500 wine titles, it is the largest and best all-kosher wine and spirits shop on the West Coast.
Bernstein, 34, was looking for a “recession-proof” business and saw a void in the market for selling kosher wine to an evolving, increasingly sophisticated market. Four years later, and he’s loving it. “This is one of the best times I’ve ever had in terms of business. You meet very interesting people, whether it’s the winemakers or the customers. There’s a great camaraderie in the business. I can’t think of another industry that’s more fun.”
Admittedly more of a “Scotch guy,” Bernstein (and his staff) has tasted every title in the store, and he’s developed his palate in the process. Although he prides himself on service and selection (he sells almost every bottle himself), Bernstein sees himself as equal parts educator and salesman. “People like to compare one bottle or vintage to another,” he said. His approach is to broaden the consumer’s horizons: “I love to get people to try more exciting things. If you liked that, you should really try this.”
The Cask’s refrigerated wine cellar behind the main sales floor holds some of the rarest and most expensive selections, including older vintages of Domaine du Castel (Judean Hills, Israel), Pontet Canet (Pauillac, Bordeaux) and Covenant (Napa Valley). Most bottles in this chilly little sanctuary sell for more than $65. The most expensive bottle it has sold? A 2003 Valandraud from St. Emilion in Bordeaux for $550.
Best-selling title? Bartenura Moscato at $13.95, a title that has caught fire, in part, because its distinctive blue bottle was prominently featured in a video of the song “Do It Now” by half-Jewish rapper Drake. Evidently, Moscato rhymes with bravo, model and bottle.
As for Manischewitz: Bernstein doesn’t carry it. “I’m a fan of tradition, but this,” he said, waving his hand at the handsome display of dozens of hand-picked bottles that adorn the walls in dark wood cabinetry that runs from floor to ceiling, “isn’t about that.”
What wine to pair with gefilte fish? “Who eats gefilte fish?” If you absolutely had to? “I hope I don’t have to.”
There is a full selection of every kind of spirit imaginable, including a wall of Scotch whiskeys — some of which do not carry a kosher designation on the label and the reason his store does not carry a kosher hechsher. “I’ve done my own research,” he says about the “disputed” titles, mostly having to do with a bit of arcana surrounding the kind of casks used for aging.
Bernstein is perhaps the greatest champion of kosher wine and spirits in Los Angeles. A back room is host to tastings with visiting winemakers and privately catered parties. Last month, he hosted a Scotch tasting at the SLS Hotel attended by more than 150 enthusiasts nibbling on kosher hors d’oeuvres and smoking presumably kosher cigars, part of an ongoing series of off-site events. “You get people’s honest opinions,” he says of comparative tastings. What’s the Yiddish expression for “In vino veritas”?
Here are some of Michael Bernstein’s Passover picks:
Rose du Castel 2013 (Israel), $39.95
Capcanes Peraj Petita Rosat, $29.95
Barkan Pinotage 2011 (Israel), $70
Adir “Plato” Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $70
Psagot Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Napa Valley), $40
Hajdu Syrah 2012, $40
Malartic La Graviere Bordeaux 2005, $100
The Cask, 8616 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 205-9008.
Jeff Smith is the founder of Van Nuys-based Carte du Vin Wine Cellar Management and the author of “The Best Cellar.” He was formerly known as J.D. Smith.
This year, more Angelenos than ever get Passover aid from local agencies
This year, more than 1,000 Los Angeles families in need received food from organizations that provide assistance specifically for Passover.
During the weeks leading up to the first seder, on April 6, visitors to distribution sites set up by agencies, synagogues and organizations took home essentials for the holiday — wine, grape juice, matzah, gefilte fish, horseradish, eggs and more — so that they could have seders and kosher food for the eight days of the holiday.
Low-income families received assistance from Tomchei Shabbos, Global Kindness, Valley Beth Shalom, JFS/SOVA, the Israeli Leadership Council, the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) and elsewhere. Social workers from Jewish Family Service, a nonsectarian social service agency, referred many individuals and families in need to food-giving agencies. Tomchei Shabbos, which provides donations of kosher food to Los Angeles Orthodox families weekly, served additional families for Passover.
The majority of recipients this year were people who’ve lost their jobs in the recent recession, including, said Rabbi Yona Landau, executive director of Tomchei Shabbos, “people who got sick and couldn’t work, people who were abandoned, women who were abandoned by their husbands and they have to care of the family themselves.
“There’s a lot of different cases,” Landau said. “If they didn’t get our food, they wouldn’t have any food.”
Others receiving food assistance for Passover included immigrant families of Persian, Israeli and Russian descent; seniors with disabilities; and some divorcees, all facing major financial challenges, according to Debbie Alden, a board member of Valley Beth Shalom’s Sisterhood and Nouriel Cohen, CFO of Global Kindness. Many of the recipients were formerly volunteers at these agencies and organizations — people who used to be middle-class — but are now reliant on charity.
“We had people who were donating to us a little bit, and now they are asking, which is really sad,” said Shahla Javdan, president of the IAJF.
Because of privacy concerns, no recipient families gave their names for interviews.
On the night of April 2, an elderly woman living in West Hollywood receiving a delivery from two volunteers in their 20s, told of her problems with sciatica. “Not well,” she replied to a volunteer who asked how she was doing as they brought the food into her home.
Tomchei Shabbos volunteers delivered some of the food for Passover to recipients’ homes. Some requested that the food be left at their doorsteps.
Other recipients parked at the curb at Pico Boulevard and Weatherly Drive, the site of the organization’s storefront, waited to receive the boxes filled with produce, which they loaded into the backseats of their minivans and the trunks of their sedans with the help of eager volunteers.
Tomchei boxes were marked with only families’ initials so as not to give away their identities. Valley Beth Shalom’s distributors employed a similar method for their food giveaway.
In the days leading up to Passover, people strapped for cash shopped at Pico-Robertson grocery stores Elat Market and Glatt Mart using food coupons from the IAJF. The stores cooperated with the IAJF, selling $25 and $50 coupons at a 25 percent discount to the IAJF, which then distributed the coupons to community members.
SOVA, a program of Jewish Family Service, differentiated Passover packages for Ashkenazi and Sephardic families. Ashkenazi families received gefilte fish and horseradish, while Sephardic families received rice and dates in addition to matzah ball soup mix, macaroons, eggs, walnuts and matzah.
“They will be able to do a nice seder with what they receive,” Fred Summers, director of operations at JFS/SOVA, said. “Some of the things will last longer than one night, [but] it will probably not be an eight-day supply.
The numbers of those in need might surprise some. JFS/SOVA provided for approximately 700 individuals and families for Passover, according to Summers. Tomchei Shabbos served around 600 families, estimated Landau. VBS distributed 124 boxes filled with Passover items, Global Kindness helped nearly 350 families, the Israeli Leadership Council provided assistance for more than 100 families, and the IAJF distributed between $30,000 and $50,000 in food coupons, Javdan said.
More families requested Passover food this year than in previous years, Javdan, Landau and Cohen all said, and the agencies couldn’t meet all the demand. Despite news reports that the economy is improving and new jobs are being created each month, Cohen said more people are in need this year than ever before. “Not only for Passover, but for other holidays also.”
Kosher wine shop a spirited addition to Pico-Robertson
Jewish wine enthusiasts in Pico-Robertson now have a specialty shop of their own where they can taste, talk about and buy kosher wines from all over the world. The Cask, which opened its doors in April, plans to offer more than 500 kosher wines and 125 scotches when fully stocked, in addition to other spirits. Although the store does not carry kosher certification, owner Michael Bernstein said he will not stock anything that is not kosher.
The nearly 2,000-square-foot store, at 8616 W. Pico Blvd., is located in the heart of the Orthodox community, a step into the trendy for a mostly traditional neighborhood. In addition to the shop, The Cask has a walk-in cellar, which houses some of its most expensive wines, and a tasting room that can also be rented out for parties and other events.
Bernstein said he wants people to start buying their kosher wine differently.
“We believe that, up until a few years ago, people’s perception of kosher wine was: ‘Manischewitz is what you’re going to get if you want to drink kosher wine,’ ” Bernstein said. “That’s not the case. There happento be some excellent [kosher] wines that have been made [in] different regions of the world.”
The Cask emphasizes the growing Israeli wine industry but also stocks labels from California, France and Spain, among others. Bernstein said he works hard to bring in wines that normally wouldn’t be available locally.
Even though The Cask opened during the tail end of the recession and in the middle of an area where kosher wines are readily available in other shops nearby — notably Glatt Mart and The Nut House — Bernstein says he is confident in his business model.
“I think that the community, the Jewish community, can really benefit from something like this,” Bernstein said, tweaking a famous movie line: “We built it, and, hopefully, they will come.”
Noah, a wine purchaser for Glatt Mart, who would give only his first name, said he thinks The Cask is fantastic for the Jewish community, and he isn’t worried about losing any customers. He believes shoppers will remain loyal to him, even while others will be loyal to The Cask. Noah said people from as far as Mexico and Canada buy from only him, because they trust his expertise.
The Cask offers a new flavor for the neighborhood. Its raised ceilings evoke a Napa wine cellar atmosphere. A computer program allows shoppers to track their purchases to remember what they’ve liked and disliked and what they might want to try in the future. The tasting room might be a fixture in upscale wineries but adds something different to this neighborhood. For now, Bernstein said, he doesn’t have competition because no other shops like his exist in the area.
“We want people to experience something special when they come into our store,” Bernstein said. “We don’t want it to be, ‘There’s the kosher wine section; help yourself.’ Instead, we try to guide people to help make purchases that we know will suit their needs.”
The wine business is relatively new to Bernstein, who also works in real estate and owns a property management company but is currently focusing on The Cask.
Bernstein’s entry into the industry comes from a long love of wine and spirits. He said he and his friends have always enjoyed sharing a good bottle of wine or a drink of scotch. But sometimes the company you keep is far more important than the wine you drink.
“I can open up a $50 bottle of wine and not enjoy it as much as a $10 bottle if I’m not with good friends or family,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein knows some kosher markets can sell wine for less and make up the difference in profit on food. But Bernstein disdains the notion that The Cask is an expensive store. His goal is to get the Reform and Conservative communities interested in drinking kosher wine outside of Shabbat and the holidays.
“I believe that the Orthodox crowd is somewhat [aware] that there are some good kosher wines in the world,” Bernstein said. “The Conservative and Reform communities need to be exposed to the concept.”
Bernstein often refers to The Cask as his “project,” even as he speaks with obvious passion. He calls his first three months a success for the business, despite being open during a relatively dry period in the Jewish community after Passover.
“I’m really excited,” Bernstein said. “It’s something different, something new. I can tell you that if somebody else opened up this business, I would be a customer. This is how I want to buy a kosher wine.”
Just breathe: Herzog legacy lives on with new wines
When Eugene Herzog was driven from Czechoslovakia by the communist regime in 1948, he was forced to leave behind his wineries. With little money to his name and his family in tow, he moved to Brooklyn and took a job at a small kosher winery. But the types of wine they sold horrified him: sweet, syrupy Concord grape, produced locally with lots of sugar to raise the alcohol content.
As a vintner with experience in kosher and non-kosher labels, Herzog knew real wine. After all, his grandfather, Philip Herzog, had made wine for Emperor Franz-Joseph, who had made him a baron.
By 1958, Eugene Herzog had inherited the winery, calling it Royal Wines. The next few decades were an era of sweet wine, with boldly unapologetic ad campaigns such as, “Wine so sweet you can cut it with a knife” and “the sweeter the better,” solidifying — sullying — kosher wine’s reputation — until today.
No wonder why when last Passover a man ordered thousands of dollars worth of the finest wines from the new Herzog winery in Oxnard, he included a case of Créme of Concord Malaga. “Sir, why, among all these wines are you ordering this sweet stuff?” asked Joseph Herzog, the youngest of Eugene’s grandsons, who runs the Oxnard winery, gift shop and its gourmet restaurant, Tierra Sur. “This is what we always drank at our seder,” the man, a secular Jew, told him.
“But that’s because you had to drink that,” Herzog argued. “There were no other kosher wines then. Today, you can drink good wine at your Seder, kosher wine, red wine. I’m sure your father and grandfather would have done the same.”
This wine aficionado, according to Herzog, just shrugged and went ahead with his purchase.
It’s hard to fight tradition.
But that’s what the Herzog family — and the entire kosher wine industry — is trying to do: change how people perceive kosher wine.
“Kosher wine has the baggage of being thought of as sweet wine or blessed wine. People hear it’s blessed, and they don’t want to taste it. We want to change the image.”
Herzog is just one of many kosher labels around the world that hope to change the image of kosher wine. It’s a two-pronged battle: The first is to change the perception of kosher wines in the mainstream world; the second is to change the kosher wine drinker’s palate to appreciate finer wines.
Consider this: Before Passover, many supermarkets feature Herzog wines in a special display in the front of the store. “They’ll buy the wine and then come back [after Passover] and ask where is the Baron Herzog?” Joseph Herzog said. “When they’re shown to the kosher section, they won’t buy it again.”
“We’re trying to get our wines in non-kosher sections,” he said. Stores like Trader Joe’s don’t separate out kosher wines. “We’re trying to make wines where people say, ‘Wow! I never knew kosher wine is that good!’ It’s made the same, the only difference is that Orthodox and Shabbat-observant people make it.”
Which is not exactly true. While kosher wine and non-kosher wine mostly use the same ingredients — except for animal-based fining products and uncertified yeasts — and they utilize the same winemaking process, kosher wine must be made only by Sabbath-observant Jews. This is because in biblical times, wine was used in idolatry, so rabbis forbade use of any wine or grape juice that had been handled by a non-Jew.
Today, a non-Jew cannot have touched uncooked grape products for them to be kosher. How can anyone drink kosher wine then?
Most commercial kosher wine is pasteurized, or cooked (mevushal). Like a number of other high-end kosher wineries around the world, Baron Herzog Royal Wineries label, started in 1985, sells a limited amount of nonpasteurized wine — for example, its new port and pinot noir, which could not survive the cooking process — but those products have limited usage for religious Jews, for example, who might be worried about a non-Jewish housekeeper or guest touching the bottle.
For the most part, kosher wines from around the world — Australia, Spain, France, Italy and, of course, Israel — have been reviewed well by wine critics and have scored competitively against their non-kosher counterparts.
But the main consumers of kosher wines are still people who keep kosher. Do the dry, refined wines appeal to them?
Gracing many an Orthodox Shabbat table as regular as gefilte fish is the iridescent blue glass of Bartenura, a sweet, bubbly libation with a low alcoholic content, that tastes more like fizzy cotton candy than wine.
“What’s happening in the food world is happening in the wine world,” said Herzog, referring to the gourmet revolution that has influenced many kosher consumers. “There’s a new generation who are interested in drier wines,” he said, noting that there are many people becoming kosher who want the same type of wines they had when they weren’t observant.
As to others who prefer grape juice, dessert wines like muscat (very popular) and wine-cooler-like liquid — those who don’t know any better — Joseph Herzog said the company produces “stepping-stone” wines before they go for the big leagues.
“People are afraid to try cabernet. Real dry wine that dries out your whole mouth,” he said “We’re trying to get them educated into the better wines and change the meaning of kosher wine.”
The Ultimate Taste Test
Inside Kosher World, the recent “for-the-trade” food show, you had to remind yourself you were in Anaheim. To my left, two gentlemen negotiated a deal in animated Hebrew. To my right, wine connoisseurs swirled, sniffed and sipped kosher-for-Passover premium varietals from Israel and 11 other countries. Behind me, hungry visitors, beckoned by the intoxicating aromas of smoked meat grilling, speared six varieties of kosher sausage. And at what other trade show would you find a curtained section designated “Davening Area”?
While this was the third year for Kosher World, it was the first time the show joined with the ethnic and halal markets, under the umbrella of the World Ethnic Market.
“These foods are no longer limited today to specialty suppliers or people of a particular religion or ethnicity,” said show director Phyllis Koegel. “They’re now routinely available at major food retailers, restaurants, hotels and food service operations.”
About 40 companies exhibited kosher products, ranging from wines to cheese to meat and halvah, but there also were cashews from Dan-D-Pack, a product of Vietnam; halal beef franks from Midamar, and salted lassi from Gulf & Safa Dairies of Dubai.
As usual at such shows, I sampled far too much, but what don’t you do in the name of research? My first stop was Neshama Gourmet Kosher Foods, for the best sausage I’ve ever tasted. My personal favorite is the exotic Merguez line, made from beef and lamb.
“For the first time our smoked andouille and country apple will be available kosher for Passover,” announced vice president Evelyn Baran.
I sampled salad dressing from Mistral — loved the soy ginger — and the yummiest individually wrapped Kugelettes — sure, there were Traditional Golden Raisin, but could grandma dream up Green Chile and Cheese with Salsa?
Next I visited Raphy’s booth, where samples of baba ghanoush, stuffed eggplant and a host of other delicacies, all produced in Turkey — the watermelon peel preserves are to die for — were dished up with flair.
Only fine wine could top off this “balanced meal,” so I headed for Royal Wine Corp., the world’s largest producer, importer and distributor of kosher wines. “When people hear ‘kosher’ and ‘wine’ in the same breath, they think sweet,” said Dennis Bookbinder, the company’s director of sales. “Our slogan is: ‘We produce and import premium varietal wines that happen to be kosher.’ Today you’ll find world-class kosher wines from $200 a bottle on down.”
Many of the company’s 300 wines from 12 countries regularly garner awards and top ratings from the world’s foremost wine critics and publications. And with Passover around the corner, expect a flood of new kosher wines. Petit Castel from the Judean Hills is considered the finest wine from Israel, Bookbinder said. Baron Herzog Jeunesse, as well as premium wines from Segal’s, Barkan and Carmel, are just a few he recommended to grace the seder table.
This year’s show also included the Natural Products Expo in the same building, “because people tend to associate kosher food with natural and organic,” said show director Koegel.
According to analysts, only 20 percent to 33 percent of kosher foods produced worldwide is consumed by Jews, and this is one of the fastest growing segments of the food industry. So just who is buying the rest? Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus and others who follow similar dietary restrictions, for starters. With 20 percent of the population lactose intolerant and millions calling themselves vegetarians of one sort or another, plus countless others who are health conscious, it is easy to see why kosher products have wide appeal. The mad cow disease scare hasn’t hurt either; because of strict cleanliness requirements and butchering procedures, there has never been a case of the disease found in kosher beef.
So, as the motto on a banner said at the first Kosher World: “Bringing kosher to mainstream and mainstream to kosher.” Truer today than ever, I’d say.
Rogov’s Puts Israel on Oenological Map
At a seder last year, the host put out a few bottles of Israeli wine.
“Oh, kosher wine,” one of the host’s relatives observed with flared nostrils and a raised brow, “Yum.”
The topic of Israeli wines — not all kosher wines are Israeli, not all Israeli wines are kosher — can seem like a meeting place that’s made specially for snobs and rubes to share. To paraphrase a certain White House Cabinet member, a lot of people don’t know what they don’t know or don’t know what they think they know. “Kosher” triggers associations with Manischewitz, the syrupy, sacramental stuff found in the fruit and jug wines section.
In fact, Israel has followed the global trend of crafting quality wine and is now regarded by wine experts as an up-and-comer. The industry is technologically modern, with state-of-the-art facilities and know-how. It’s also growing aggressively, with more than 120 wineries, an implausibly high number given Israel’s small population. To put that in perspective, if Israel were a U.S. state, it would rank fifth.
“Israeli wines are on a steep upward curve,” said wine writer Rod Smith. “The country has the conditions, especially in the Golan Heights with its cool high-altitude sites, varied exposures, and volcanic soils. Israeli growers and winemakers are among the most progressive and cosmopolitan in the world. They have the financial backing, too, so all the parts are in place.”
The latest part is “Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines 2005,” the first comprehensive English-language book on the subject.
Rogov has long played the role of food and wine ambassador for Israeli tourism, and readers have consulted him for wine and restaurant choices for more than 35 years in his columns in Ha’aretz and the International Herald Tribune and on his Web site. He has, and is, a big personality, who knows the skinny on seemingly every chef, restaurateur, supplier and wine expert in Israel.
The guide aims to put Israel on the oenological map a la John Platter’s South African Wine Guide or annual Pocket Wine Guides by Britain’s Hugh Johnson and Australia’s Oz Clark. Rogov’s endeavor is handsomely published, and its portable format underscores its usefulness for wine-travelers.
The book includes a fine introduction with a history and an overview of the subject, then reviews vineyards and their varietals using the convention of stars and the 100-point ratings system, with evaluations according to the flavor wheel. Although wine talk can be generally hard to understand even for experienced wine drinkers (What, after all, is the difference between an 86 and an 87? What is an 87, anyway?), Rogov can be amusing. Of one lowly regarded bottle, sarcasm overflows.
“Drink up,” he writes, proving how brevity is wit.
The introduction, though, is worth the book’s $14.95 price. For all the effete and inaccessible talk that wine sometimes seems to invite, wine is fundamentally about the land. Wines’ roots in the Land of Israel extend back to ancient times, and they laid the foundation for the Zionist enterprise. The Torah notes that Noah planted the first vineyard, and how Moses’ spies in Canaan brought back immense clusters of grapes. Deuteronomy lists wine among the blessings the Promised Land will yield. Ezekiel even makes reference to wine-growing methods, specifically trellises winemakers used to train vines. There’s a considerable archeological record to back up the Bible, too, with remains of ancient wine presses and other wine-making paraphernalia across the entire Land of Israel. The only interruptions of wine production were during certain periods of Muslim rule, since Islam forbids alcohol.
That vines, like people, need strong roots was a metaphor that wasn’t lost on the earliest pioneers in Palestine, the Chalutzim, who saw a prospect to meet the Jewish world’s demand for kosher wine. In 1882, with backing from the Baron Edmund de Rothschild, who owned the Chateau Lafite, one of the most esteemed wineries in Bordeaux, the early settlers planted vineyards in Rishon LeZion. Rothschild sent experts, supplies and grape varieties from Europe and funded wineries in Rishon, as well as in Zichron Ya’akov, which opened in 1890. Heat killed the first harvests, followed by a plague of insects, and the ventures failed. Even so, Rothschild subsequently organized a collective to manage the two wineries in 1906 called, Carmel Mizrahi — and that entity dominated the Israeli wine industry through the 1980s.
Quality improved dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially with the rise of dozens of boutique and artisanal producers. Some produce fewer than 1,000 bottles, some more than 100,000 bottles. The challenge for small wineries is distribution, and various efforts are under way, including one by Carmel, to organize boutique producers and help them reach a wider market. The big producers, notably Carmel and Golan Heights Winery, dominate shelf space in the metropolitan Philadelphia region. In New York, selection is somewhat better.
The question now is the future, and where, given the competition, Israeli wine will go from here. Because it’s Israel, wine also faces political pressures, especially because some of Israel’s best wine-growing lands are in disputed areas, most notably the Golan Heights but also in the hills of Judea.
That aside, Rogov looks to the niche success of places such as Sicily and the Penedes region of Spain, which succeeded by appealing to wine drinkers in search of novel, high-quality wines, as examples Israeli winemakers should look to for guidance. As niche wines, Rogov writes, Israelis wines “will move off those shelves limited only to kosher holdings and begin to appear in a special Israeli section. Their appeal to the broader population will come form their unique qualities, reflecting their Mediterranean and specifically Israeli source…. Those that prove their excellence will find themselves in greater demand by both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.”
“Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines” is available online at ” target=”_blank”>www.tobypress.com/rogov.
Latin America Aims for Northern Palates
Guarding the entrance to Bodegas Barberis, a family-owned winery in western Argentina, is a small ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary, known locally as the Virgen de la Carrodilla.
“She’s our local patron saint and protector of the vineyards,” said Adrian Barberis, who with his three brothers owns the prosperous winery.
The virgin hardly would cause an eyebrow to be raised in this devoutly Catholic country — except for the fact that Bodegas Barberis, 15 miles south of the city of Mendoza, is a leading Argentine exporter of kosher wine.
Each year, the churchgoing Barberis family turns over 20 percent of its 100-hectare winery to a team of Chasidic Jews from Buenos Aires. For several months before Passover, Chasidim supervise every aspect of wine production — from _fermentation to bottle-sealing — to ensure that the laws of kashrut are observed to the letter.
By now, the winery’s 15 employees are used to seeing the half-dozen bearded men running around checking cooling tanks, tasting samples from wine vats and operating forklifts on the loading docks.
That’s not all. Honoring a Jewish tradition known as terumot vema’aserot, Barberis must intentionally spill on the ground or give to charity 10 percent of its annual kosher wine production. Other talmudic laws prohibit Barberis from using fruit produced during the first three years of a grape harvest, require all wine to be flash-pasteurized before bottling and demand that the land be allowed to rest every seventh year.
“We are allowed to cultivate the grapes and bring them to the bodega in plastic bins,” Barberis said. “We leave them in the truck, and the rabbis and their employees unload them and do the whole process in a special sector of the bodega. The only thing our oenologist does is explain to the rabbis and their people how to use specific machinery.”
Barberis said his biggest market is the United States, where an estimated one-fifth of Jews regularly drink kosher wine, mainly at weddings, circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, funerals and at their Shabbat tables.
The peak season for kosher wine is right before Passover, when hundreds of thousands of American Jewish families stock up.
“It all depends on production schedules,” said Barberis, who is familiar with basic kashrut terminology. “The Orthodox Jews don’t work on Pesach, so if Pesach coincides with fermentation and the grapes are mature, we can’t use our grapes, meaning we have to buy grapes from other wineries.”
This year, Barberis expects to sell $300,000 worth of kosher wine to Royal Wine Corp., an importer based in Bayonne, N.J.
Other wineries in both Argentina and Chile — a six-hour drive over the Andes Mountains from Mendoza — also are turning to the relatively small but lucrative kosher market to supplement exports in the face of weak internal demand.
That’s resulted in the appearance on U.S. supermarket shelves of relatively inexpensive brands such as Chile’s Layla Cabernet Sauvignon and Argentina’s Byblos Bonarda, both imported by Abarbanel Wine Co. of Cedarhurst, N.Y., as well as Chile’s Alfasi Merlot, imported by Royal Wine Corp.
“Currently, Argentina is exporting more than 50 percent of its total production. Some bodegas export up to 90 percent,” says Enrique Chrabolowsky, a Jewish wine critic based in Mendoza.
Chrabolowsky, who with co-author Michel Rolland, has just published a coffee table book, “Wines of Argentina,” said that last year, Chile exported a record $900 million worth of wine — mainly to Europe and North America — while Argentina exported $300 million. Both neighbors are taking advantage of the fact that they offer relatively cheap land, phylloxera-free soil, high productivity and low wages compared with more established wine-producing countries, such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Even so, less than 5 percent of the kosher wine bought in the United States comes from South America. That’s mainly because the cheaper sugary-sweet Concord varieties produced by Mogen David and Manischewitz in upstate New York still dominate 40 percent of the U.S. kosher market, and Israel also commands a healthy share.
In fact, a search for “Chile” at www.kosherwine.com, a Chicago-based online retailer, turns up 13 labels, while a search for “Argentina” brings up only six labels. Both countries pale in comparison with Israel, with 152 kosher wine brands on the market.
“Argentina never paid attention to exports, because almost all of its production went for the internal market,” Barberis said. “Then internal consumption began declining, which obligated us to export our products. We started later than Chile, which never had a big internal market and has been exporting since the beginning. But Argentina can grow rapidly and has big potential.”
According to Chrabolowsky, a Jewish entrepreneur named Samuel Flichman pioneered Argentine quality wines, though there are few Jews still in the industry. Probably the largest Jewish vintner in Mendoza today is Pedro Marchevsky; his wine is called Ben Marco and has a menorah on the label, but it’s not kosher.
Barberis, on the other hand, produces three varieties of kosher wine for export to the United States: Valero Syrah, Valero Malbec and Valero Tempranillo.
The Syrah, boasts the label, “is produced using carefully selected grapes harvested in Argentina’s world-famous Mendoza winemaking region. The wine displays a deep ruby red color with a bouquet of dark berries and licorice. The wine’s flavor is reminiscent of plums and raspberries.”
The winery also produces Tekiah Syrah and Tekiah Tempranillo for the local Argentine Jewish market, as well as for export to Panama.
As a Catholic, Barberis cannot serve Valero to Orthodox Jews because it is not mevushal, or flash-pasteurized. Tekiah, on the other hand, is mevushal.
But doesn’t heating the wine even for a fraction of a second destroy the flavor?
“Theoretically, yes,” Barberis replied. “But it must be good, because the Wine Enthusiast magazine has given Tekiah Syrah a score of 84 points.”
Let My People Merlot
In the beginning, there was sweet wine. Really, really sweet wine.
But as the kosher market broadened, a trickle of new wines targeted to a more sophisticated audience began to raise expectations among Jewish wine lovers.
Now kosher wines have entered a third era, in which many are not only passable, they’re praiseworthy. Though winemakers in Israel and the United States still grow the largest numbers of these wines, vineyards all over the globe — from Australia to South Africa to Chile — are joining in, giving Jewish consumers an array of choices to accompany their charoset and brisket.
Passover is the kosher industry’s peak season; virtually all kosher wines are kosher for Passover. In North America, perhaps 50 percent of annual kosher wine sales are made during the holiday or in the weeks that precede it. This percentage is falling, though, as kosher wines gain more year-round acceptance.
The kosher food market is growing by perhaps 15 percent a year, said Menachem Lubinsky, the editor of koshertoday.com and president and CEO of Lubicom, a marketing consulting firm that focuses on kosher brands. He estimates that sales of kosher wines in the United States will reach roughly $160 million in 2005, up from $130 million just two years ago.
Lubinsky said that the number of kosher wines on the North American market is in the thousands, so everyone preparing a seder has plenty of strong choices at a variety of prices.
To make sense of this welter of wines, JTA’s editorial team took upon itself the task of taste-testing 20 kosher wines and picking out some winners. The wines we tested were provided by Royal Wines, one of the world’s largest producers, importers and distributors of kosher wines.
Wines we reviewed that are mevushal, an additional koshering step that involves flash-pasteurizing, are indicated with an “M” next to the price. (To make the testing more fair, we did not know how much each wine cost when we tasted it.)
According to Herzog Wine Cellars winemaker Joe Hurliman, the process changes the way fruit in the wine tastes. Indeed, a handful of nonkosher wineries have begun to flash-pasteurize their wines to capture this distinctive taste.
To best simulate the actual seder experience, our testers ate only Tam Tam matzah crackers for palate cleansing.
Our overall favorites were a pair of inexpensive moscatos that would be excellent choices to accompany desserts, or perhaps spicy foods. Italy’s Bartenura Moscato ($11, M) and Moscato di Carmel ($9) received equally high scores from our reviewers for their light, sweet, extremely fruity flavors. Of the Carmel moscato, one taster wrote, “Smells like honeysuckle, tastes like a party.”
Segal’s Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) is from Israel. This deep red wine is vivid, rich and slightly tart, with an alluringly earthy aroma; it had the most uniformly high scores of any wine in our testing.
Spain is a less traditional kosher wine producer — Spain has less than 40,000 Jews — but the Ramon Cardova Rioja, a Spanish tempranillo ($13), is a terrific dry red, offering a sharp berry taste with hints of vanilla and a potent fruity aroma. It ranks high on our list of best buys.
According to JTA’s testers, several other red wines also deserve a look: The Carmel Appellation Bordeaux Blend Limited Edition ($40) is an Israeli blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, dark and thick with a spicy aroma and a smooth taste that has notes of both sweetness and tartness. Another nice blend is the Herzog Special Reserve Cabernet/Zinfandel/Syrah ($35), a brand-new California wine from Herzog. It was a bit thinner than many of the reds we tasted, but we appreciated its smoothness, layers of fruit and less acidic finish.
A few of the white wines we tasted stood out. Aside from the dessert wines, the tasters were most impressed by the Francois Labet Puligny Montrachet, a French chardonnay ($55) that is vivid and a bit acidic, with a pleasant lingering finish. Also from France, which is the third largest producer of kosher wine in the world, is the Verbau Gewurztraminer ($15, M), a sweet, fruity wine with a mildness that makes it more versatile than the moscatos.
Of the kosher champagnes we tested, the Nicolas Feuillatte Brut from France ($47) drew the most praise. It has a tempting aroma, earthy taste and crisp aftertaste, though some testers felt it was too heavy.
Our testers intended to include a traditional sweet concord wine in our sampling, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to open it after tasting all these elegant wines. However, concords continue to be strong sellers year after year and cost $5 or less, so perhaps there is a place for one at your table.
Listed prices are approximate retail prices. The less expensive wines — $15 and under — often can be found at retailers for a dollar or two less during the days before Passover.
The Best of the Bottles
Though it would be impossible to sample even 10 percent of the thousands of kosher-for-Passover wines on the market there are a number of solid choices we can recommend from the group of wines we sampled with Jay Buchsbaum of Royal Wine, who holds free tastings with many Jewish groups throughout the year.
Mevushal wines are indicated with an ‘M’ next to the approximate retail prices.
Bartenura Moscato (Italy, $11, M)
Moscato di Carmel (Israel, $9)
Ramon Cardova Rioja (Spain, $13)
Verbau Gewurztraminer (France, $15, M)
Baron Herzog Zinfandel (U.S., $13, M)
Segal’s Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon (Israel, $60)
Ramon Cardova Rioja (Spain, $13)
Carmel Appellation Bordeaux Blend Limited Edition (Israel, $40)
Herzog Special Reserve Cabernet/Zinfandel/Syrah (U.S., $35)
Chateau Leoville Poyferre (France, $85)
Best whites (nondessert)
Francois Labet Puligny Montrachet (France, $55)
Verbau Gewurztraminer (France, $15, M)
Binyamina Special Reserve Chardonnay (Israel, $15)
Best for dessert
Bartenura Moscato (Italy, $11, M)
Moscato di Carmel (Israel, $9)
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut (France, $47)
Winemaker Brings Kosher to Oxnard
Fruity, oaky and sugary; I taste blackberries, vanilla and sugar, lots of sugar; full-bodied, strong finish, and very sweet; horrible and, yet again, very sweet. That was the kosher wine tasting of yesteryear.
Today, we can raise our glasses and toast the groundbreaking of the new Herzog Wine Cellar in Oxnard. Herzog kosher wines, which buck the sugar-heavy stereotype and have earned accolades from leading industry publications like Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, will soon be produced in our own neighborhood. After 20 years of generating kosher wines in Northern California "rent-a-wineries," Herzog now looks to put itself on par with the best of the state’s other vintners and own its own home. Upon completion, Herzog’s $13 million, 73,000-square-foot cellar will be the largest new winery in California and the largest kosher winery on the West Coast.
Founded in 1848, the Herzog family winery was the royal wine supplier to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. After Nazis seized that winery during World War II, family head Eugene Herzog moved to New York City. He worked as a winemaker, truck driver and salesman for the Royal Wine Corporation, earning much of his pay in company shares. By 1958, he was the majority shareholder and purchased Royal Wine Corp. Today Royal Wine Corp. is a worldwide producer, importer and distributor of upscale kosher wines, liquors, spirits and grape juices. The Oxnard site will produce Royal Wine Corp’s Baron Herzog and Herzog Premium Reserve labels.
"If you are selling premium wines and you are growing, you need a larger home," said David Herzog, current CEO of Herzog Wine Cellars and Royal Wine Corp. The Oxnard facility, which will replace the Herzog’s leased space in Santa Maria, will produce approximately 130,000 cases of wine in its first vintage and has the capacity to produce 220,000 cases in future years. The new winery will feature advanced warming tanks to spur fermentation, a 50,000-gallon blending tank and a climate-controlled aging room to help the barrel aging process. An in-house laboratory will allow for more comprehensive wine analysis and the temperature-controlled warehouse will maintain the wines’ high quality after bottling. The additional resources also provide Herzog Cellars the opportunity to experiment with small runs of specialty wines.
Royal Wine Corp. hopes the new site will help develop stronger community relations. Just 50 miles outside of Los Angeles, the winery may be a popular day trip for Southland Jews. The winery will offer guided tours, a Herzog Wine Club and wine tasting events for consumers and members of the trade. The Herzog Wine Cellar will even boast an onsite kosher deli and kosher catering facility.
"We looked to build a facility that would be in close proximity to a large observant population," said Eitan Segal, Royal Wine Corp.’s director of public relations. "We wanted to serve the community and we wanted to make life easier on our observant employees, many of whom were commuting from Los Angeles to Santa Maria."
Cellarmaster John Goodman, his wife, Jordana, and their three children tried to lead an Orthodox life in Santa Maria, but found it increasingly difficult. In search of Orthodox schools, synagogues and a more active Jewish community, the Goodman family relocated to Agoura Hills five months ago.
"From a professional standpoint, I’m excited about the move to Oxnard since the winery’s expanded capabilities will allow us to produce even better wines than we currently produce," Goodman said. "From a personal perspective, I am looking forward to reducing my current commute from 135 miles to 30 miles when the winery moves to Oxnard."
The Herzog Wine Cellars is expected to open by fall 2004 and release its first vintage in 2005.
The Sabra Kosher Gourmet
In late February, I went to Israel at the invitation of the Ministry of Tourism. Having studied abroad in Jerusalem between intifadas, I thought I had seen the attractions and sites of the land, but the ministry offered a view a student on a budget never imagined: Gourmet Israel, eight days of cutting-edge kosher restaurants and winery tours. I jumped at the chance. With El Al’s help, I actually flew at the chance.
The nightly news, even before the violence became a full-blown war, kept the group small. Only three others joined our merry band of foodies in the Holy Land. With a wonderful tour guide (Judy Goldman, who co-wrote Joan Nathan’s first cookbook) and our driver, Nisso, we set a table for six.
We traveled for a taste of what Israel stands to lose most immediately. We sipped excellent local wines at fine restaurants — quiet, empty restaurants. Everyday life is disappearing from Israel. At every stop, Israelis marveled that we Americans were there at all. How brave we are. No, we told them, we’re on a fancy vacation, living better here than at home. Tell a friend, they said. Send more tourists.
In Jerusalem as across the country, strings of shops and restaurants are "closed for remodeling." Many, if not most, will neither remodel nor reopen their doors. Still, there is much to see, even for the veteran Israel tourist. Yes, the holy sites and archeological wonders will still be around (we pray) when the current round of fighting is done. But much of what I saw, the life-affirming and luxurious best of Israel, already is in danger of disappearing.
The treasures of Jerusalem go beyond the Wall and the ancient and holy sites. There is life unique to contemporary Jerusalem. Even more than the Chihuly glass sculpture exhibit last year at the Tower of David, the Davidson Visitor Center, south of the Western Wall, illuminates every cliche about Israel’s clash of the most ancient and modern wonders. In a plaza next to the remains, the Davidson center features a UCLA-designed virtual reality tour of the Second Temple’s magnificent arches and stairways and plazas.
Of course, we ate. Of many meals in varied, unique (and financially endangered) restaurants in town, my favorite was Eucalyptus, in Safra Square (next to City Hall) on Jaffa Road, walking distance from the Ben Yehuda shops. Chef-owner Moshe Basson’s passion for Israeli cuisine makes his small restaurant a must-eat destination for food lovers (see sidebar). Basson serves dishes based on the food of biblical times, made with ingredients so fresh we spent an afternoon watching him pick our meal from the Judean Hills.
A Eucalyptus meal is special; a meal you can’t get outside Israel. The tehina and date syrup dessert plate, called dibs, is a goopy-sweet liquid halvah worth a trip to Israel by itself. Eucalyptus also makes and bottles its own liqueurs, including a strong, smoky licorice arak that goes perfectly with the dibs.
You can find Eucalyptus in Israeli travel guides, but for less-traveled roads you’ll want a tour guide. Goldman, our gourmet guide, was up to the task of sniffing out the best in Israel. Not just any guide, much less a tour book, can lead you through the winding dirt and gravel roads of the Judean Hills to the extraordinary cheesemaker Shai Zeltzer.
In a cave on a goat farm on a green and boulder-strewn patch of Jerusalem hill, Zeltzer is making an international name for Israeli cheeses. With flowing robes and a long white beard, Zeltzer dresses in a Bedouin style, but his casual warmth and Yiddish-laced sense of humor show him up as a uniquely Israeli sort of hippie. Zeltzer sells his cheeses on Fridays and Saturdays only. As we sat, sipping tea and tasting a dozen of his sharp, pungent cheeses, a steady trickle of in-the-know Jerusalemites parked their cars next to the goat pen and ducked into the cool cave where Zeltzer has his counter.
Our time in Jerusalem, in February, was warm and sunny. At night, we watched the news to see where violence had struck, just as we would at home. Then we called our loved ones to let them know that life goes on in Israel; that we were safe and very well fed.
Taking our fill of cheeses and biblical cuisine, we ruefully decamped from the King David Hotel (after the breakfast buffet, of course) for a stay in the Northern Galilee.
We spent most of the next two days visiting some of Israel’s most successful wineries, which felt less like traveling 8,000 miles east, and more like 20 years back in time to the early California wine industry, when grape-loving microclimates first met the will of adventurous vintners and the capital to produce world-class drink. The family owned and operated Tishbi Winery in Binyamina, near the Carmel region, just installed a beautiful picnic-like tasting area. At the Amiad Winery, on Kibbutz Amiad in the Galilee Hills, they add new varieties seasonally to a strong collection of fruit wines and liqueurs. And our hardy group stood for a marathon tasting session at Golan Heights Winery, a massive operation with vinyards all across the country, where they produce the Yarden, Gamla, Golan and Hermon wines.
After a quick stop in Tiberias and dinner at the dramatic tented meat palace Decks, we spent our last few days in Tel Aviv. At trendy Lilit, a restaurant just off Rothschild, we met Janna Gur, editor of the Israeli gourmet magazine Al Ha Shulchan (On the Table). We talked about the Israeli wine expo her magazine would sponsor that weekend, the first ever all-Israeli wine exhibit. Thirty-five wineries would offer their spirits to the discriminating nose and lips of Israel’s aesthetes. We talked about Israel’s developing wine culture and, as we ordered dessert, Gur explained why even in the midst of rising violence, she would stake her career on gourmet food and drink. "It takes years go from a first planting to a bottle of wine," she said, "To be a winemaker, you have to be an optimist."
The waiters brought dessert, a mascarpone cheesecake. It was sweet. And it did not last long.
Ask wine distributor Ira Norof if he carries kosher wines, and he’ll automatically correct you: “I carry fine wines that happen to be kosher.” The wines are good enough, adds Dennis Bookbinder, director of Western division sales for Royal Wine Corp., that “we don’t use the ‘K’ or ‘J’ word” when marketing them.
Indeed, for years, the makers and marketers of kosher wines have claimed that their products can stand up favorably to their non-kosher counterparts. Passover is peak kosher wine-buying season, so it seemed the perfect time to implement a novel test. Assemble a panel of wine experts from across Los Angeles, people whose passion or livelihood has allowed them to sample all the best wines the world has to offer, and have them pass judgment on kosher wines.
The event took place March 19 at Alto Palato on La Cienega Boulevard. Owner Danilo Terribili hosted and took part in the tasting. Part of his livelihood depends on sampling wines: He does so at least twice a week (“Too much,” he moans) and presents $25 prix fixe Italian regional wine dinners each Wednesday night at his restaurant. But he had never tried kosher wines.
Most of the others on the panel had similarly limited exposure to kosher wines, but all had long, grapey resumes. Scott Einbinder, a principal at Sandstorm Entertainment and wine aficionado, organized the tasting. His panelists: Elizabeth Schweitzer, director of wine and spirits at the Beverly Hills Hotel, one of the handful of women in the world to hold the title of master sommelier; recording industry pioneer Joe Smith, an avid wine collector who moonlights as KCRW’s wine auctioneer; chef Suzanne Goin, co-owner of Lucques, one of Los Angeles’ hottest restaurants; Marvin Zeidler, owner-partner of the Broadway Deli, Capo Restaurant and Brentwood Restaurant, and an international wine judge; and cookbook author Judy Zeidler.
Norof, who is director of education for Southern Wine and Spirits of California, introduced the bottles that he and Bookbinder provided, along with a short course on wine kashrut. To be labeled as kosher, the entire wine production process following the grape crush must be carried out by a Shabbat-observant Jew. To render kosher wines ritually impervious to handling by non-Shabbat observant Jews or non-Jews, many, though not all, are pasteurized (mevushal in Hebrew). Once an impediment to quality wine-making, producers now employ methods that flash pasteurize only the must (the juice of the wine grapes before fermentation). Non-kosher winemakers, such as Mondavi, are copying their techniques in some cases.
Education aside, the tasters wanted wine. Bookbinder and Norof poured in separate flights, grouped by wine type, from bottles whose labels were disguised in plain brown wrappers. Panelists judged each wine on a scale from 1 (below average) to 4 (exceptional), and scribbled notes alongside the numbers.
This was, admittedly, a tough audience. These were the types who, in their tasting notes, were able to identify the wines by grape and year, and get it right. No wine received a 4, though a handful rated “3 plus.” Among the surprises:
A dessert wine. Terribili gave the Bartenura Moscato d’Asti a 3 plus. Goin praised it with a 3, as did Einbinder. Marvin Zeidler noted it was “appley, lycheey, spicy” and gave it a 3.5.
A standout Cab. The Baron Herzog Cabernet, Alexander Valley Reserve, 1998, earned glowing comments. It had a “bigger nose,” wrote Goin — that’s a compliment — and was well-balanced and redolent of cherry, according to Einbinder. Smith pronounced it “quite good” and Schweitzer noted it had a “lovely perfume, perfect ripe fruit.”
A winning Aussie. The Teal Lake Shiraz was roundly liked. The wine, which Wine Spectator rated an 85, was “light, youthful, jammy,” said Schweitzer. Judy Zeidler liked its “nice balance,” and Smith gave it 3.5.
A bizarre white Merlot. “Weird nose, too sweet,” said Einbinder. “Nothing,” pronounced Smith. “Odor,” wrote Schweitzer.
Schweitzer explained that kosher winemakers have a hard time measuring up against non-kosher wine makers who have “centuries and centuries” of wine-making history behind them. Even so, she said she has found some very good kosher wines for kosher events at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
A show of hands at the end of the tasting produced some front-runners (see box). In fairness, it must be said many fine kosher wines were not represented, including some of Abarbanel’s recent French and German vintages, Weinstock and Fortant de France. The best way to sample more is to visit your local kosher wine outlet and explore. Or, next year in Bordeaux.
And the Winners Are…
By a show of hands, these wines won best in class from the panelists.
Favorite Sauvignon Blanc
Baron Herzog Sauvignon Blanc, 1999
1998 (Israel, $16.99)
Favorite “Other” White
Baron Herzog Chenin
Blanc, 1999 (California, $6.99)
Baron Herzog Merlot,
Paso Robles, 1999
Favorite Cabernet Sauvignon
Baron Herzog Cabernet, Alexander Valley Reserve, 1998
Favorite “Other” Red
Teal Lake Shiraz, 2000 (Australia, $10.99)
Favorite Dessert Wine
Bartenura Moscato d’Asti, 2000 (Italy, $8.99)
Zakon Muscatini, Red, 2000 (Italy, $8.99)
These wines can be found at Kosher Club and Wally’s, as well as at hundreds of other retail outlets.
The Silverado Trail, a picturesque highway that winds its way through the Napa Valley, isn’t exactly where you’d expect to find someone staking his claim to Jewish identity.
But for Ernie Weir, this is home base.
Weir is owner and winemaker of Hagafen Cellars, one of California’s three kosher wineries that exist in an industry dominated by hundreds of non-kosher wineries.
From all appearances, Hagafen, headquartered in a small yellow building at the end of a gravel driveway and bordered by vineyards on either side, could be any other Napa Valley winery — except for the mezuzah on the doorpost, the first clue to the Jewish nature of the enterprise.
As Weir told me, it was a need to express his Jewishness that led him to make kosher wines. But beyond the leitmotif of Jewish identity there lies a more practical side.
“To this day,” he said, “I’m respectful of the religious nature of it, but it’s not my intent. My intent is to make a product which can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.”
Weir’s approach also reflects the view of Baron Herzog and Gan Eden, California’s two other kosher wineries, that if you want to make it in this business, you must reach out beyond the rather limited Jewish market.
And today, of course, there is nothing to prevent winemakers from achieving this goal — now that kosher wine has thrown off its screw-cap identity to join the mainstream world of sophisticated varietals.
Weir, who worked for Domaine Chandon after graduating from the University of California at Davis wine department, prides himself on producing what he terms “ultra-premium” Napa Valley varietals, specializing in reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.
He owns about 12 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes, buying Chardonnay, White Riesling, Syrah and Pinot Noir from vineyards where he can exercise quality control. In 2001, Hagafen will introduce its first Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.
Hagafen’s total output is about 7,000 cases a year.
Since Weir is without his own production facilities, he makes use of other wineries, rendering them acceptable for kosher production by high-temperature water purification of the equipment. Soon, however, he will complete a new winery and tasting room on his own property.
During my visit, I tasted Hagafen’s 1997 oak-aged Merlot, a varietal enhanced with 5 percent Cabernet Franc that was named Best of Class and Best of Region at a recent California State Fair Competition. The wine had very soft tannins with layers of cherry and plum.
Hagafen’s wines have reached the White House for kosher state dinners. Its best sales, Weir noted, come from “very knowledgeable, very sophisticated” consumers on the West and East coasts.
While Hagafen’s origins are Napa Valley, it’s a different story for Baron Herzog and Weinstock, both made by New York-based Royal Wine Corporation, the largest producer of kosher varietals in the United States.
The Herzog family reaches back to 19th-century Czechoslovakia, when it was the exclusive wine supplier to Emperor Franz Joseph. Royal Wine purchased Weinstock Cellars in 1994.
Royal draws on long-term relationships with growers in a number of California regions, including Napa Valley, the Russian River, Sonoma, Clarksburg, Alexander Valley and Monterey County.
From its winery in Santa Maria, Calif., the company is making a concerted effort to promote new international varietals as an alternative to traditional sweet wines.
Royal’s winemaker, Peter Stern, is an international wine consultant with credits at Robert Mondavi who has also advised Israel’s Golan Heights Winery since its inception.
From all appearances, including his name and his pathfinding work in kosher wines, it would appear that Stern is Jewish. He is not.
“The kosher market,” said Stern, “is basically going through the same kind of evolution that you saw in the 1950s, when the consumer was not familiar with varietal wines.”
Baron Herzog, producing well over 100,000 cases a year, is arguably one of the few American wineries to really succeed with Chenin Blanc.
With aromas of peach and nectarine, this Baron Herzog wine — a Double Gold Sweepstakes winner at the 1998-99 West Coast Wine Competition — is made from prized Clarksburg-area grapes grown near the Sacramento River, where days are warm and nights can be refreshingly cool, thanks to delta breezes that blow in from San Francisco Bay.
Like Hagafen and Gan Eden, Royal targets a broad market: a quarter of Baron Herzog and Weinstock consumers are not Jewish.
Meanwhile, the story of the Gan Eden Winery, located amidst the apple orchards and small towns of Sonoma County’s Green Valley, reflects the religious odyssey of owner-winemaker Craig Winchell.
“So how many winery employees are there?” Winchell asked rhetorically. “Only one, myself!”
When he graduated from UC Davis with a degree in fermentation science, Winchell had no plans to produce kosher wines. He would, he thought, simply go to work in the mainstream wine industry.
But something else was happening in his life: he had embarked on a rediscovery of his Jewish roots and was becoming an Orthodox Jew.
What happened next was the marriage of two worlds: Winchell would make wine that was kosher and pursue a Jewish way of life. But from a distribution standpoint, he would target the broader market.
“The creation of this winery,” he explained, “was a direct result of my desire to live a Jewish life, rather than a desire to target the Jewish market.”
I found Gan Eden’s Cabernet full-flavored and delightfully robust, while its Late Harvest Monterey County Gewurtztraminer is full of luscious pineapple and grapefruit flavors.
The winery also makes a wonderful Black Muscat — the perfect companion to bittersweet chocolate — that has been featured at James Beard House “great chefs” dinners.
In 1999, Winchell produced 15,000 bottles of wine, which he said is pushing his limit for a one-man operation.
What makes all of these California varietals kosher is the fact that they are produced — that is, handled during production — by Sabbath-observant Jews. However, according to kosher winemaking standards, overall winemaking direction may come from non-Jews.
But that’s not the end of the story by any means. At kosher events, non-Jews may not be involved in serving kosher wine — a prohibition said to relate to a time when wine was used in pagan rituals.
How to get around this prohibition?
Drawing on an ancient Jewish formulation of boiling wine to alter its nature, kosher wine can be flash pasteurized by a process known in Hebrew as mevushal, thus permitting non-Jews to serve it at kosher functions. Herzog, Weinstock and Hagafen are all mevushal wines.
Flash pasteurization is a complex issue.
Some winemakers hold that the process can actually enhance a wine’s flavor, but others point to unpredictable changes to the wine’s sensory characteristics.
Gan Eden’s Winchell stays away from producing mevushal wines, although with a recent surplus of Chardonnay grapes, he introduced a new cuvee called “C’est Bouilli!” — French for “It’s Boiled!”
“I normally don’t make mevushal wine,” said Winchell, “and the lack of predictability is the principle reason. However, if done carefully, while it will always produce changes, they need not be detrimental changes.”
For example, it’s quite possible by making a wine mevushal to tone down one flavor characteristic and bring out another, as with Grenache over blackberry.
And a 1993 study conducted at UC Davis on pasteurization of young red wine found no significant effect on quality.
All of these issues aside, however, one thing is abundantly clear: significant progress has taken place in the kosher wine world.
Thanks to the trio of pathfinding winemakers, kosher California wines can now illuminate the finest table — and turn an ordinary meal into a banquet.