The 4 cups of wine
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.
Joeann Wallace sweeps down the right-hand wall of Wells Discount Liquors on a recent weekday afternoon, grabs a bottle of Bartenura Moscato without breaking stride and steams three aisles over to snag a fruity vodka she likes to mix with her wine selection.
Wallace, who works in medical billing, lives near the shop in Towson, Md., and typically each week buys two bottles of the bubbly, semi-sweet white wine — not just for herself, she affirms with a broad smile, but for her mother and other guests to enjoy, too, after dinner.
“This,” she says of the Bartenura, “is perfect.”
Wallace, 33, expresses surprise at learning that the brand is kosher for Passover — or kosher at all — since she is not Jewish and such certifications don’t matter to her.
In that, Wallace typifies an unintended but lucrative market for the wine, which in recent years has caught on in a big way among African-Americans and non-Jewish customers more broadly.
Jay Buchsbaum, executive vice president for marketing at the New Jersey-based Royal Wine Corp., which owns Bartenura, says that the market for his Moscato is “overwhelmingly, more than 50 percent” among non-Jewish customers. As to sales figures, Buchsbaum reveals only that they are “in the millions of bottles a year.”
Indeed, at Wells Discount Liquors, which is five miles from the nearest distinctly Jewish neighborhood, Bartenura appears not in the kosher wine section but is grouped elsewhere with the 22 other Moscato offerings, Bartenura being the only kosher one.
The popularity of Moscato wines in the African-American community apparently derives from hip-hop and rap singers such as Lil’ Kim, Drake and Jay-Z, who worked the beverage into their lyrics and music videos.
In a way, the entertainers are following in esteemed footsteps. In the 1960s and ’70s, singer-actor Sammy Davis Jr., an African American who converted to Judaism, famously endorsed Manischewitz — a brand still a standard-bearer among kosher and kosher-for-Passover wines.
Bartenura Moscato sales took off about six years ago after the “inner-city, hip-hop, millennial crowd started latching onto it,” according to Buchsbaum.
While considered the market leader, Bartenura is hardly the only Moscato that’s kosher or kosher for Passover. Others include Dalton, Gamla, Carmel and Golan (all Israeli); Gabriele, Borgo Reale, Sara Bee and Rashi (all Italian); and Teal Lake (Australian).
Dubbed “the blue bottle” for its distinctive sheen, Bartenura is featured on more than 300 strategically targeted billboards in predominantly non-Jewish sections of New York, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and parts of the Midwest where “we have a hot concentration of sales,” said Buchsbaum’s colleague, David Levy.
Last year, Royal ran its first national television commercial for Bartenura.
The company first noticed the brand’s mainstreaming about 14 years ago, when retailers serving Jewish and non-Jewish clienteles ordered it year-round, “not just with Passover in mind,” Buchsbaum said. That shift began in the New York City boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn and in parts of nearby New Jersey.
“It took off from there,” he said.
Lee Grandes, Wells’ wine consultant, said Bartenura was “one of the first” in America to take Moscato to greater heights at a time when “traditional producers” were devoting small portions of their vineyards to the grape. With Bartenura’s success, other Moscato growers followed suit.
Previously, what Grandes calls “the fun, light-style wines” consisted mainly of white Zinfandel and wine coolers. Now Bartenura and other Moscatos are taking a “big chunk” out of those sales in his store, he said.
Wells sells about seven cases of Bartenura monthly — 10 during the November and December holiday season. It’s “one of the biggest sellers” in the store, said Grandes, who said he expects increases for Passover, too.
Several miles away, at Miller’s Deli in the largely Jewish suburb of Pikesville, Jeff Karlin expects to sell up to 20 additional cases of the brand in the weeks leading up to Passover.
That’s over and above the six-case weekly average in sales to his mixed Jewish and non-Jewish clientele. The Moscato constitutes “my best-selling wine, by far,” he said, and “flies off the shelves” year-round.
Passover wines differ from regular kosher wines in that the enzymes and yeast used along with any sweeteners or added flavors must be free of chametz, the various ingredients forbidden during Passover. Still, most kosher wines are kosher for Passover, too.
At approximately $14 a bottle, Bartenura typically sells for about $3 more than non-kosher Moscatos, most also produced in northwest Italy’s Piemonte region. Royal Wine banks on customers’ fondness for the brand rather than price considerations alone, Buchsbaum said.
Wallace, the Wells Discount consumer, is one.
Compared to other Moscatos she’s tried that are either slightly bitter or too sweet, Bartenura’s higher price is “worth it,” she said.
“I would rather pay a little more for something I know I’m going to enjoy than be kind of iffy about one I may not like,” Wallace said. “This is the only Moscato I drink.”
It’s rare that an Orthodox rabbi chooses to omit an important Jewish ritual in his holiday celebrations.
But in the spring of 2000, Rabbi Yosef Lipsker cleared his living room of furniture, set up three large dining tables and invited dozens of people to a special seder that included all the standard Passover observances — except for one.
“When it comes to seders, everybody thinks of the four cups of wine drunk during the service,” said Lipsker, a consultant at the Caron Treatment Center for Substance Abuse and Chemical Addiction in Reading, Pa. “But we said, ‘Listen, we’re going to have you at the seder, but you’re going to have four cups of grape juice instead.’ ”
Lipsker’s guests all were recovering alcoholics and drug addicts and their families, and his seder was devoid of wine. Lipsker is not the only rabbi organizing sober seders — a dry version of the standard Passover evening ritual. In the late 1990s, several Chabad rabbis across the country, unbeknownst to one another, were organizing sober seders geared toward Jewish recovering alcoholics.
In a little more than a decade, the practice has spread far and wide. This year, sober seders will be held in Miami, Montreal, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles and London. Hundreds of recovering addicts are expected to attend, raising a glass of grape juice in celebration not only of the liberation of the Jewish people from bondage in ancient Egypt, but also of their own sobriety.
Participants in sober seders say the absence of wine not only doesn’t detract from their enjoyment of the event, but can even enhance it. They connect the struggles of recovering from addiction to Passover’s theme of breaking free from servitude.
“It was great,” said Ricky, a 56-year-old recovering addict from Montreal, referring to his first sober seder. “I sat at a table with the rabbi’s wife, kids and other addicts in recovery, and I felt great, like I had a real a sense of belonging.”
Ricky credits Rabbi Benyamin Bresinger, who with his wife runs a Chabad addiction clinic in Montreal, with saving his life. He points to the 2008 seder as a life-altering event and continues to attend sober seders each year.
“Before and after the seder we sit around and talk,” he said. “Many of us know each others’ stories by now. For the newcomer coming to the sober seder, there’s a belonging. It’s a celebration rather than a regular AA meeting.”
The sacramental consumption of wine is commonplace in Judaism, used to mark the beginning of nearly every major holiday and the weekly Sabbath dinner. On seder night, tradition calls for the drinking of four glasses as a sign of liberation. Wine also figures in other seder-night rituals: Many Jews have the tradition of removing drops of wine from their cup for each of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians, and a cup of wine traditionally is set aside for Elijah.
Naturally, the ubiquity of drink poses problems for alcoholics and addicts of other substances.
“Jewish law says everyone has to drink wine during the seder,” said Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, who runs the Jewish Recovery Center in Detroit. “But for an alcoholic, it’s a danger of death.”
Pinson cited “pikuach nefesh,” the Jewish principle that saving a life takes precedence over other religious strictures, in skipping the wine drinking in Jewish rituals. He noted that Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a prominent psychiatrist specializing in addiction, sanctions abstinence for Jewish addicts as a life-saving measure.
Pinson also hosts a sober seder.
“We ask people who attend the seder, ‘What is your personal story of freedom? How did you break free from the shackles of addiction?’” Pinson said. “Obviously, we read the haggadah. But we also talk about where we are in life. It’s fresh on their minds. They feel the wounds.”
For Greg, 24, from New York, seders used to be an opportunity to binge. “Every Pesach, by the third ‘Chad Gadyah’ we were singing it backwards,” he said.
The son of a Charedi Orthodox rabbi, Greg’s family moved around a lot when he was growing up. The first time he got drunk was on Purim at age 10. It was a sign of things to come. By the time Greg met Lipsker in his early 20s, he had become addicted to painkillers and cocaine. With the rabbi’s help, Greg said he managed to overcome his demons.
“For the first time in 23 years, I could be at a seder, feel real liberation and not be finished by the end of it,” he said of his first sober seder with Lipsker.
Greg’s life is now back on track. He has a job working in finance in Manhattan and says he has found value in his Jewish identity. On weekends, he often drives out to see Lipsker, who lives a two-hour drive away. He said Lipsker is saving him a seat at this year’s seder.
How can we have Passover without wine? This is a question that is asked of me each year as Passover approaches. I always answer that the blessing is over the fruit of the vine and grape juice is perfectly acceptable. I then ask a different set of questions.
Passover is the celebration of our leaving Egypt. It is not a historical event. Yet too many of us consider the Passover seder as a recollection of an historical event. We need to go back to the intent and direction of our haggadah to see ourselves as if we, too, were brought out of Egypt. We have to ask ourselves, “What is the Egypt/Narrow Place I have to leave this year?” All of us have these, be they substances like drugs and alcohol, behaviors like eating disorders, compulsive gambling, etc. We also get stuck in the narrow places of despair, hopelessness, why bother, etc. And we can get stuck in the narrow places of comparing and competing with others, basing our self-worth on our net worth and/or seeking to feel good from outside validation, like lists, who we hang with, etc.
These are the Egypts that wine could come to blur for us during Passover. I would suggest that everyone abstain from wine and drink grape juice instead this year. I am asking you all to make this an Alcohol-Free Seder so that every person will:
• Look inside themselves and see the narrow places that are keeping them stuck in old thoughts and behaviors.
• Tell the story of their enslavements to others at the seder, and ask for help in getting out and staying out of these narrow places.
• Offer suggestions to others to help them out of their narrow places.
• Write down on a piece of paper what the narrow place is, and make these your korban Pesach, your Pesach sacrifice, and burn them all together so that you release your need to run back to Egypt.
• Be present and see how we can work together to get out our comfortable slaveries.
• Make a commitment to be of service to others who are still enslaved and look for the similarities in others.
In doing this, we will make the seder relevant and we will build stronger relationships through transparency and authenticity.
It will allow all of us to break our addiction to perfection. We Jews have been telling our story for thousands of years; this year let us make it our story so next year we will be free.
Rabbi Mark Borovitz is the senior rabbi and spiritual leader of the Beit T’Shuvah recovery program and Congregation Beit T’Shuvah.
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.”
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.”
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.
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)