11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Settle for bad kosher wine

Being a Wine Snob can be a burden at times. The expression is a mild pejorative that I wear as a badge of honor.
September 18, 2014

Being a Wine Snob can be a burden at times. The expression is a mild pejorative that I wear as a badge of honor. We Wine Snobs don’t think we’re better than other people — the unwashed multitudes buying their screw-cap bottles with pictures of colorful animals on the labels in the grocery store aisle across from the pickles, with which they are presumably paired at the dinner table that same night — but we’re aiming just a teensy bit higher.

Most of us grew up drinking Manischewitz at Passover, and that’s where the trouble started. The earliest memories of millions of aspiring Jewish oenophiles were poisoned by this treacle. It tasted like spoiled grape juice, but at least it was alcoholic, and a spoonful of sugar made the medicine go down. The stuff is made from Concord grapes, a varietal that is often described as “foxy” by aficionados. This is not foxy like sexy; it’s foxy like a wet feral mammal in a bottle. 

If you think I’m being harsh, when was the last time you willingly poured yourself a glass of the stuff for pleasure? Do you have a bottle somewhere in your house, half-empty, that you’re saving for the next reading of the Exodus from Egypt? Only a cruel and vengeful God could have conceived of such a trial for his Chosen People. Chosen for what, exactly? I say, let my people go already! Perhaps putting lousy wine on par with slavery is overreaching, but surely we deserve better than that

So, when my father started collecting real wine, non-kosher wine — some of it made by French Jews named Rothschild — it was like giving eyesight to the blind. Ever since then, I’ve recognized the singular challenge of the modern kosher winemaker: to prove they’re really just as good as their non-kosher kin. 

Those of us who indulge in the industry’s kosher offerings have to ask themselves: Is a kosher chardonnay as good as a similarly priced non-kosher one, or are we really just rooting for the home team, knowing they stink but we love them anyway? Maybe you don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread, to quote the famous ad campaign, but do you have to be Jewish to love kosher wine? 

No one is suggesting that kosher wine be held up to a higher standard of taste than non-kosher, but is it as good as? With the New Year nearly upon us, I decided it was time to find out.

I assembled a tasting panel at the Jewish Journal’s office to see how various kosher winemakers are doing in an objective forum. I picked a half-dozen bottles — three whites, three reds — at an average of around $30, the thought being that anyone can make bad cheap wine, and a reasonable price point would give our boys a fighting chance.   

Goose Bay Sauvignon Blanc 

New Zealand, 2010, $20

This was not as crispy and citrusy as other sauvignon blancs I’ve had from New Zealand at about the same price point, and the panel agreed, scoring this the lowest of the three whites. 

Castel Chardonnay “C”

Israel, 2009, $45

Castel is the most distinguished winemaker in Israel, and produces perhaps the greatest kosher red wine in the world, their Grand Vin. This is the only wine on our list that earned 90-plus points out of 100 from important American critics, but our panel was disappointed, more so when they saw the price tag. At 5 years old, this should have been better and was flatly not up to par with similarly priced non-kosher offerings.

Rene de Lacray Chablis Premier Cru Montmains

France, 2008, $30

This was a lovely surprise, with notes like “fresh” and “herbaceous,” rather than the more typical attributes of Chablis, such as “minerally.” The highest rated of our whites on almost every score sheet. At $30, I thought this was nearly as good as non-kosher competition. 

Don Mendoza Malbec Reserve

Uco Valley, Argentina, 2013, $14

This was surprisingly light in color, body and alcohol, so it gets low points from me for lacking “typicity.” Comments were to the tune of “no depth to it at all,” and I felt I’d had far better inexpensive non-kosher Malbecs. This was the least expensive bottle in our tasting and was also the lowest rated.  

Covenant Red “C” 

Napa Valley, 2012, $40 

This is the “second label” from Napa Valley’s best kosher winemaker, Covenant. Drinking a 2012 vintage cabernet /petite sirah blend is not something a Wine Snob does for pleasure, and so it was strictly business with this inky offering. I was surprised that this did not score higher, but no great winery made its name on the strength of its second label. It was mentioned that this wine might really shine when paired with food. (Of course, the same could be said of any of the others as well.) I thought it was the only wine of this grouping that will get better with a few years of bottle age.

Hagafen Pinot Noir 

Napa Valley, 2011, $23

The producer notes on this wine promised cranberry and strawberry, with subtle hints of clove and cinnamon. I don’t know about that, but we had nothing but good things to say. We considered this to be a very good $23 bottle, though words like “jammy” and “chocolate” are atypical for pinot noir. 

These were six bottles chosen pretty much at random, but they provide a nice sampling of kosher wines on the shelves today. On balance, they were well made, approachable (meaning they were sufficiently mature to drink now) and “quaffable but not profound,” to quote the movie “Sideways.” 

For sure, a wine lover would prefer any one over old-fashioned kosher wines. However, as far as they’ve come, most did not measure up to similar non-kosher bottles, in my mind. Until that day, I’ll have to settle for rooting for the home team. 

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