November 19, 2018

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.