Kosher wine evolves from cheap syrup to collectible vintage
If you remember when kosher wine meant mostly cheap and sweet, you probably also know that the second part is no longer true. Today, there are plenty of quality kosher wines being made around the world.
But did you also know that kosher wine has come so far there now are even super-premium bottles that go for more than $100 a bottle?
"It's absolutely amazing how it's evolved," says Michael K. Bernstein, owner of The Cask in Los Angeles, which stocks and sells exclusively kosher wines and spirits. "It's mind-boggling how many different kosher wines there are."
The syrupy kosher wines of the past stemmed mainly from economics. Jewish immigrants to America needed wine, a crucial part of their religious traditions, but didn't have access to high-quality grapes. So they used the Concord grapes that grow in the Northeast, producing wines with an unpleasant character, usually describe as "foxy," which was masked by adding sugar.
But in recent years, a number of producers have begun making classic red and white kosher wines. A pioneer was Herzog Wine Cellars in Southern California, and there also is a growing wine industry in Israel.
Making wine kosher isn't particularly hard, says Jeff Morgan, winemaker at Covenant, a winery in the Napa Valley that makes a kosher cabernet sauvignon that goes for $90 a bottle. The ingredients in wine are kosher; the trick is to keep things that way.
The basic requirement for doing that is to make sure that the grape juice and fermented wine is only touched or handled by Sabbath-observant Jews, which is what happens at Covenant, where associate winemaker Jonathan Hajdu is a Sabbath-observant Jew.
Covenant is co-owned by Morgan, his wife Jodie Morgan, and Leslie Rudd, owner of Rudd Vineyards & Winery, also in the Napa Valley, and chairman of the Dean & Deluca upscale delicatessen chain. Morgan and Rudd are Jewish, though neither considered themselves particularly religious when they started the project. Interestingly, making the wines has brought both of them more in touch with their heritage "and that has been a wonderful surprise," Morgan says.
Covenant wines are not "mevushal," a term that means the finished wines have been heated, making it possible for them to be handled by non-observant Jews and remain kosher. In the old days, that used to mean boiled, which is ruinous to wine. These days, winemakers use flash pasteurization. There's debate over whether this does or doesn't affect the quality of a wine, but Morgan is on the side of the doubters and doesn't do it.
Other than that, Covenant wines, consistently praised by critics, are made like other premium wines — with high quality grapes, natural yeast fermentation, no filtration and French oak aging. Production is about 3,000 cases a year and the wines are sold in at least 20 states and several countries, including Canada, Israel, England, France and China. In addition to the flagship Covenant and Solomon wines, Covenant makes a few other wines, including the cleverly named Red C, a red blend with a big red "C'' on the label, which goes for around $45.
Even that's a big leap from the old-school kosher wines that go for under $7 a bottle.