Monday, May 21, 2018
Bars & Spirits

Kosher wine evolves from cheap to collectible

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 superpremium 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. "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 delicatessen chain. Morgan and Rudd are Jewish, though neither considered themselves particularly religious when they started the project. Making the wines has brought them in touch with their heritage "and that has been a wonderful surprise," Morgan says.

When he started making Covenant wines a decade ago, Morgan was confident he could make great kosher wine, "but I didn't know that our wines would be so well received in both the Jewish world and the non-Jewish world. That has been very gratifying because it's nice to know that the whole world realizes that kosher wine can also just be great wine."

Passover begins at sundown Monday this year and for the four cups of wine served at the Passover seder, Morgan will be serving different vintages of Covenant wine. His family also will be enjoying other kosher wines.

Bernstein, who remembers a lot of seders where the wine was sweet and bubbly and just something you drank to be done with, has introduced his family to premium kosher wines. And that has changed their approach to it. "They're not just looking to get by with four cups of wine, they're looking to get good wine for those four cups."

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