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KOSHER WINE COMES OF AGE

Put the syrupy stuff back and grab a bottle of top-notch wine from the Golan Heights.

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown Friday, and families across the Tampa Bay area will come together for the kiddush, the traditional blessing over wine at the festive meal. - The wine, of course, will be kosher, but now it may also be something else: good.

In the past, most kosher wine was a sweet, red-colored concoction sipped more out of duty than delight. Before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Orthodox Jews scattered around the world made the wine at home, boiling it before consumption and ending up with a thick, heavy drink.

Kosher wine underwent a revolution in the mid 1980s as many wineries began to emerge in the land of milk and honey. The result is a range of sophisticated and affordable wines on par with their nonkosher counterparts.

"Kosher means who makes the wine, not how the wine is made," says tour guide Ella Shtibel at the Golan Heights Winery, which produces award-winning wines and exports them worldwide. Only Sabbath-observant Jews are involved in the winemaking process, under rabbinic supervision.

"The Golan Heights Winery produces the best wine in Israel," said Uri Gilboa, a wine critic and international wine judge. "The best of Golan Heights wine is at the same level of the best of Napa wine."

And often, at a better price as Israeli winemaking is still a young industry trying to find its spot in the international arena.

"These are very good wines, comparable with California and French wines," says wine collector Ken Barry, sipping a glass of Yarden muscat, a dessert wine fortified with oak-aged brandy. Barry was visiting the winery with his wife, Rae, from Scottsdale, Ariz. "There is a certain amount of snob appeal toward Israeli wine, not being reviewed enough."

Even without a lot of fanfare, wine connoisseurs are starting to take notice. The winery's 2004 Yarden cabernet sauvignon was included in the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of 2008.

Complex and earthy and aged for 18 months in small oak barrels, the Yarden cabernet sauvignon is representative of the winery's top-tier Yarden label ($26-$32). Golan Heights also produces Gamla and Golan wines, all of which are kosher.

The Gamla line offers quality wines at a lower price point, such as the Gamla Chardonnay, a medium-bodied balanced wine with notes of lemon and vanilla (about $13). The Golan label includes a variety of young wines intended for immediate enjoyment, such as moscato, the light and aromatic dessert wine (about $15).

The Golan Heights Winery was founded in 1983 on a high altitude strip of land characterized by a cool climate and volcanic basaltic soil. Because of a stable climate throughout the years, grapes are quite consistent from one vintage to the other.

Though that location is good for the grapes, it may give some consumers pause. The winery is located in the occupied Golan Heights. Israel seized the region from Syria during the 1967 Mideast War and unilaterally annexed it in 1981, a move that was condemned internationally. Individuals, grass roots movements and national and international non-government organizations have called for the boycott of settlement products as a means to end the occupation.

Officially, however, there is no such boycott.

"The U.S. has no restrictions on products exported from the Golan Heights," says Ruben Harutunian, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Israel. "As a matter of fact, we receive lots of wine from that region."

Alessandra Da Pra is a former St. Petersburg Times staff writer. She is now a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem and can be reached at dapraalessandra@gmail.com.

WHERE TO BUY

Golan Heights wine

-Bern's Fine Wines and Spirits, 1002 S Howard Ave., Tampa, (813) 253-0358.

-Ed's Fine Wines, 2454 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater, (727) 791-9551.

-Fine Wines and Spirits Warehouse, 4023 W Gandy Blvd., Tampa, (813) 837-8941.

-Pasadena Liquors and Fine Wines, 1100 Pasadena Ave. S, South Pasadena, (727) 347-9607.

-Publix GreenWise, 2403 W Azeele St., Tampa, (813) 250-0129.

-Total Wine and More, 2528 State Road 580, Clearwater, (727) 431-1010; 4880 Park St. N, St. Petersburg, (727) 544-6018; 1720 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, (813) 350-9601.

-Jo-El's Kosher Foods, 2619 23rd Ave. N, St. Petersburg, (727) 321-3847.

-Wine Warehouse, 5571 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg, (727) 527-7000; 3310 W Bay to Bay Blvd., Tampa, (813) 839-5601.

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