Sure Beats Manischewitz

The revolution in kosher wine.

In case you haven’t heard the news, kosher wines don’t suck anymore. Good ones are being made in Israel and in a number of other places, too, notably Bordeaux. For oenophilic Jews still struggling to get the taste of Manischewitz out of their mouths, this is truly an answered prayer; keeping the faith no longer requires smiting the palate. Passover begins tomorrow night, and these new and improved kosher wines will be gracing many Seder tables. But as the celebrants recite the Four Questions, some of their co-religionists think they might also consider a fifth: Are the laws governing kosher winemaking due for an overhaul?

The great leap forward in kosher winemaking can be credited to several developments, not least the blossoming of the Israeli wine industry. With its hilly terrain and Mediterranean climate, Israel has long been recognized for its viticultural promise. Over the last two decades, a number of wineries have been established in the Golan Heights, the Upper Galilee, and the Judean Hills, the three areas believed to offer the best combination of soil and sun. The results have been encouraging, a point that was reinforced recently when Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate awarded 14 Israeli wines scores of 90 or above.

At the same time, winemakers in other countries have discovered that catering to kosher wine drinkers is a shrewd way to distinguish one’s wares in a crowded marketplace. Quaffable kosher wines are now being made in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Argentina, and Chile. In France, several leading Bordeaux châteaux—Léoville Poyferré, Pontet-Canet, Smith Haut Lafitte, Giscours, and Malartic-Lagravière—have all turned out kosher versions of their wines in recent years. So, too, has Château de Valandraud, the Right Bank estate that is at the forefront of Bordeaux’s garage wine movement (the garagistes are recently established wineries making small quantities of very lush, oaky wines that some critics love and others abhor). It doesn’t get more à la mode than that.

But these chateaux didn’t actually make their kosher cuvées; the vinification was done instead by employees of the New Jersey-based Royal Wine Company, the largest importer of kosher wines in the United States. Royal keeps a team of about three dozen Jewish vintners in Europe; they shuttle back and forth among wineries performing all the cellar duties required to produce kosher bottlings. In each case, the goal is to craft a kosher wine that perfectly mimics the non-kosher version. The resident winemaker provides direction but is not permitted to touch the kosher wine or any of the equipment used to make it.

That’s because kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws, stipulate that kosher wines can be vinified only by Sabbath-observing Jews. This restriction dates back to antiquity; wine was customarily used in pagan rituals, and because Jews also used wine sacramentally and Judaism forbade idolatry, rabbinical authorities decreed that Jews could drink only wine made by other Jews. (The part about Sabbath-observing Jews was added in the Middle Ages.) Before the wine could be consumed, it also had to be boiled, in a purification rite called mevushal, to ensure that it would remain kosher even if subsequently handled by a non-Jew. This was also done to make the wine unpalatable to gentiles (cooking wine kills its flavors) so they wouldn’t be tempted to use it for their religious ceremonies. Another, later rationale for mevushal: By making the wine taste so bad, it decreased the likelihood gentiles would want to socialize with Jews (and thus the likelihood that nights of interfaith boozing would lead to nights of interfaith passion and all that might follow).

These days, there aren’t many pagans around, and while intermarriage is an issue, it is generally agreed that wine is pretty far down the list of contributing factors. So why is kosher winemaking still off-limits to non-Jews? Such strictures are no longer in place for most kosher preparations (butchering is the only other major exception). For instance, the requirement that Kosher bread be produced only by Jews was dropped long ago; nowadays, so long as the ingredients are deemed suitable and the bread is made under kosher supervision, it can be produced by non-Jews and still considered kosher. With wine, there has been some tinkering at the margins—mevushal is no longer required (many of the better kosher wines go without) and flash pasteurization rather than boiling is now the preferred method—but the ban on non-Jewish participation remains. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who teaches at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and is one of Conservative Judaism’s leading authorities on Jewish law, says that his research has turned up no explanation for why this edict has gone unchanged. Dorff, who believes that gentiles should be allowed to make kosher wines, thinks it’s just a case of old habits persisting. “Something starts for a good purpose, the purpose gets lost in time, and we end up with ritual,” he says.

Interestingly, much of the demand for kosher wines these days, and particularly for the high-end ones, seems to be coming from Reform Jews. Although a rejection of kashrut and other traditional practices was one of the cornerstones of Reform Judaism when it emerged in the 19th century, recent years have seen Reform Jews embracing elements of the old-time religion, either fully or episodically (i.e. during Jewish holidays). Twenty-one percent of American Jews keep Kosher now, up from 15 percent in 1992, and much of this growth has come from Reform Jews taking up kashrut. The trend is especially pronounced among younger people. A survey published last year by the Union for Reform Judaism found that Reform Jews under 40 were much more inclined than their elders to adhere to Kosher laws. For instance, only 39 percent of them said they allowed shellfish in their homes, vs. 58 percent of older Reform Jews; for pork, the figures were 29 percent vs. 43 percent. No numbers were provided for kosher wines, but Martin Davidson of the Royal Wine Company believes that the surging demand for better-quality kosher wines (of late, sales have been growing by more than 10 percent annually) is being driven in no small part by Reform Jews.

But as Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi, pointed out in an online response to a kosher-wine feature in Reform Judaism magazine last year, kosher winemaking, as currently practiced, poses a quandary for Reform Jews. Alluding to the fact that Orthodox Jews are in charge of kosher certification and have a much narrower definition of what qualifies someone as Jewish, Jacobs noted that “most Reform Jews would not be considered sufficiently ‘sabbath-observant’ to qualify ‘to come in contact with the wine,’ and … those whom the Reform Movement considers Jewish by means of patrilineal descent would not be considered Jewish at all for the purposes of making kosher wine.” Yet, as she noted in her article, there has been little discussion of these issues within the Reform movement, which Jacobs found surprising.

The lack of debate also baffles Rabbi Justin Jaron Lewis, who until last year headed up a Reform congregation in Ontario and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Canada’s Queens University. Like Jacobs, Lewis thinks there is something incongruous in having Reform Jews drinking kosher wines certified by an Orthodox establishment that believes many Reform Jews aren’t really Jews. Beyond that, he thinks kosher winemaking, as currently practiced, is antithetical to the values Reform Judaism purports to represent. “Reform espouses a universalistic outlook, not this kind of hierarchical separation from the rest of the world,” he told me by e-mail last week. When I mentioned the châteaux in Bordeaux now producing kosher cuvées and suggested that this was a win-win situation—the wineries were delighted to find a new audience, that new audience was delighted to be getting good kosher wines—Lewis was unpersuaded: “French winemakers are willing to go along with religious rules that are degrading to them because there’s a market for wine made by those rules. That doesn’t mean that people who believe in human equality should be part of that market.”

Rabbi Richard N. Levy, who is the director of rabbinic studies at the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has sat on two task forces (one of which he chaired) looking into the issue of kosher practices and Reform beliefs. He told me that neither group, both of which are now inactive, took up the issue of wine. Levy readily acknowledged that the ban on gentiles taking part in the winemaking process “offends Reform notions of the trustworthiness of other human beings,” as he put it. Levy suggested that one reason for the silence over wine may be that a lot of Reform Jews derive a certain comfort from knowing that kosher wines are the handiwork of fellow Jews—not because they are suspicious of non-Jews, but because they think that having the wines made by people who are spiritually invested in the process adds to their kadusha, or holiness. That said, Levy personally thinks that kosher winemaking is a topic that ought to be addressed by the Reform community. “We should start talking about it,” he said.

Not being among the kosher-inclined (I’m not sure yet what I’ll be drinking tomorrow night), I haven’t got a stake in this issue. But I do find it fascinating, and it is a reminder that wine’s complexity is hardly limited to what’s in the glass. If you are in the market this Passover for a quality kosher wine, there are a few worth seeking out. From Israel, I very much like Yarden, the premium line from Golan Heights Winery. The 2004 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon ($23) is a toothsome wine and attractively priced. I’ve also been impressed by Domaine du Castel (the 2004 Domaine du Castel Grand Vin is an excellent Bordeaux blend, albeit an expensive one—it retails for $70) and Barkan Winery. The aforementioned Bordeaux are all fine wines, though they will cost you; the 2003 Malartic-Lagravière, for instance, is $80 a bottle, depending on the store. There’s also a terrific kosher Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Domaine Saint Benoît “Laureline” 2005, which at $32 a bottle offers great value in addition to much pleasure. Any of these wines will pair beautifully with the Seder meal and may even prompt yet another question: “Beats the hell out of Manischewitz, doesn’t it?”