April 20, 2005

Vintners Boost Quality of Kosher Wines

This weekend, you could suffer through the usual four glasses of thick, sweet wine at your seder. Or you could choose one of the new wave of high-quality kosher wines, and actually enjoy it.
There’s a revolution going on in the kosher wine market. Winemakers from California to Israel are out to change the image of kosher wine as thick, sweet syrups reserved for symbolic drinking, to one of quality wines that can be enjoyed at any time. Many vintners are now eschewing the heating of the wine that makes kosher wines mevushal, a sort-of super-kosher designation important to the most observant Jews. Without heating, the process of making a kosher wine is pretty much identical to the making of a non-kosher wine—which means there’s no reason a kosher wine shouldn’t be just as good as any other.

Case in point: Covenant. It may be the most stunning entry in the new wave of kosher wines, at $85 a bottle. That’s pretty shocking when the reference point is $4 Manischewitz. But Covenant isn’t a high-end Manischewitz. It’s a high-end California cabernet sauvignon that happens to be kosher.

Covenant was started on the very premise that there was no reason kosher wine couldn’t be good. “It began as a challenge, actually,” says Jeff Morgan, one of the partners in the venture. Leslie Rudd, his business partner and proprietor of Rudd Winery in Oakville, had asked him why there were no good kosher wines. “I said there’s no reason there can’t be,” Morgan recalls, “And he said, “Prove it.”

Morgan has, by doing everything any good winemaker would: by sourcing grapes from a top vineyard—the Larkmead Vineyard in Napa, in this case—and treating the grapes gently. The difference in Covenant is that the people who handle the grapes in the winery are all Sabbath-observant Jews, and the equipment used to make the wine is exclusively used to make kosher wines.

Those differences can mean a lot to people spiritually, but for the non-observant, they are undetectable. The winery workers are trained like any others, the winery equipment is the same sort used in any modern winery, and the grapes are of the same high quality as go into other $85 California cabs. The result is a kosher wine that stands on its own as a quality wine, able to please the observant and nonobservant alike.

Covenant is made at Herzog Wine Cellars, a 20-year-old brand that just opened a 70,000-square-foot state-of-the-art winery in Oxnard, California. Herzog has itself begun selling single-vineyard wines and upscale blends in addition to its everyday-priced wines. In particular, check out the syrah and syrah blends that winemaker Joe Hurliman is putting out: Hurliman picked up a lot of pointers on Rhone-style winemaking when he worked with John Alban of Alban Vineyards, a legendary name in syrah-lovers circles.

And while the US has just begun to explore the possibilities with high-end kosher wine, Israel has been undergoing a wine revolution. Take, for instance, the wines of Yarden, one of the five biggest brands in that country, which has come out with three single-vineyard wines, one of them from a certified-organic vineyard (a first in Israel). While “single-vineyard” isn’t a guarantee of quality (it means only that the grapes came from one particular, defined vineyard), it does signify that vintners are looking hard at their land, making an effort to single out the parcels that produce the best grapes, and to make wines that preserve the character of that vineyard. This is a huge departure from earlier years, when quality equaled quantity.

Carmel, Israel’s largest winery, has also refocused its efforts. They’ve begun to pay grape growers according to the quality of their grapes, not only the quantity delivered, and introduced seven single-vineyard wines this year. They’ve also put their marketing weight behind six of the country’s top boutique wineries under the tag, “Handcrafted Wines of Israel” in the hopes that the vintners and grape growers involved will share their knowledge and experience with each other, speeding the improvement of the industry.

What’s all this mean to us? It means that there’s an array of kosher wines that could go up against quality wines from around the world, kosher or not, and that the choices in kosher wines will continue to grow. The kosher certification will resonate with those for whom it’s important to eat and drink kosher. For the rest of us, it’s just more good wine from which to choose, this weekend and beyond.

Quality Kosher Wines

Tishbi Vineyards 2003 Shomron Sauvignon Blanc ($7.99)
Recanati 2001 Galilee Chardonnay ($13.49)
Yarden 2002 Galilee Odem Organic Vineyard Chardonnay ($19.99)
Golan Heights Winery 2003 Galilee Sion Creek Red ($10)
Herzog 2002 Edna Valley/Napa Valley Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah ($35)
Yarden 2001 Galilee Ortal Vineyard Merlot ($35)
Segal's 2000 Galilee Heights Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($15.99)
Yarden 2001 Galilee El Rom Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($45)
Covenent 2003 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($85, only at covenantwines.com)
Golan Heights Winery 2004 Galilee Moscato ($11)

This article first appeared in the Denver Post.

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