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Passover : Kosher Wine for Wine Lovers

March 24, 1994|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

Kosher wine has improved dramatically in the last decade, and now the best of it can take its place beside the best non-kosher wine. These days, makers of kosher wine insist their wines aren't just for Passover anymore.

Traditionally, kosher wine has not been fine wine. Most of the Jews fleeing Eastern Europe 100 years ago came here by way of Ellis Island. And the only kosher wine made on the East Coast was a syrupy dessert wine based on Concord grapes. As a result, "kosher wine" came to mean something sickly sweet that did not go well with any food, but had to be consumed by Seder edict.

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The Passover Seder is a generally happy meal in which children are an essential part of the service. So the children and grandchildren of Eastern European Jews grew up with this kind of kosher wine. And though many of these second- and third-generation Jews drink only dry table wine the rest of the year, they continue to endure the "Tradition of the Square Bottle" (i.e., Manischewitz Concord) during the Seder.

"There's a saying that if it's kosher it can't be any good," says Peter Stern, consulting winemaker for the Baron Herzog line of kosher wines. "It happens all the time. I guess the only way (to gain respect) is to have blind tastings."

A blind tasting proved the point a few weeks ago. At the New World International Wine Competition in San Bernardino, a kosher wine proved best in its category. The 1993 Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc won a gold medal and the award for the best Chenin Blanc.

Other kosher gold-medal winners at the event were 1993 Herzog White Zinfandel, 1993 Weinstock White Zinfandel and 1992 Weinstock Chardonnay. A silver medal went to Hagafen's 1993 White Table Wine, a blend of Chardonnay and Riesling.

Ernie Weir, president of Hagafen, admits that he started the winery (with former partners Zach Berkowitz, Norm Miller and Rene di Rosa) in 1979 because of the dearth of kosher wine made in the United States and the generally woeful state of kosher wine made elsewhere.

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"I felt there was an element of cultural pride that could be encouraged," he says. But as time went on and he explored the various ways wine could be made and certified kosher, he came to believe he could make wine that was the equal of any non-kosher wine.

Besides a few arcane rules about cleanliness and who can do what with the grapes and the wine, one key rule is that for a wine to be mevushal, or universally kosher (so it doesn't lose its kosher status if a non-Orthodox person serves it), it must be heated during production--a technique that in the past would have ruined the aroma of any fine wine. Such wines were more broadly marketable than kosher wines that were not pasteurized, but some producers, Hagafen among them, felt the heating process too deleterious and they rejected it.

However, within the last few years, it has become possible to make a mevushal wine by using a bit of high-tech wizardry. This technique, approved by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of New York. calls for the white wine grape juice, before fermentation, to be flash-heated to 175 degrees, pasteurizing the liquid. The juice is then quickly re-chilled and a traditional fermentation conducted.

The process seems to actually improve some wines, says Baron Herzog's Stern, the top kosher-wine consultant in the business (he also helped make excellent kosher wines for three Israeli brands, Yarden, Golan and Gamla).

Weir was also convinced. He began flash-pasteurizing Hagafen wines in 1993.

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Another California producer of kosher wines, Gan Eden in Sonoma County, makes only non- mevushal wines. Since these wines will not retain their kosher status if served by a non-Orthodox Jew, the wines are not used in catering events such as weddings or bar mitzvahs if the servers are not Orthodox.

Kosher wine from Israel has had a spotty track record, but Stern says great strides has been made in Israeli kosher wine during the last six to eight years.

"The evolution starts with the grapes," he says. "After the Golan Heights were taken in the 1967 war, grapes were planted there, but the only buyer was (the large cooperative winery) Carmel." All wines were mevushal , but the technology was still primitive, so many wines were ruined before they were even bottled.

Moreover, says Stern, the grapes weren't always planted in the right regions or grown for fine wine. Then in the late '70s, Cornelius Ough of the University of California at Davis visited the Golan Heights and advised growers on planting. By 1983, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon were planted, and the Yarden, Golan and Galil brands were developed to compete with Carmel.

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