AT a recent "warmup" Seder held at Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard, the leader Jay Buchsbaum invoked several Talmudic passages that emphasized the relationship between the faithful and wine. "Wine gladdens the heart of man," he began, and none of us needed a scholar to tell us that.
"When the wine goes in," he continued, "the truth comes out," interpreting truth here to mean a person's essence, revealed as inhibitions ease. This too seemed beyond dispute. Finally, he said, "There is no joy without wine," and we could all agree, except for one very thorny sticking point: The kosher wines drunk at most American tables are unlikely to bring any serious wine lover much joy.
In America, kosher wines have traditionally meant sweet, pungent, unbalanced, rot-gut clunkers, not so much drunk at celebrations as choked down. Where is the joy in that?
But in recent years some winemakers have been working to change the dominant paradigm. During the meal that followed this Seder, prepared at the restaurant adjoining the winery, Tierra Sur, a group of varietal wines from Herzog were poured that, along with wines from a handful of other kosher brands, are bucking the trend.
Perhaps no religious holiday on Earth has wine more central to the celebration than the Passover Seder. It is used in toasts and oaths, ceremoniously spilled to symbolize atonement. Even the intoxication is sanctioned in its way; each participant, after all, is supposed to drink four cups of wine with the meal.
Some Jewish texts have used wine to symbolize a creation from God brought into fruition by human hands, a natural wonder made more wonderful by human intercession.
For nearly 200 years the Herzog family has been making wine, first in the former Czechoslovakia, and later in America, where the family immigrated, penniless, in 1948. Within a decade of its arrival, the family held majority stock in Royal Wine Co., and built Royal and the family's eponymous label into reigning kosher brands.(Buchsbaum is vice president of marketing at Royal.) Some of their wines were made from \o7Vitis labrusca\f7, a species of grape indigenous to the eastern U.S. that includes Concord. Others were made from more palatable vinifera varieties, but still made sweet to accommodate what had become a "kosher" palate.
In the mid-1980s, the family started a West Coast operation, making kosher wines from California fruit. The wines' success led the family, in the late '90s, to explore the possibility of a high-end, California reserve program, and in 1998, Herzog hired Joe Hurliman to make these wines.
Hurliman learned his craft as an assistant winemaker to John Alban, an Arroyo Grande winemaker devoted to Rhone varieties. Hurliman isn't Jewish, which mitigates his role as winemaker in interesting ways. A kosher wine must be made and handled by Sabbath-observing Jews to ensure its purity. This means that Hurliman can't even touch the wine he's making; he must instead convey his wishes to his Jewish crew.
Despite the restrictions, Hurliman, who studied philosophy at university, was intrigued by the challenge, not only logistically, but also intellectually.
"When I started we had daily study sessions," he says, "and we read the rabbinical commentary that exists to support it so I could understand what it meant to the faithful to be certified."
Ultimately for Hurliman, these seemed no less mysterious or wondrous than what happened in the cellar.
"Winemaking involves faith," he says, referring to the transformations in tank and barrel. "As a winemaker you have to move beyond the things that have no substance."
THE most significant hurdle for any domestic kosher wine operation is manpower: Few wine regions in this country can boast a competent work force of Sabbath-observant Jews. This is why the Herzog family recently moved its West Coast operations to Oxnard, which puts it near Central Coast wine country and not far from L.A.'s sizable Jewish population.
The result is a tier of wines that has sensual and spiritual appeal. These are varietal wines from many of California's finer appellations, including a spicy Syrah from the cool Edna Valley, a spot-on Russian River Chardonnay and an approachable, well-built blend of Cabernet, Zinfandel and Syrah that show a depth of character that Mogen David can only dream of.
Napa cookbook author, wine writer and winemaker Jeff Morgan makes a kosher Cabernet called Covenant and he makes it as a calculated response to what he and his partner, Leslie Rudd, were raised on. Morgan, who was raised in a Reform Jewish household, used to work as a wine buyer for Leslie Rudd at Dean & Deluca.
Rudd parlayed some of his success at Dean & Deluca into the purchase of Larkmead Vineyards in Oakville, Napa Valley, and a winery bearing his name soon followed. Some years later Rudd and Morgan got into a conversation about kosher wine, says Morgan, and Rudd asked him, "So why do you think kosher wine is so terrible?"