I have enjoyed wine pretty much as long as I can remember. As a child I was allowed only a tiny bit on special occasions like Kiddush and Passover. In college I was not quite, shall we say, as flavor discriminating as I am now, being a wine critic and author of a guide to kosher wines.
Kosher wine has come of age. Gone are the days when kosher wine could only be described as sweet, sweeter and so cloyingly sweet that it hurts my teeth just to think about it. So without further ado, let’s shatter some misconceptions.
1. Wine is not “kosher” because it is blessed by a rabbi.
This might be the most common misconception about kosher products in general. I know of a rabbi who provides a service in his local community, in cooperation with a regional supermarket, by marking the shelves of all the items which have kosher certification. He does this by placing a small sticker next to the shelf label of the appropriate item to make it simple and convenient to identify those products that qualify. One day a woman observed this activity and, startled with the speed with which he affixed the green dots on a group of similar items, commented: "Rabbi, you're saying those blessings awfully fast, aren't you?!"
Kosher wine esnures the absence of problematic ingredients like ox blood.
Kosher means “prepared” – i.e. processed according to Jewish law. When it comes to wine, various ingredients present kashrut challenges including: casein (a dairy derivative), enzymes (from animals), isinglass (from non kosher fish), and even ox blood (exactly what it sounds like). Further, kosher wine must have rabbinic supervision from the time the grapes become juice, up until the wine is sealed in the bottle.
2. Wine is a mitzvah (under certain conditions).
Kosher wine is prescribed for use in many Jewish rituals: Bris Milah (circumcision), the wedding chuppa (canopy), the Kiddush that begins Shabbat and holiday meals. While most occasions call for just one cup, on the holiday of Purim, wine is the beverage of choice for the festive meal, recalling wine’s significant role in the "banquets" described in the Megillah story. On Passover we are required to drink four cups at the Seder (a challenge for many). As one rabbi said: "Who else but Jews would complain about how much they have to drink?"
3. Enjoy the variety.
Some wines are great for desert, others for a quiet evening of sipping, and others are especially food-friendly with meat, fish or cheese. White wines are generally younger, fresher and fruity with hints of apple, pineapple, pear and the like. Red wines can be full-bodied with notes of black current, plum, tobacco, leather and wild berries, with months or years of aging in charred oak barrels and a big finish. They can be silky and smooth, or tart and astringent, or even perhaps both at the same time. Wines can be cool, sparkling, light and refreshing for everyday or special occasions.
Two thousand years ago, a Talmudic sage said: "The best kind of wine is that which you enjoy." This rabbi might also have been the first known wine critic, as having rated a 200-year-old vintage "of the highest excellence."
4. Israel produces some of the world's best kosher wines.
Drip irrigation enables grapes to thrive in deserts all over the world.
Chalk, limestone, sand and volcanic soil can provide excellent growth medium for premium wine grapes. These conditions are often found in desert climates, which until recently were not sufficiently friendly to reliable vineyards. In the second half of the 20th century, two key developments allowed noble grape varieties to thrive in deserts all over the world:
- Stainless steel tanks and refrigeration allow grape juice and wine to be kept cool after the summer harvest in warmer areas, and during fermentation (the process by which microbes, called yeast, eat the sugar, converting it to alcohol and carbon dioxide).
- Drip irrigation, a process refined in the 1960s on an Israeli kibbutz in the Negev, allows a hungry world to be fed with far less water (agriculture places the largest demand on our global water supply) and far greater nutrient control. It also provides for consistent results from year to year in places that could not otherwise sustain agriculture.
Israel is blessed with many state-of-the-art wineries that merge a synergy of technology and tradition. Israeli and other kosher wines are now recognized as "world class" from leading authorities, with many regularly receiving the highest awards and recognition.
5. Don't cook with a "cooking wine."
Just because a bottle says "cooking wine" doesn't mean it is better for cooking. In fact, it is usually inferior wine that is not good enough to drink. My rule is: Wine that is not good enough to drink is not good enough to cook with.
When cooking, add wine early enough to allow the alcohol to evaporate and produce a subtle taste (except for fortified wines that you might want to add at the end). Reduce the wine to intensify its flavor; if you cook wine uncovered for 10 minutes, it will reduce to half or less. Use white wine for lighter-colored dishes and red wines for darker meats or stews.
Wine offers uncommon value in a world of ever-rising costs. In 1940 a typical bottle of kosher Kiddush wine cost about one dollar. In today's terms that translates to $12-15 for a standard bottle. Today you can buy many sweet Kiddush wines for under $5, and in the $12-15 range you can find some very good to excellent wine.
6. Wine is good for you, body and soul.
Almost every week there is another story about the health benefits of wine. Is it white wine or red wine, the tannins, anti-oxidant compounds, flavonoids, enzyme releasers or something else?
“Kosher,” with its added levels of supervision and quality control, has established itself in a broad perception as cleaner, healthier, higher quality, and even safer. Of course, the real reason Jews keep kosher is because of our spiritual health. (Hence the term, “soul food.”)
Wine is an exceptional beverage that can be a metaphor for so many profound ideas in life: balance, nuance, integrity. Wine can even be a metaphor for a completed and perfected human life: It starts off as a simplistic and immature product (grape juice represents childhood; it must develop character as it goes through fermentation (struggle represents the challenge of evil); only then does it become the mature product we call wine.
We could discuss this in more detail over a glass of wine. As Tevya sang in Fiddler on the Roof: "Be happy! Be healthy! Long life! Drink, l'chaim, to life!"