In 2023, US production of wine (including kosher wine) is on the rise, and wine is inextricably linked to Passover. We presented these two themes to Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, Senior OU Rabbinic Coordinator, who oversees certification for kosher alcoholic beverages and serves as the editor of the OU Passover Guide. He offered insights into both of these areas.
Steven Genack: You are the expert at the OU in alcoholic beverages, including wine and liquor. Can you give a basic explanation of the difference between wine and liquor?
Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz: Winemaking starts with the making of juice from grapes, and then yeast converts the sugar in the juice into alcohol. When this occurs, the alcoholic levels typically reach somewhere between 10% and 15% and then stops. This is because as the alcohol level rises (which also serves as an antiseptic), the yeast causing the fermentation is killed off by the alcohol. Certain resilient yeasts can continue fermentation until alcohol reached 17% or 18%. That’s about as high as wine will ferment to.
Liquor is alcohol that was similarly fermented, though not specifically from fruit (it can also be based on grains or other raw materials that have sugar or starch in them). Following fermentation the product is distilled, which involves cooking the alcohol into a vapor and then converting it back into liquid. This will result in to a much higher alcohol level that can reach 50%, or even 95%.
SG: In terms of wine, what necessary steps must be taken to ensure that it is kosher certified? Are there any core differences between kosher and non-kosher wine?
RNR: The process for producing kosher and non-kosher wine is scientifically the same. The typical steps include harvesting the grapes, crushing them, fermentation, pressing, aging in tanks or in barrels and then bottling it. If you’re making red wine, you will let it ferment will soaking with the grape skins, and if it’s white wine you separate it from the skins prior to fermentation. The primary kosher restriction is in the handling of the wine through its various processes. That is because wine was once used as a libation for idolatrous purposes, so was restricted to being handled exclusively by Sabbath observers. This requires the mashgichim, or as I refer to them kosher workers, to actually perform each step. If the wine is cooked, those restrictions are relaxed.
SG: What additional factors must be considered to determine whether the wine is kosher for Passover?
RNR: Often the yeast used to ferment the wine is laboratory-grown. The medium used to grow the yeast can be grain-based which presents a Passover issue. Also, enzymes can be added during the fermentation process and enzymes can contain chametz. In addition, sometimes wineries will use barrels that previously stored non-kosher or whiskey (chametz) to store wine. Prior to using those barrels for kosher wine, a kashering of those barrels for Passover is required. Another issue comes up relating to sweetened or flavored wines like sangria. In such a case, Passover certification would be needed for all the ingredients contained within.
SG: As you said, wine is more restrictive and needs vigilant supervision. Can you further elaborate on why you call mashgichim in the wine area kosher workers?
RNR: Unlike any area of kashrut, where the mashgiach supervises, in kosher wine production the workers must do the work themselves. They have been trained in how to use all the machinery and have expertise in the crushing of grapes, fermenting them, cooking the wine and funneling it into tanks. The joke goes, that a rabbi who comes to a winery in a white shirt will be leaving with large red or purple streaks. I can testify to that myself.
SG: In terms of aging wine, what are the usual time spans for that?
RNR: Of course, every winery is different. Some wines are bottled in their youth with little or no aging. Some reserve wines can be aged for 12, 24 or even 36 months. Certain wines are intended to be used when purchased. Others are recommended to be consumed only after a period of cellaring to achieve the finest taste.
SG: Where does most of the kosher wine come from?
RNR: Kosher wines come from all the major grape growing regions all over the world. Some of the top producers are the United States, France, Italy, Spain and Israel. There are also kosher wines from Germany, Hungary and Moldova. From the southern hemisphere there are wines from Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa. In particular, Israel has been producing top quality wines for a years and its wine industry is quickly growing both quantitively and qualitatively.
SG: The US has increased its production of wine. Can you explain this phenomenon?
RNR: Unknown to many, each and every one of the 50 states have wineries. OU certifies wine from California, New York, Oregon, Washington and Virginia.
SG: What are the most expensive kosher wines?
RNR: Bordeaux, France and Napa Valley, California have some of the most expensive kosher wine offerings. Israel also produces some really high-end kosher wines. In those locations, they put enormous care into the cultivation of the grapes.
SG: Where was the first kosher wine in the US produced?
RNR: The first Jewish immigrants came to the Eastern Seaboard, to such places as New York, Philadelphia and Boston. They used Concord grapes from upstate New York to produce wines. Because they used high acid concord sugar was added. This is why traditional kiddush wine in the US was sweet and syrupy.
SG: Do you have a go-to wine?
RNR: I always say; drink the wine that you enjoy. One person might like a very expensive wine, and another might like a more basic one. Also, the price of the bottle is not always the indicator of quality.
SG: Why does wine play such a central role in the Passover Seder with the four cups?
RNR: I heard from my Rebbe, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l, that the rabbis specifically mandated wine for Passover because, uniquely amongst foods, it’s something that is appreciated as much (or even more) with the fourth cup, as it was with the first. Not so with other foods and beverages, one appreciates the first installment the most, when hungry or thirsty quality. With each subsequent portion of other foods and beverages, the appreciation usually declines. Also, wine has many complexities to it. Everyone relates to it differently. So, it has a kind of universal theme.
SG: You edit the OU Passover Guide with a print run of approximately 90,000 copies. Can you explain what it is and how early in the year you start preparing it? Also, is Passover a yearlong project at the OU?
RNR: To your last point, yes, the OU prepares for Passover all year long. In terms of the Guide, this is a collaborative effort of too many people to mention. From the Rabbinic staff to Mashgichim to support staff. Public education is something taken very seriously at OU Kosher, to help the public understand and observe kosher. That is all the more so for Passover with all its special rules and laws.
SG: Do Jewish consumers and the general public have any preference towards Passover products?
RNR: There was a time when finding gluten-free products wasn’t so simple. Jews and non-Jews alike would await Passover, where gluten, which is chametz-based, is left out of the ingredient panel. This still remains a benefit beyond typical kosher consumers. I am told that some consumers (even non-Jewish ones) are aware that for Passover, Coke uses cane sugar instead of corn syrup. Allegedly, there is some hoarding of Passover Coke, by those who prefer it to the year-round Coke.
SG: You have given videos on how to kasher kitchens for Passover. Can you give the basics on that, including utensils, countertops, the refrigerator, sinks, ovens and stovetops? Do the same laws apply to kashering non-kosher materials?
RNR: The general principle is that the way the chametz or non-kosher was absorbed into a utensil, is the way it must be extracted. So, if a pot became chametz through hot liquid then boiling water is needed to kasher it. If it became chametz or non-kosher through dry heat, then it must be burned out with fire. More detailed information is available in the Guide.
SG: You once answered a consumer question in writing about the OU policy regarding foods that are repackaged by a store without the OU symbol. Can you elaborate on that topic?
RNR: The OU symbol is only as strong as its traceability. Companies enter into agreements regarding the usage of the OU symbol which includes diligence on the packaging. Anyone who opens an OU packaged product and then puts in their own package breaks the chain and therefore going forward we couldn’t vouch for that product anymore.
SG: You have spoken around the world on behalf of the OU. Is there any specific presentation that stood out?
RNR: I have been privileged to represent OU Kosher at a variety of venues both in the US and abroad. OU Kosher staff represent an unparalleled wealth of kosher information and expertise. OU is committed to sharing this knowledge with the public. We view it as an important and a critical component of our mission.