Uncorking the Secrets of Kosher Wine

Wine plays a central role in Jewish religious life. In the days of the Temple, whenever one brought a korban, it had to be accompanied by wine. Furthermore, the Levi’im only sang shirah while wine was being poured on the mizbayach (Berachot 35a). Of course, every Shabbos we commemorate the creation of the world over wine, and on Pesach, the four cups of wine are crucial in re-experiencing the Exodus. While wine figures so prominently in Judaism, making kosher wine is no simple matter.

Winemaking from a to Z

All grapes can be made into wine; however, they need a warm climate in which to grow. (Eastern Europe is too cold for growing grapes, and importing grape wine was not practical as it could spoil. Therefore, Eastern European Jews would import raisins and manufacture their own wine. The Shulchan Aruch includes halachos on raisin wine for this very reason.)

Grapes begin growing during the spring and are harvested during the summer. The longer the grapes remain on the vine, the sweeter they become. Thus, certain wines include the words “late harvest” on the label, indicating that the wine is sweeter than usual. Once ripe, most grapes will fall off the vine by themselves. Riesling is a type of grape that can stay on the vine longer than most and, thus, Riesling wine tends to be naturally sweet.

After the grapes are harvested, they are brought to a winery. While there are quite a few kosher wineries in Israel, most wineries throughout the world are not kosher. A common practice in the industry is to use noted wineries located throughout the world to produce special kosher runs.

What makes a Wine kosher?

The kosher supervision of wine and grape juice is one of the most complicated areas of kosher food production. The supervision is complex because wine cannot be handled by a non-Jew, in order to prevent the wine from becoming yayin nesech, the Biblical prohibition against drinking wine that had been used in a libation in a pagan ceremony. The rabbis went even further and prohibited any wine handled by non Jews; this prohibition is know as stam yaynam and was designed to prevent intermarriage.

Thus, throughout the winemaking process, a non-Jew cannot operate any machinery, open or shut any valves or start or stop any pumps. Wine that is mevushal (cooked) can be handled by non-Jews since it is no longer fit for sacramental use, or in Talmudic terms, it is not ra’oyi lemizbayach.

If the winery is not exclusively kosher, the mashgiach must first kasher all of the equipment and machinery that will be used during the process. Depending on the size and scope of the plant, the number of mashgichim can vary from two or three in some places to twenty-six in others. It is, of course, imperative that the mashgichim be highly responsible, competent individuals since they will be operating machinery— some of which costs around $750,000. Understandably, the plant employees are apprehensive when new mashgichim first arrive; once the employees realize that the mashgichim are capable of
handling the equipment, they tend to relax.

The Process

The prohibition of stam yaynam takes effect once the grapes are crushed and hamshachah has taken place. Hamshachah occurs when the juice is separated from the grapes and the pits and is then collected.
Grapes arrive at the plant in either twenty-pound baskets, one-ton bins or six- to nine-ton trucks, depending on the size of the plant. They are then dumped into a hopper and moved into a destemmer, which shoots out the stems and crushes the grapes. The crushed grapes are pumped into a “treat tank,” where they are treated with enzymes to help extract the juice. The juice is further extracted when the pulp continues into a press. Finally, the pits (which are bitter) and the skins are discarded. A ton of grapes yields about 200 gallons of juice. At this point, however, between 10 to 15 percent of the juice is actually sediment.

After the juice goes through a filter, the sediment level is brought down to about 1 or 2 percent. At this stage of the process, some wineries will run the liquid through a pasteurizer, cooking it at 190 degrees. The pasteurizing process converts the liquid into grape juice and also renders it mevushal, enabling a non-Jew to handle it from this point on. While most kosher wines are mevushal, the finer wines tend not to be, as the boiling process affects the taste. It should be noted that if one has non-mevushal wine in his posession, it must be sealed or kept hidden so that non-Jewish domestic help does not have access to it.

To convert the juice into wine, fermentation (the process whereby sugar turns into alcohol) must take place. While there is natural yeast in the skin of the grape as well as in the air, actual yeast is added to enable the product to ferment more effectively. (Until modern times, wine was left alone—in warm conditions—and the yeast within the wine fermented the product naturally.) Fermentation can take anywhere from a few days to two weeks. During the fermentation process, the wine appears as if it is bubbling and boiling, when in reality it is not hot at all. In the industry, this is referred to as “cooking.”
Chazal refer to it as tosses. At this point, the liquid does not taste very good and does not constitute actual wine yet. (At this stage, the brachah would therefore not be Hagafen.)

Wine stops fermenting when the alcohol content is about 13 percent. Fermentation will cease even if there is sugar left in the grapes. (This explains how Late Harvest Riesling can have a 13 percent alcohol content and a naturally sweet flavor.) To produce wine with a low alcohol content— 5 or 7 percent—the fermentation process must be stopped prematurely. Fermentation can be stopped either by cooking the wine, which will destroy the live yeast culture, or by adding sulfites to kill the yeast.

To make sweet wine, manufacturers either add sugar during the fermentation process or stop the fermentation early, resulting in wine (with a lower alcohol content) in which not all of the sugars have been converted into alcohol. (In South America, California, France and Spain, it is illegal to add sugar since the grapes there are naturally sweet.) After the fermentation is completed, in many wineries the wine is placed in wooden barrels to age. Wines can be aged anywhere from six months to thirty years, though some wines are not aged at all. Better wines are aged in oak barrels, which serve to enhance the flavor and fragrance of the wine. In New York, wine is stored in stainless steel tanks.

Once the fermentation process is over, the barrels or tanks are sealed. For kosher wine, the barrels or tanks have to be doubly sealed by the mashgiach. (The halachic term for a double seal is chosem besoch chosem. The mashgiach can leave the winery, but must return every time it is necessary to take a sample to test the sugar level, for example, or to determine if more aging is necessary. Each time he returns, he must check to ensure that the seals have not been tampered with. The mashgiach alone can break the seal and then reapply a new one. When the wine is ready to be bottled, the mashgiach must be present once again.

The time, effort and manpower involved in making wine available to the kosher consumer are considerable. Nevertheless, according to industry experts, the kosher wine industry is booming, and each year over the past few years, there has been a substantial rise in kosher wine sales. Nowadays, kosher wine is made from some of the finest grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Shiraz and others. These wines—from around the world, including France, Italy, Spain, New York, California, Israel, Chili and Australia—can easily measure up to and even possibly surpass the quality of non-kosher wine. With kosher consumers becoming increasingly discriminating in their tastes, the kosher wine market is sure to keep growing, offering more variety and options for the kosher wine lover.

by Rabbi Avrohom Juravel, Rabbinic Coordinator
and Rabbi Zev Baruch, Rabbinic Field Representative