The Jewish people are known for asking questions. If you ask a Jewish man or woman why this is so, the inevitable answer will be, “Why not?” Appropriately, the Passover Haggadah*, the book read at every Seder table around the globe, begins the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egyptian slavery with the youngest participant asking the famous Four Questions.
But here’s one question not included in the prescribed four. “Why on this night must we drink four cups of wine or grape juice?” Here’s another: “Does it really have to be made from Concord grapes?” And: “Would one be breaking with tradition if he/she were to pour Bordeaux Merlot, Pinot Noir, or Bartenura Chardonnay?” Let’s make it an even four: “What’s new in the world of kosher for Passover wine this year?” A barrelful! Many barrelfuls. A great number of us grew up on the original Manischewitz kosher wine (certified by the OU) at our Passover Seders, and still find nostalgic comfort nursing a glass of Concord grape wine. “Most Jews who immigrated to the United States moved to the New York region,” says Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz, OU Rabbinical Coordinator. “And what we have in New York are Concord grapes, which are very acidic and low in sugar content. To counter the low sugar and acidity, wine manufacturers added more and more sugar, so people associated kosher wine with thickness and sweetness.”
Rabbi Rabinowitz explains that as the Jewish population became upwardly mobile, their tastes moved towards more upscale dining and drinking. The industry quickly responded. “We’ve seen kosher wine go places no one would have ever imagined,” says Yakov Yarmove, Corporate Category Manager for Ethnic and Specialty Foods for the Albertson’s supermarket chain, a man who takes his wine avocation very seriously. “You can see the trend in supermarkets throughout the country. They’re carrying more and more kosher wines, some integrating them into the non-kosher sets. That makes a tremendous statement that the kosher wines today are that good.”
Jay Buchsbaum, Vice President of Marketing and Director of Wine Education for OU-certified Royal Wine Corporation, the world’s largest producer, importer, and distributor of fine kosher wines and spirits, among them Kedem, Bartenura, Baron Herzog, Rashi, Weinstock, and Joseph Zakon, says he’s amazed at what has happened in the wine industry in the past 18 years. “The move towards fine table wines has taken over in earnest,” says Mr. Buchsbaum. “Kiddush** wine has changed from strictly sweet Concord to drier or fruitier, less sweet wines for the rest of the meal. We’ve seen a dramatic turnaround. Where Passover was almost entirely a Kiddush wine market, it has now become almost entirely a table wine market.” He says it’s not so much that Kiddush wine sales have declined; rather, people’s drinking options have expanded. “Because they used the sweeter Kiddush wines in the past, people took a little sip and nursed the rest through the other three cups,” says Mr. Buchsbaum. “Now the wines are so much more palatable, they are actually finishing each cup. Kiddush wine and table wine have essentially become one.”
Some wine companies (e.g., Abarbanel, under OU certification) bring in wines from other countries such as France, Africa, Australia, Portugal, and Israel, putting their label on the bottles, while Gan Eden (also OU certified) in California, makes its own. “New companies are sprouting up throughout the world,” says Mr. Buchsbaum.
The production of fine kosher wines requires two essentials —exceptionally delicious grapes and reliable certification. “When new producers ask me the world over what certification they should use, it is very clear that the OU is the most universally recognized and accepted symbol,” says Mr. Buchsbaum. “Whether from Israel, South America, Europe, Spain, Australia, or Chile, the OU is the standard for recognition and reliability among new producers.”
In Search of the Delicious Grape
Kedem, one of the major kosher wine manufacturers under OU certification, has introduced three new wines from California’s Herzog Special Reserve label this year. “The first two are made from a blend of different grapes. The Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah is harvested from Napa Valley, where the best Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are grown,” says Eitan Segal, Kedem’s Director of Public Relations. “The Syrah grapes originate from the Edna Valley region. These regions produce the most ripe, full-flavored grapes, which translate into full-flavored and what we in the wine-world call ‘complex’ wines. When you drink the wine, you taste a variety of flavors that naturally occur and remind you of a variety of fruits, such as blackberry, cherry, and spices – even a hint of oak from the oak barrels (in which the wine ages). The other two, Cabernet Sauvignon Zinfandel Syrah and Herzog Special Reserve Merlot, come from California’s Alexander Valley, in Sonoma County. These are also created from a carefully orchestrated blend of grapes; it’s like a symphony of flavors on the tongue.”
According to Mr. Segal, Kedem’s kosher wine consumers fall into two categories – those who prefer dry wine and those who prefer the sweet traditional wines. “What we have found is that general consumers are leaning more toward dry wine as opposed to sweet,” he says. “Fine wines are generally dry wines, because they contain many flavors, more complexity than sweet ones.” Kedem decided to come out with finer wines that would also interest those who prefer a sweet taste, such as Bartenura Moscato from Italy, a 2004 vintage, and Backsberg Pinotage, a blend of two grapes indigenous to South Africa, the first kosher Pinotage in the world. “We look carefully at what’s popular in the wine world in general and produce it for the kosher community,” says Mr. Segal.
Kedem continues to expand its portfolio of wines from France, Chile, Italy, Australia, and to include even more exotic varieties. For example, the company produces wines in Spain under the Ramon Cardova label. “These wines have a pronounced berry, cherry, spicy flavor, good with a full-flavored dinner with spices,” says Mr. Segal. “It’s important to properly pair the food with the wine; certain flavors can work together to actually enhance the taste of the food. Wine elevates the dining experience.” And that includes the holiday table. Although most prefer to use red wine for the four required cups at the Passover seder, Mr. Segal emphasizes that there are numerous opportunities to enjoy a glass of kosher wine during Chol HaMoed*** during the week’s festive meals. “How about a nice white wine for lunch with fish or a Bartenura Moscato, perhaps?” suggests Mr. Segal. As kosher wine drinkers discover the increased availability of new wines, the industry continues to boom. “Every year, there has been a substantial rise in the sales of kosher wines,” reports Jay Buchsbaum of Royal Wine. “There was a time people only bought wine for Passover and the rest of the year they would use grape juice or just a sip of wine for Kiddush. Now they’re buying wine and enjoying it throughout the year.”
Direct from the Vineyards of the Holy Land
According to Mr. Buchsbaum, Israel has proven to be the fastest single region of growth for kosher wines. “The rise in the quality of wines coming out of Israel has been astounding,” says Mr. Buchsbaum. “In just the last ten years alone, the country has grown from twenty wineries to 120.They have gone from basic wines to those that are selling for as much as $100 per bottle — not because they are so chic or interesting, but because of the fact that they are so good.” He says that non-kosher Israeli wines are now becoming kosher and certified so that they can be exported to the United States.
Carmel, Israel’s oldest and largest winery (founded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1882), continues to play a pivotal role at the Passover Seder table. After World War II, as the interest in a more “international” style of wine increased, Carmel promptly turned towards the production of drier wines. To accommodate the increased demand for Carmel’s products both at home and abroad, the company took advantage of the technological advances in wine production, and improved techniques in fermentation and storage, as well as researching the best types of grapes for varied Israeli climatic regions. “It’s good news that wines are improving exponentially in quality,” says Adam Montefiore, International Marketing Director for Carmel. Exports continue to boom and Carmel currently ships container loads of wine to over 35 countries. Carmel wine bottles proudly bear the OU-P (kosher for Passover) on the label. Some wines produced during the shemitta year (Jewish law mandates that the land in Israel lay fallow for a year every seven years) will not have the OU on the label.
More confident of the public’s interest in higher scale wine, the industry has begun to approach noted world wineries to produce special kosher runs. “Although not a stampede at this point, there is a definite move towards the non-kosher wineries to start making private label kosher Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Chablis, Merlot, Bordeaux, and other fine wines,” says Mr. Buchsbaum.
Kosher Wines’ Three-Time Medal Winner
Those who know fine wines are well aware of the plethora of wines coming from California’s lush vineyards. These connoisseurs also know that, of the numerous wineries that have won bronze, silver, and gold medals (out of well over 2,500 wines), only Baron Herzog Wine Cellars (under OU certification) won the coveted Chairman’s Award for its Chenin Blanc three years in a row. Not bad for what costs the consumer only $6.99 a bottle!
“In many instances, our kosher wines are, in fact, better than their non-kosher counterparts,” says Mr. Buchsbaum. Eitan Segal of Kedem reports that kosher wine continues to make news. “We’ve received rave reviews from major wine trade publications,” says Mr. Segal. “Recently, Wine Enthusiast Magazine awarded 94 points out of 100 to one of our Herzog Special Reserve wines (Syrah). And both Gourmet magazine and The Wall Street Journal ran prominent features on the new California winery we are building, the largest in the state,” says Mr. Segal. “When it opens in June of 2005, visitors will be able — by way of a specially designed pathway — to view our full production.”
In the End – It’s All About Tradition
While we welcome the addition of more and more fine wines to the kosher-for-Passover shelves throughout the world, in the end, the traditional choices still hold a steadfast place in the Jewish home and on the Seder table. Manischewitz recently conducted research to find out the current consumer sentiment towards kosher wines for Passover. “We thought that the Manischewitz packaging might need a change, that people wanted to see something more contemporary,” says Jon Guggino, Brand Manager for Canandaigua Wine Company. “They told us in no uncertain terms, ‘Do not touch that package!’ It’s that iconic within the community. This is the wine their parents and grandparents had on the Passover table. Even the younger consumers felt this way. Passover remains our biggest sales period.” (Some of the Manischewitz wines contain corn syrup, so these particular bottles are not considered kosher for Passover use; consumers should take care when selecting.)
At the Passover Seder, each participant pours the wine for the other, to demonstrate that we sit together as royal servants of the King. No matter which delectable kosher wine fills our cups, we all drink from the cup of gratitude, remembering our slavery and savoring the noble taste of freedom.
* Tells of the Jewish people’s slavery in Egypt and the miracles God performed for them, as He brought them out of slavery to freedom: the book also dictates the order of the evening’s proceedings.
** The blessing said over wine or grape juice on Shabbat and holidays. (The word “kiddush” means holy or to sanctify.)
*** These are the intermediate days of the Passover festival and do not have the same level of work restrictions as the first and last days.