Kosher Wine, Part I

Kosher Wine, Part I
Here are two words that can dampen the hearts of Jews and goyim alike: kosher wine. For those in the former group, the phrase often evokes the sappy bottles opened at family seders of the distant — or even recent — past (Manischewitz, anyone?). For those of the latter persuasion, the term may sound like something comfortably off the radar and not worth pursuing, especially with the half-remembered knowledge that these wines are often pasteurized.

Consider your columnist to be of the second group — in addition to being wine snobby and generally suspicious, I’ve never even been to a seder. Luckily, my friend and ex-colleague from Wine Spectator, Jeff Morgan, has helped set me straight about what kosher wines can be. Morg, as he has always been known to me, is the maker of what have to be California’s highest-end kosher wines: Covenant and Covenant Red C (say its name out loud to get the joke), both Cabernet Sauvignons from the Napa Valley. He’s also well known in the wine world for his non-kosher rosé venture, Sola Rosa.

Morg came by the office the other day to let me sample his wares and tell me his story. Six years ago, he was at a kosher wine tasting and his friend Leslie Rudd — the founder and owner of Dean & Deluca and the owner of Leslie Rudd Vineyards — asked him: “What’s wrong with kosher wine?” Morg, who like Rudd is Jewish, had to think about that one for a second. He answered, “Nothing has to be wrong with it.”

What he meant was, nothing in the kosher rulebook demands that wine be sweet and cloying, or made from the Concord grape in upstate New York as it was in the bad old days. As long as a wine is handled by strictly Sabbath-observant Jews, who must follow all the kosher ingredient rules (none of which need to affect taste or quality), it’s kosher. As Morg puts it, “It’s symbolic.”

Interestingly, the restrictions on handling don’t apply to grape growing and picking. The crucial period begins when the grapes arrive at the winery. “The wine has to be kosher, not the grapes,” says Morg. That allows him to source some very well-regarded Napa vineyards to make his product.

Armed with this knowledge, Morg and Rudd, neither of whom is Sabbath-observant, went into business with the somewhat ambitious goal of “making the best kosher wine in the last 5,000 years.” The first step was finding a talented troupe of Sabbath-observant hands, which they did; Morg supervises the wine making, but when there’s a button to be pushed or a bin to be lifted, he delegates the task.

Morg does not flash-pasteurize his wines, meaning they are “non-Mevushal” (and they say so on the labels). Mevushal, which means “boiled” in Hebrew, is the designation you’ll often find on kosher wines in restaurants. The reason for this is simple: Once a flash-pasteurization is done, the wine is kosher from that point on, no matter who handles it — a sommelier or waiter, for instance. It’s a kind of safety net; after Mevushal, no worries.

The reason for being non-Mev, as they call it in the trade, is flavor. “I don’t want to boil my wines, because I want them to taste good,” Morg says. But not everyone agrees on this point. The wines of Château Pontet Canet in Bordeaux are both kosher and pasteurized, and they’re quite good. But it’s telling that most of the higher-end entries in this category — including Israel’s Yarden, this column’s next topic — are non-Mev.

Morg has had some real success with his kosher creations. Covenant Red C 2006 ($42) has an up-front strawberry character and soft tannins, and is a sure crowd-pleaser. Covenant 2006 ($100) is darker and bigger, a bit more elegant and boasting the cassis flavor you get in a fine Bordeaux. This is one Cab to put in your cellar for a while — it’s serious but not unfriendly, and will only open up over time. The price points are definitely up there, putting these bottles in competition with some famous Napa Valley names, but it seems to me that there’s a real niche being filled here.

Next up for Covenant is a new Chardonnay made from the Bacigalupi Vineyard in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. The grapes were harvested last year and the wine should be out later this fall. It won’t be released in time for this year's Passover, which is only two weeks away, but it’s probably best to take the long view here. As Morg told me, “The Jews have the oldest codified relationship to wine of any people on earth.” Impressive and admirable, to be sure.

To me, one of the best things about these wines is that you can enjoy them regardless of your religion. Then again, it probably means more to those who have something sacred at stake. As the old joke goes: You don’t have to be Jewish, but it couldn’t hurt.

Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.