Kosher Wine, Part II

Kosher Wine, Part II
I learned about the rules and pleasures of kosher wines from a not-very-religious American Jew who is relatively new at producing them — my friend Jeff Morgan, of Napa’s Covenant Wines, as detailed in my last column. This time around, I figured it was time to look at a longer-term maker of kosher wines, so I decided to check out what is likely Israel’s most highly regarded label, Yarden.

Over the years I’ve tasted the Yarden wines — made by the Golan Heights Winery in Katzrin, a town in the central Golan — and have been suitably impressed, especially by the reds, but I hadn’t taken notes and focused methodically on them until now.

Turns out that Yarden’s chief winemaker, Victor Schoenfeld, is also a not-terribly-observant American Jew. A California native, he studied oenology and viticulture at the University of California at Davis, the leading U.S. institution in the field.

Like a lot of American Jews who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, Schoenfeld, now 45, spent some time in Israel after high school, studying and working on a kibbutz. “My interest in wine started with my interest in farming and growing food,” says Schoenfeld, speaking from the winery, where he has worked since 1991.

Wine-growing intrigued him, and he worked a harvest in Israel in 1985. “But I wanted to be in charge of the whole winemaking process, not just the viticulture,” he says. So Schoenfeld worked in Napa and Sonoma in the late 1980s, putting in time as an intern at the Robert Mondavi Winery and eventually getting a job at several well-known properties, including Sonoma’s Chateau St. Jean.

Schoenfeld never expected to have a career in Israel, and he barely even wants to acknowledge that his wines are kosher. “When I am presenting to sommeliers, I don’t even use the word ‘kosher,’” he says. “We represent high-quality Israeli wines.”

Indeed, as I’ve discovered, any stigma is unnecessary: You certainly won’t taste anything different about Yarden wines — except that they’re simply better than a lot of the products in your local wine shop — as the largely symbolic rules governing kosher winemaking don’t need to harm taste.

And keeping them kosher is certainly easy in the Golan. Unlike Morgan, who must put effort into finding Sabbath-observant help from California to help make his wine, Schoenfeld has plenty of local talent to choose from. “It’s just the guys living in the area,” he says. “It’s not something we think about day-to-day.”

As with most of the current crop of serious wines that also happen to be kosher, the Yarden line is non-Mevushal, meaning that they haven’t been flash-pasteurized, a process that allows wine to be handled by anyone and remain kosher.

“The only reason to do it is to sell the wine in kosher restaurants,” says Schoenfeld. “We give up that market, but it’s fine. In Israel, our biggest sales are actually to non-kosher restaurants.” And half of Yarden’s annual output of 40,000 cases goes to the U.S.

Schoenfeld is lucky in that he has good vineyards and what he calls “a classic Mediterranean climate” to work with. The Golan is Israel’s chilliest region, known for its cold, wet winters and warm, dry summers — generally a good recipe for growing wine grapes and quite similar to certain California regions.

It’s hard to object to the Yarden Syrah Galilee 2003 ($28) — this very fruity crowd-pleaser has a touch of peppery spice and a nice mix of strawberry and cherry flavors. But Schoenfeld and company really kick it up a notch with the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee 2003 ($26). Pretty tightly wound and dense, it nicely synthesizes flavors of coffee, cherry, and chocolate.

Yarden’s sister label, produced in a different facility and with a different winemaker, is also a doozy for the price. Galil Mountain Winery Yiron Galilee 2005 ($22), a Bordeaux-style blend, is a dark purple beauty with a lovely edge of smoke and earth. The winemaker’s tasting notes for the wine include “plum jam,” which strikes me as apt, and the soft tannins are a pleasure to swirl around in the mouth.

Certainly the Golan Heights Winery bottlings are further proof that the world of kosher wine has gotten vast and various — and heartening. Passover, which starts tonight, will never be the same.

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.