Kosher Wine: Finally Catching Up with the Food

How kosher wine is shedding its bad reputation.

Yarden wines

Kosher meats have long enjoyed a reputation with food shoppers as being of exceptionally high quality. Now kosher wine is becoming worthy of the same stature.

Here’s why: It’s all about the winemaker and the quality of the raw materials, not the process. And winemakers are finally getting it.

So why has there been the centuries-old reputation, mostly richly deserved, that sophisticated palates find kosher wine too sweet and undrinkable? I’m neither Jewish nor religious, but I spent some time in Israel not long ago drinking wine — almost all kosher — and talking to local winemakers.

“The Levantine is the cradle of winemaking,” says British-born Adam Montefiore, who, as head of Carmel Winery, became the face of premium Israeli winemaking to the world. Winemaking had died in the region and most wine grapevines were destroyed during the various Ottoman occupations that ruled the area for centuries. “Now, we’ve come back to be being modern winemakers,” Montefiore says. He also brings up the irony of the kosher designation being positive for food in America but, understandably until recently, not for wine.

According to several winemakers I talked with, another impediment was that Jewish culture in the Mediterranean has not been one that regularly imbibes in alcoholic beverages. But now the wine culture — and with it excellent kosher wine — has spread widely over Israel in the past 25 years with the founding of literally dozens of good to excellent wineries. Geographic names that have special religious meanings — the Galilee, Jerusalem Hills, even Armaggedon (Megiddo in Hebrew) — are now wine-growing areas. Some of the better Israeli wines found in the U.S. include Recanati, Yarden, Galil Mountain, Barkan, Carmel, Binyamina, Flam, Tulip, Castel, Saslove, and Psagot.

While many if not the majority of Israel's winemakers are secular Jews, most are nevertheless comfortable making religious or kosher wines. Kosher wine has to be under the aegis of a rabbi — who is usually at some distance — but practically it means that the people who touch the wine have to be Sabbath-observing men. But they do so under the instruction of the winemaker, so essentially it is an easy process with nothing significantly different about the product.

The exception is meshuval wine, which is the only kosher wine that can be served by a Gentile, such as a waiter, to an orthodox Jew. Traditionally, the wine had to be boiled, but in recent years flash pasteurization has taken its place. Does pasteurization affect the wine? If you believe wine is a living organism, you have your answer.

But very good kosher wine is not just made in Israel. In fact, some of the best is made in France, the United States, and South America. Most wine stores carry a selection of kosher wines, some in specially marked sections, but usually it is shelved in with other wines. Whether kosher wines come from Israel or elsewhere, not all producers put the word “kosher” on the front label of the wines. Most will have a “U” inside a circle on the back label, denoting the Orthodox Union, and some will have an encircled “K” for a kosher certification agency. A “P” means kosher for Passover.

But, to paraphrase the old commercial, increasingly these days “you don’t have to be Jewish to love drinking kosher.”