The New Wave of Luxury California Kosher Wine

Almost certainly, one of the formative tastes in any young Jewish American’s life is the sickly sweet, Concord grapeyness of Manischewitz wine, ritually sipped at a Passover seder. Even for me, a particularly unobservant Jew, this was most certainly my first taste of wine, and remains an indelible, if not particularly pleasant, sense memory. It took many years for me to realize those flavors were not what wine actually tasted like.

For the longest time, the options available for kosher wine in America were extremely limited. Then in the late 70s and early 80s along came Hagafen and Baron Herzog, two wineries unapologetically aiming to raise the bar for kosher wine in California. Both were remarkably successful in doing so. Hagafen’s top efforts, in particular, were excellent wines.

The real revolution in American kosher wine came in 2003 when Jeff Morgan and his business partner Leslie Rudd began the brand Covenant, aiming to make a Napa Cabernet that was first a fine wine, but also happened to be kosher. They began with 500 cases of kosher Cabernet, added a Chardonnay in 2011, and kept growing.

For more than a decade that seemed to be all there was to California kosher wine. But then in the course of a conversation with a Napa winemaker, I heard about someone making another kosher wine in Napa, and I began to dig, which led to the discovery of a whole new wave of kosher wines being made in California. I wrote about this phenomenon for Jancis Robinson in 2021 but I hadn’t yet tasted the wines themselves.

It took me a little while but I recently managed to get my hands on a few of them.

What is Kosher Wine?

Here’s a quick primer for those who may not know what is involved in making a wine kosher. Like all kosher foodstuffs, a wine must first and foremost be certified kosher by an official body, which usually means either the Orthodox Union or the Organized Kashrut Laboratories (aka OK Labs).

In order for a wine to be certified kosher, it must be made, start to finish, by sabbath-observant Jews (shomer shabbat), and not have been intentionally touched or moved by anyone who doesn’t meet that criteria. In practice, this means that from when the grapes are first tipped into a destemmer or a vat to the moment the capsule goes on the bottle, everything must be done by the shomer shabbat. Surprise inspections by the certifying body aren’t uncommon.

Additionally, nothing can be added to the wine that itself is not certified kosher. In practice, this means many kosher winemakers use native yeasts and no additives, though kosher-certified wine yeast is available for those who want to inoculate their fermentations. Also, if kosher winemakers want to make sure their wine is suitable for use at Passover, they need to make sure that no wheat paste is used in the construction of their barrels (it often is, but can be optionally replaced with a non-wheat sealant).

There’s one more aspect to kosher wine that often leads to some confusion, and that is the concept of mevushal versus non-mevushal wine. Mevushal wine remains kosher regardless of who opens and serves the wine, a useful concept in the context of restaurants and other situations outside the home where there is no guarantee that the people serving the wine are observant Jews.

In order for a wine to be mevushal, the finished wine must be effectively pasteurized at a temperature of around 190?F, a process that negatively impacts wine quality in my experience. Much of the early kosher wine made in America was mevushal, leading to the mistaken impression that in order to be kosher wine had to be “boiled” and that kosher wine could never match the quality levels of non-kosher wine.

Most of the time, anyone who is orthodox enough to require truly kosher wine will open and serve the bottle themselves (or can easily arrange to do so). This is why almost every modern kosher wine project opts to preserve the freshness of its flavors and…

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The New Wave of Luxury California Kosher Wine The New Wave of Luxury California Kosher Wine *The New Wave of Luxury California Kosher Wine