By Deborah Fineblum/JNS.org
Even the most finicky wine snob won’t be able to “pass over” the new generation of kosher wines. Increasingly, the current mindset is that since Jews are commanded to drink four cups of wine at the Passover seder, they might as well drink high-quality wine in the process.
The last decade has witnessed a veritable explosion of high-quality kosher wines, a far cry from the heavy, sweet and vaguely medicinal wines that graced the seder tables of yesteryear.
“These days there are so many different kosher wines out there that even Trader Joe’s sells them, and you know what? They’re not bad,” says Arlene Mathes-Scharf, speaking with JNS.org at the time of year when her email is humming, her phone is ringing off the hook and her website — kashrut.com — is getting countless hits from consumers who find themselves in Passover-related food and wine quandaries.
Indeed, industry insiders report that for more than a decade, the variety and quality of kosher wine has been on the rise, matching customers’ tastes and demands.
“Today’s Jewish consumer is more sophisticated and discerning, and not satisfied with sacramental wine,” says Jay Buchsbaum, a vice president at the New Jersey-based Royal Wine Corporation. “They have more disposable income and they’re willing to spend a little more for a good wine. They’re not willing to settle.”
In addition to kosher wine industry giants such as Carmel from Israel, Baron Herzog from California and Bartenura from Italy, many smaller European boutique wineries are securing kosher certification for a segment of their wines.
“They like that there’s a ready market for better kosher wine today,” Buchsbaum says. “They know that the moment the grapes are crushed, the wine has already been bought.”
Why is Passover high season for kosher wine?
The demand for kosher wine also makes a steep climb around the time of Passover, the widely celebrated Jewish holiday that often attracts a mix of family members and friends with varying needs at the same seder table. In such scenarios, even those who don’t keep kosher laws might purchase kosher wines. “It’s safer that way,” says Buchsbaum.
It’s no wonder, then, that 40 percent of all kosher wine is sold in the months leading up to Passover.
“If you estimate that a seder has 18 adults who each drink four cups, that adds up. There’s a lot of wine coming in the door,” says Israeli wine blogger and columnist David Rhodes, who runs the “Drink Israel” Facebook page.
Since seder participants drink so much wine at the traditional gathering — much of it on a relatively empty stomach — before the meal, it’s important to supply wine that won’t make them too drunk to appreciate the message of the seder, warns California-based kosher wine critic and blogger David Raccah, who runs kosherwinemusings.com.
“That’s why it’s the worst time to try ‘bombastic,’ high-alcohol wines,” Raccah says. “You’ll want to stick to light wines like Via Sparkling, preferably under 10 percent alcohol, that won’t land you flat on your back by the time the food is served.”
Israeli Wines: The ‘Hottest Trend’
When they’re combing the supermarket shelves this time of year, many consumers reach for wines from Israel, which exports some 1.5 million bottles to the U.S. each year.
“Not only is Israel the place that the story of Passover is about — wine is mentioned over 70 times in the Torah — but buying Israeli is a chance to support Israel and Israelis,” says Rhodes, who adds that vineyards are an efficient way to use the Jewish state’s land since grapes are both a low-water and high-profit crop.
“You can get upscale French and Italian kosher wines along with California ones, but the hottest trend is the Israeli wines,” says Royal Wine’s Buchsbaum.
According to Rhodes, Israel’s expanding high-quality wine market took off in 1983, when Golan Heights Winery (under its Yarden label) opened its doors. These days, Israeli wines are bringing home prizes from international competitions. “And 2016 was a very good year for Israeli wine,” notes Rhodes. Eran Pick of Tzora Winery was recently named Israel’s first-ever accredited “Master of Wine,” and a story on Israeli wines was featured on the cover of the October 2016 issue of the popular Wine Spectator magazine. The same magazine’s 2016 list of the world’s Top 100 wines included two from Israel, selections from the Tzora and Galil Mountain wineries.
“We’re only the 36th wine producer in the world in terms of size. We produce 1/400th of the French output, a drop in the barrel. But our recognition is growing geometrically,” Rhodes says.
Raccah says that the Israeli market is still somewhat bifurcated between the religious Jews “who just want to make kiddush (the blessing on wine for Shabbat and holiday meals)” and the more yuppified Tel Aviv market “that demands excellent boutique wines whether for home or to order in restaurants.”
But Rhodes says he is optimistic that the two market sectors can coexist, “since Israel is increasingly able to produce kosher wines that are religiously proper while still pleasing a more refined palate.”
“You don’t have to compromise anymore,” Buchsbaum adds. “You can buy kosher, support Israel and still enjoy wonderful wines.”
What may be the ultimate affirmation for the growing field of top-flight kosher wine is the following sentiment that Buchsbaum says he has heard hundreds of times from consumers: “I’m not really kosher, but I had to bring something nice to a seder once and I’ve been drinking that wine ever since.”
“Look at it this way,” Buchsbaum says. “The largest-selling Moscato (an Italian sparkling wine) in the world is a kosher wine by Bartenura that sells 5 million bottles annually. Most of those customers aren’t even Jewish. They just like the wine.”
SIDEBAR: Picking a Kosher Wine
Ahead of Passover, industry experts Jay Buchsbaum, Arlene Mathes-Scharf, David Raccah and David Rhodes convey the following advice to kosher wine consumers:
Take it from the pros. Try to buy from a wine store that specializes in customer care, with a wide selection of kosher wines and knowledgeable staffers.
Check your labels. Although most kosher wines are marked KP (kosher for Passover), there is the occasional kosher wine that isn’t approved for the holiday, including some fruity sangrias.
Avoid inebriation. Since most of the ceremonial four cups of wine are consumed on a relatively empty stomach in the first hour of the seder, you’ll want to buy wines with an alcohol content of under 10 percent.
Drink up year-round! The more varieties you sample, the better your palette will evolve, and eventually you’ll start to taste the different between high-quality and low-quality wine. Go to local wine events or get together with friends for wine tastings.
Don’t break the bank. You can get some very good wines in the $15-$20 range. Spending any more than that doesn’t guarantee that you’re getting a vastly superior wine.
Be ready for special cases. Prepare for guests who have sulfate allergies (symptoms like headaches can surface as additional cups are consumed at the seder). Have at least one bottle of kosher for Passover organic sulfate-free juice or wine on hand, just in case.