Heresy

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*Back by popular demand, the following is a re-post of my research into the truth behind kosher wine. Originally written in 2007 as one of my first wine related pieces, I enjoy updating it every so often around the Jewish holidays and sharing with new friends. Chag Sameach!

Last night, Wifey, Little Dude, and I took part in a lovely Passover seder here in San Diego. (Well, Wifey and I participated; we stashed the little guy in a vacant bedroom and blasted the white noise machine as loud as my iphone could go.) Amidst the matzoh balls, gefilte fish, and talk of freedom, the subject of wine came up – after all, tradition obligates us to to consume four glasses each as part of the passover meal. And who are we kidding; wine almost always enters the conversation when I’m around. In this particular setting, somebody inevitably asks: what’s up with kosher vino?

Every spring as Passover approaches – and also in the autumn around Rosh Hashonah – wine shops begin to set aside a bit of extra shelf space for products that have been certified Kosher. Perhaps in an attempt to balance out the ridiculous amount of bacon consumed by Jews in this country, even those of us who do not normally play by the rules seem to feel the need to “go Kosher” on the holidays.

For years my father and I would prepare ourselves for our twice annual pre-holiday showdown: do we drink my favorite new rosé with our chicken soup, or the pasteurized Merlot that appeases his sense of Jewish guilt? I couldn’t help but wonder – what is it that makes wine Kosher? I mean, we’re talking about an agricultural product here. Do you know many secular Jews who go out the week before Pesach on a quest to track down some Kosher OJ? (Tropicana is certified Kosher, incidentally, but I’ve never seen it marketed as such.) You mean to tell me that this bottle of dry-farmed, organic Grenache somehow contains bacon bits? Were both milk and meat blended into that Beaujolais?

Although there was a time when bull’s blood was commonly used as a fining agent, these days none of the ingredients that usually go into wine are directly non Kosher (or even potentially so). So what gives? Over the years of talking to winemakers – as well as to relatives who are more observant than Julia and I – I’ve gained a bit of knowledge on the subject. And while I’m certainly no student of religion and may be prone to hyperbole, I decided to look into the matter further in an effort to end our family squabbles once and for all. I hope not to offend any of you who truly do observe the laws of Kashrut in their lives, but perhaps for some of the fence-sitters out there, this will set your minds at rest. (Bibliographical note: what I didn’t already know here was mostly gleaned from Wikipedia and JewFAQ.org.)

You see, as it turns out, grape products hold a unique place in the Kosher world: other than certain vegetables which require certification that they have been properly checked for insects, grape derivatives represent the ONE agricultural category that is not Kosher by default. Contrary to what one might assume, this has nothing to do with how they are made, and everything to do with who is making them – even who is serving them.

Despite the place that wine has in many Jewish observances (such as the aforementioned four cups at the seder table) the fact that it was also used for pagan rituals apparently made many of my ancestors deeply uncomfortable. In an effort to distinguish one kind of wine from the other, they decided that the simplest course was draw a line based on who picked the grapes and made the wine. Thus, Jewish-made vino was “Kosher” by default; that touched by pagan hands was as traif (non-kosher) as pork.

Now, disregarding for a moment how little this distinction may be relevant in my (more-or-less secular American) lifestyle, let’s assume for a moment that you more closely observe Kashrut and it’s more relevant in yours. So we’ll take this one step further: what happens when a Kosher wine is served by a non-Jewish sommelier? (And anyway, how is this avoidable? Can’t a restaurant get sued for discrimination for hiring only Jews?) The answer presents a nice Catch 22 to Jewish wine lovers: unless it’s “Mevushal” – meaning it has been pasteurized – the wine in this scenario becomes immediately un-Kosher. Sadly, to my palate at least, pasteurizing wine strips it of a great deal of its character and idiosyncrasies.

You’ll have to decide for yourself what your priorities are. I just tell it like it is.

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