One of the darkest memories, still a lump in my throat, of my generally bright and careless Eastern-European childhood is a story about the black volga.
In the 70’s the Black Volga was after small boys. According to well informed second- and third-graders, a dark Russian limousine driven by Orthodox Jews will stop at the playground and all naughty kindergartners will be kidnapped. Then they will be turned into matzah, a bread Jews bake for Passover.
The striking absurdity of this children’s horror story helps swallow the bitter truth. The knowledge the average Christian has about the Jews, our elder brothers, is a mixed bag of jokes and a few more-or-less ludicrous urban legends. There is not much difference when non-Jews come across kashrut, the ethical norms ruling what Jews can or cannot eat or drink. No matter what the urban legends may insinuate though, it is rather the wine, not the poor Catholic boys, that have special place in the Jewish diet.
I Drink, Because I Believe
In the Jewish tradition, wine is more than just a beverage of choice. Paraphrasing the Pascal’s Wager argument, you’re better off drinking it than suffering the consequences of remaining abstinent. A kiddush, the blessing over a glass of the holy beverage, wine, remains from centuries an integral part of many religious ceremonies. There are even some Jewish festivals where the wine plays first fiddler.
During the Seder, for example, which begins the Passover celebration, Jews drink four glasses of wine to celebrate their freedom from Egyptian slavery. Why four glasses? There are scholars who talk about the four terms God used when promised to free the Jews from their bondage. Others mention that the four glasses symbolize the freedom from the four exiles which the chosen nation has suffered. Yet others see the four glasses as a metaphor of the liberation from the four decrees of the Pharaoh.
In any case, it seems that four glasses of wine may not be enough when the celebration of Purim, the Jewish carnival, starts. The wine in Purim is not mere a symbol anymore, it becomes functional. According to the Talmud, the primary source of the religious law of Judaism, a devout Jew shall drink at Purim so much wine so to find it very difficult at the end to get his tongue around the difference between words Haman and Mordecai. Anyway, notwithstanding whether one keeps counting or is just about to lose the count, each glass of wine he drinks must be kosher.
Kosher? What does it mean?
Kosher wine doesn’t have to originate from Israel and it is not transformed into kosher by a prayer. On the contrary, it is the kosher wine that makes the blessing possible and a prayer accurate.
In accordance with the Jewish dietary laws, kosher food and kosher wine are simply those proper to eat and drink, but the wine is subject to special rules that do not apply to any other kosher food. Kosher wine must be processed and bottled by a Sabbath-observant Jew, a man. That said, in the Jewish-Orthodox wine world such thing as a woman-winemaker doesn’t exist.
The production line and the equipment should be used exclusively for production of kosher wine. No artificial coloring or preservatives or any by-products of animal origin can be used at any stage of the production (yes, all kosher wines are vegan-friendly). In addition, all additives used in the production, such as yeasts and filtering agents, must be kosher certified. And, because religion’s uses are often different from religion itself, the production of kosher wine has to have a reliable Rabbinical supervision.
On the top of that, there is a special etiquette for serving kosher wine, which proves the old wisdom that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. According to the kashrut, wine poured by a non-Jew or wine in a bottle that has been opened by a non-Jew is simply no longer kosher. This can really make sharing a glass of kosher wine a difficult mission. Fortunately, things turn out to be considerably simpler.
The Shortcut, or Mevushal
Over 80% of the kosher wines sold worldwide are those which are heated to near boiling, the so called “cooked” wines or, in Hebrew, mevushal. Mevushal wines are marked as such somewhere on the bottle and are a proper choice every Jew, even Orthodox, can accept. There is a bit of spirituality and a vast dose of pragmatism behind this process, as cooking it makes the wine useless for other religions. Some may say also that it makes wine worthless to any conventional wine drinker too. The fact is that for years Judaism has been treating wine as a religious symbol, and because of that, the taste of the “matter,” didn’t matter much.
For centuries the social status of the Jewish people in exile have presented them with a real oenological puzzle. For ages they were not permitted to own land and did not have the opportunity to become farmers and, consequently, winegrowers or winemakers. That is why mevushal wines have been serving well all the Jewish Diaspora and their introduction made each and every kiddush possible. All what really was needed at that point was a kosher pot and some wine, any wine.
Things have certainly changed since the mevushal got a contemporary interpretation. In modern times, when commercial production of kosher wines became a flourishing business, the mevushal process was toned down to require heating the wine to only 90 C (194 F). The orthodox wine didn’t want to be a synonym of unorthodox taste anymore.
New Definition of Kosher-ness
When flash pasteurization was invented, it enabled mevushal wine to wear its kosher status lightly. During this process (practiced by non-kosher winemakers too) the wine or the grape juice is quickly brought up to 180 F, kept at this temperature for up to 20 seconds and rapidly cooled down to 40-50 F. The sensorial evaluation conducted by UC Davis has shown that flash pasteurization doesn’t affect the color, the aroma or the taste of the wine. Despite the inspiring evidence not everyone is yet thrilled. Most wine drinkers roll their eyes and mutter into the glass that talking about quality in kosher wine is a waste of breath. No doubt, there is a little argument over the need to enliven the Manischevitz and the others alike.
The way forward seems to be clear, at least for Jeff Morgan. Mr. Morgan, a journalist, wine educator and winemaker, simply wants to produce the finest Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. He brings to the wine table a new covenant – I will make the best ever kosher Cab and you should try it, no matter whether you keep kosher or not. It seems less like a plan that an aspiration until you actually taste a glass of his Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is excellent and may easily fit any palette. It is also kosher, which doesn’t hurt at all. As we are no longer kindergartners and have learnt that all wines, kosher or not, are either bad or good. A simple truth which we better always remember.
– Jaroslaw Lewandowski