Kosher wines uncork their premium side

Kosher wines uncork thei

Vintner Ernie Weir wants to make one thing perfectly clear. Yes, his wines are kosher. But first and foremost, they are award-winning Napa Valley wines. "Some people ask about kosher; we explain it to them. Some people don't ask about kosher; we don't explain it to them. It just kind of works. It flows," says Weir, owner with his wife, Irit, of Hagafen Cellars in Napa. Weir came to the Napa Valley 36 years ago - a time when feelings of ethnic pride were surging - with a dream of making a wine that connected with his heritage. Back then, that was a bold move. Kosher wine in America - which for years had been made with Concord grapes that require sweetening to be palatable - was, to put it nicely, a less-than-premium beverage. Today, things are different. "There are fantastic wines from California, New Zealand, Israel," says Aron Ritter, who started the Kosher Wine Society in New York four years ago after realizing "there was nothing out there for a kosher consumer." It may not have the high profile of the Italian or French industries, but wine-making has been an integral part of Jewish culture and ritual for centuries. Making a wine kosher isn't complicated. "People always ask me the question: 'What makes wine kosher?'" says Joseph Herzog, partner and general manager of Herzog Wine Cellars in Southern California, a major producer and importer of kosher wines. "I tell people this: 'Really, wine is kosher. You've just got to keep it kosher. It's crushed grapes fermented. There's nothing nonkosher about it.'" Requirements for keeping wine kosher include not working on Shabbat and making sure that, at critical points, the wine is handled only by shomer-Shabbat Jews who strictly observe kosher dietary laws. Ingredients also must be certified by a regulating body, such as the Orthodox Union of New York. Most of the ingredients that go into wine are no problem, but some animal-based products are ruled out, such as gelatin, sometimes used as a fining agent to assist in filtering the wine. Modern technology has solved another problem of kosher wine, which needs to be heated when it's going to be used in certain settings, such as when it might be poured by waiters who are not observant Jews. That used to mean almost boiling the wine - not a good idea. But flash pasteurization, often used before the juice ferments and done in less than a minute, does not harm the wine, Weir says. Wine doesn't play a big part in Hanukka. Still, that doesn't mean you can't look for something light to go with the traditional foods - latkes with sour cream, latkes with apple sauce, and sufganiot. "You need wines that are really nice and balanced," says Weir. "Often times wines with high acidity go really well." So, a sparkling wine is a nice match for the doughnuts, and a sauvignon blanc, riesling or pinot noir - depending on whether meat is served and what kind - balances the latkes. Ritter regularly holds tasting events and likes to come up with pairing suggestions for traditional foods. For Hanukka, he says, "you can never go wrong with a nice sauvignon blanc with some latkes." Weir makes all the familiar varietals of the Napa Valley as well as some wines that are a little less familiar, including roussanne, a white wine that blends the tart freshness of a sauvignon blanc with the richness of a chardonnay. For years, he made only dry wines, afraid to play into the old stereotype of sweet and cheap. But with a few decades of experience under his belt, that's changed and he now makes dessert wines when the late-harvest fruit required for it is available. "I have enough confidence to make sweet wines," he says with a smile.