Jeff Morgan samples Concord grapes in the Covenant vineyard. (Covenant Wines)
If you remember when kosher wine meant mostly cheap and sweet, you probably also know that the second part is no longer true. Today, there are plenty of quality kosher wines being made around the world.
But did you also know that kosher wine has come so far there now are even super-premium bottles that go for more than $100 a bottle?
"It's absolutely amazing how it's evolved," says Michael K. Bernstein, owner of The Cask in Los Angeles, which sells exclusively kosher wines and spirits. "It's mind-boggling how many different kosher wines there are."
The syrupy kosher wines of the past stemmed mainly from economics. Jewish immigrants to America needed wine, a crucial part of their religious traditions, but didn't have access to high-quality grapes. So they used the Concord grapes that grow in the Northeast, producing wines with an unpleasant character, which was masked by adding sugar.
A number of producers have begun making classic red and white kosher wines. A pioneer in kosher wine was Herzog Wine Cellars in Southern California, which sells a limited edition Generation VIII Cabernet Sauvignon for close to $200. There also is a growing wine industry in Israel.
Making wine kosher isn't particularly hard, says Jeff Morgan, winemaker at Covenant, a winery in the Napa Valley that makes a kosher cabernet sauvignon that goes for $90 a bottle. The ingredients in wine are kosher; the trick is to keep things that way.
The basic requirement for doing that is to make sure that the grape juice and fermented wine is only touched or handled by Sabbath-observant Jews, which is what happens at Covenant, where associate winemaker Jonathan Hajdu is a Sabbath-observant Jew.
Covenant is co-owned by Morgan, his wife Jodie Morgan, and Leslie Rudd, owner of Rudd Vineyards & Winery and chairman of the Dean & Deluca upscale delicatessen chain.
Covenant wines are not "mevushal," a term that means the finished wines have been heated, making it possible for them to be handled by nonobservant Jews and remain kosher. In the old days, that used to mean boiled, which is ruinous to wine. Today winemakers use flash pasteurization.