In case you haven't heard the news, kosher wines don't suck anymore. Good ones are being made in Israel and in a number of other places, too, notably Bordeaux. For oenophilic Jews still struggling to get the taste of Manischewitz out of their mouths, this is truly an answered prayer; keeping the faith no longer requires smiting the palate. Passover begins tomorrow night, and these new and improved kosher wines will be gracing many Seder tables. But as the celebrants recite the Four Questions, some of their co-religionists think they might also consider a fifth: Are the laws governing kosher winemaking due for an overhaul?
The great leap forward in kosher winemaking can be credited to several developments, not least the blossoming of the Israeli wine industry. With its hilly terrain and Mediterranean climate, Israel has long been recognized for its viticultural promise. Over the last two decades, a number of wineries have been established in the Golan Heights, the Upper Galilee, and the Judean Hills, the three areas believed to offer the best combination of soil and sun. The results have been encouraging, a point that was reinforced recently when Robert Parker's Wine Advocate awarded 14 Israeli wines scores of 90 or above.
At the same time, winemakers in other countries have discovered that catering to kosher wine drinkers is a shrewd way to distinguish one's wares in a crowded marketplace. Quaffable kosher wines are now being made in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Argentina, and Chile. In France, several leading Bordeaux châteaux—Léoville Poyferré, Pontet-Canet, Smith Haut Lafitte, Giscours, and Malartic-Lagravière—have all turned out kosher versions of their wines in recent years. So, too, has Château de Valandraud, the Right Bank estate that is at the forefront of Bordeaux's garage wine movement (the garagistes are recently established wineries making small quantities of very lush, oaky wines that some critics love and others abhor). It doesn't get more à la mode than that.
But these chateaux didn't actually make their kosher cuvées; the vinification was done instead by employees of the New Jersey-based Royal Wine Company, the largest importer of kosher wines in the United States. Royal keeps a team of about three dozen Jewish vintners in Europe; they shuttle back and forth among wineries performing all the cellar duties required to produce kosher bottlings. In each case, the goal is to craft a kosher wine that perfectly mimics the non-kosher version. The resident winemaker provides direction but is not permitted to touch the kosher wine or any of the equipment used to make it.
That's because kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws, stipulate that kosher wines can be vinified only by Sabbath-observing Jews. This restriction dates back to antiquity; wine was customarily used in pagan rituals, and because Jews also used wine sacramentally and Judaism forbade idolatry, rabbinical authorities decreed that Jews could drink only wine made by other Jews. (The part about Sabbath-observing Jews was added in the Middle Ages.) Before the wine could be consumed, it also had to be boiled, in a purification rite called mevushal, to ensure that it would remain kosher even if subsequently handled by a non-Jew. This was also done to make the wine unpalatable to gentiles (cooking wine kills its flavors) so they wouldn't be tempted to use it for their religious ceremonies. Another, later rationale for mevushal: By making the wine taste so bad, it decreased the likelihood gentiles would want to socialize with Jews (and thus the likelihood that nights of interfaith boozing would lead to nights of interfaith passion and all that might follow).
These days, there aren't many pagans around, and while intermarriage is an issue, it is generally agreed that wine is pretty far down the list of contributing factors. So why is kosher winemaking still off-limits to non-Jews? Such strictures are no longer in place for most kosher preparations (butchering is the only other major exception). For instance, the requirement that Kosher bread be produced only by Jews was dropped long ago; nowadays, so long as the ingredients are deemed suitable and the bread is made under kosher supervision, it can be produced by non-Jews and still considered kosher. With wine, there has been some tinkering at the margins—mevushal is no longer required (many of the better kosher wines go without) and flash pasteurization rather than boiling is now the preferred method—but the ban on non-Jewish participation remains. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who teaches at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and is one of Conservative Judaism's leading authorities on Jewish law, says that his research has turned up no explanation for why this edict has gone unchanged. Dorff, who believes that gentiles should be allowed to make kosher wines, thinks it's just a case of old habits persisting. "Something starts for a good purpose, the purpose gets lost in time, and we end up with ritual," he says.