The kosher wine revolution.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
April 18 2008 7:56 PM

Sure Beats Manischewitz

The revolution in kosher wine.

(Continued from Page 1)

Interestingly, much of the demand for kosher wines these days, and particularly for the high-end ones, seems to be coming from Reform Jews. Although a rejection of kashrut and other traditional practices was one of the cornerstones of Reform Judaism when it emerged in the 19th century, recent years have seen Reform Jews embracing elements of the old-time religion, either fully or episodically (i.e. during Jewish holidays). Twenty-one percent of American Jews keep Kosher now, up from 15 percent in 1992, and much of this growth has come from Reform Jews taking up kashrut. The trend is especially pronounced among younger people. A survey published last year by the Union for Reform Judaism found that Reform Jews under 40 were much more inclined than their elders to adhere to Kosher laws. For instance, only 39 percent of them said they allowed shellfish in their homes, vs. 58 percent of older Reform Jews; for pork, the figures were 29 percent vs. 43 percent. No numbers were provided for kosher wines, but Martin Davidson of the Royal Wine Company believes that the surging demand for better-quality kosher wines (of late, sales have been growing by more than 10 percent annually) is being driven in no small part by Reform Jews.

But as Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi, pointed out in an online response to a kosher-wine feature in Reform Judaism magazine last year, kosher winemaking, as currently practiced, poses a quandary for Reform Jews. Alluding to the fact that Orthodox Jews are in charge of kosher certification and have a much narrower definition of what qualifies someone as Jewish, Jacobs noted that "most Reform Jews would not be considered sufficiently 'sabbath-observant' to qualify 'to come in contact with the wine,' and … those whom the Reform Movement considers Jewish by means of patrilineal descent would not be considered Jewish at all for the purposes of making kosher wine." Yet, as she noted in her article, there has been little discussion of these issues within the Reform movement, which Jacobs found surprising.

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The lack of debate also baffles Rabbi Justin Jaron Lewis, who until last year headed up a Reform congregation in Ontario and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Canada's Queens University. Like Jacobs, Lewis thinks there is something incongruous in having Reform Jews drinking kosher wines certified by an Orthodox establishment that believes many Reform Jews aren't really Jews. Beyond that, he thinks kosher winemaking, as currently practiced, is antithetical to the values Reform Judaism purports to represent. "Reform espouses a universalistic outlook, not this kind of hierarchical separation from the rest of the world," he told me by e-mail last week. When I mentioned the châteaux in Bordeaux now producing kosher cuvées and suggested that this was a win-win situation—the wineries were delighted to find a new audience, that new audience was delighted to be getting good kosher wines—Lewis was unpersuaded: "French winemakers are willing to go along with religious rules that are degrading to them because there's a market for wine made by those rules. That doesn't mean that people who believe in human equality should be part of that market."

Rabbi Richard N. Levy, who is the director of rabbinic studies at the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has sat on two task forces (one of which he chaired) looking into the issue of kosher practices and Reform beliefs. He told me that neither group, both of which are now inactive, took up the issue of wine. Levy readily acknowledged that the ban on gentiles taking part in the winemaking process "offends Reform notions of the trustworthiness of other human beings," as he put it. Levy suggested that one reason for the silence over wine may be that a lot of Reform Jews derive a certain comfort from knowing that kosher wines are the handiwork of fellow Jews—not because they are suspicious of non-Jews, but because they think that having the wines made by people who are spiritually invested in the process adds to their kadusha, or holiness. That said, Levy personally thinks that kosher winemaking is a topic that ought to be addressed by the Reform community. "We should start talking about it," he said.

Not being among the kosher-inclined (I'm not sure yet what I'll be drinking tomorrow night), I haven't got a stake in this issue. But I do find it fascinating, and it is a reminder that wine's complexity is hardly limited to what's in the glass. If you are in the market this Passover for a quality kosher wine, there are a few worth seeking out. From Israel, I very much like Yarden, the premium line from Golan Heights Winery. The 2004 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon ($23) is a toothsome wine and attractively priced. I've also been impressed by Domaine du Castel (the 2004 Domaine du Castel Grand Vin is an excellent Bordeaux blend, albeit an expensive one—it retails for $70) and Barkan Winery. The aforementioned Bordeaux are all fine wines, though they will cost you; the 2003 Malartic-Lagravière, for instance, is $80 a bottle, depending on the store. There's also a terrific kosher Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Domaine Saint Benoît "Laureline" 2005, which at $32 a bottle offers great value in addition to much pleasure. Any of these wines will pair beautifully with the Seder meal and may even prompt yet another question: "Beats the hell out of Manischewitz, doesn't it?"