Kosher Wine

In preparation for drinking four cups of wine at next week’s Passover seders, Jewish News recently talked with Jay Buchsbaum, vice president of marketing and director of wine education for the Royal Wine Corp./Kedem, and asked him a few questions about kosher wine. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

What makes a wine kosher? Let me tell what doesn’t make a wine kosher: It’s not blessed by a rabbi.

That’s one of the biggest myths around. What makes a wine kosher, strictly speaking, is that from the time of the crushing of the grape to the sealing of the bottle, it is handled by an observant Jewish person – man or woman. (In addition from the Kedem website, “In order for wine to be kosher it must adhere to the following: Each and every ingredient added, whether in filtration or clarification along the vinification process, must be kosher. All tools and equipment must be dedicated to kosher wine-making alone.”)

How do you think that got so misrepresented? Most other kosher things like meat, for example, are in fact, slaughtered by a rabbi according to tradition and there is a blessing made over it at the time of the slaughtering. Because wine is so much a part of Jewish rites of passage, Jewish theology and Jewish events, they figured, “Oh, the rabbis must be involved in this one, too.” 

Why is it necessary to have a rabbi or an observant Jew oversee or handle wine-making from the crushing of the grape to the bottling? The rabbinic authorities are there to keep blessing out of the wine, to keep the wine spiritually neutral because during pagan times, all wines handled by pagans were actually blessed by pagans for their gods – Bacchus, Zeus and Dionysius. 

Rabbis seeing this said, “We don’t want wine that has already been blessed or tainted spiritually to be used at our weddings and bar mitzvahs ...” so they came up with this concept – “We’ll make sure blessings are kept out of the wine.” Whether you’re Jewish or not, whether you’re observant or not, it’s you that makes the wine special. When it comes to you, it’s neutral, both physically and spiritually. 

How did kosher wine get the reputation for being subpar? When Jews, in large numbers, came to this country, they settled on the East Coast of the United States. In every sacramental rite, Jews use wine and the only wine they could get was local wine. Wine that was grown, so to speak, on the East Coast, was made from what was called the Labrusca varietal and that grape is very low in sugar and very high in acid. When made into wine, it’s really difficult to drink, so they had to add sugar to make it palatable. That’s where it got the reputation. 

How does the kosher wine industry try to overcome that reputation? The way to overcome that reputation today is to make damn great kosher wine that will score well, that will represent a good value and that will blow consumers’ taste buds away. That’s what we’re attempting to do and we’re succeeding most of the time. Like in the regular wine industry, there are very good kosher wines and from time to time, there are not such good ones. But most of the time, they’re either good or really great. In fact, to overcome it, we have to kind of over-deliver on expectations so that people can say, “Oh wait a minute. This is kosher?” And that’s what we’re trying to do. 

Do kosher wine sales spike at Passover? Yes, they spike tremendously, but as much as they spike at Passover, there was a time not even 20 years ago, that Passover sales represented 60 percent of all kosher wine sales. 

Today, even though it’s an enormous spike, it only represents 40 percent, which means sales haven’t gone down, it’s that the percentage of sales during the rest of the year have grown so much because the wines have become so good. People are now enjoying these not only for event-related consumption, but also for Tuesday night hamburgers and Wednesday night spaghetti and Friday night dinner besides Kiddush.

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