The Economic Origins of the Kosher Wine Conundrum

Wine Economist reader Rob Meltzer has been searching for drinkable kosher wines (and trying to understand why he wasn’t finding them)  and he has been kind enough to share his observations with me along the way. I found his methods rigorous and his analysis fascinating, so I asked him to summarize his research for publication here. Thanks to Rob for sharing his results with other Wine Economist readers!

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During the past year or so, I’ve tasted nearly 90 kosher wines priced between $20-$120 from the United States, Italy, Spain, Chile and Israel. My goal has not been to find the best kosher wines, but rather to determine whether kosher wines exist which could replace non-kosher fine wines in my cellar. From my days living in Northern California, I retain my passion for California reds, but I would prefer to keep exclusively kosher wines. Equally, I wanted to determine which kosher wines I could, with clear conscience, serve to guests in my home.

There are two primary determinants of kosher wines. First, the winemaker must be Jewish. Second, all kosher wines that are served in restaurants and catered events must be “mevushal,” which means that the wine has been boiled before being bottled. If you look at a bottle of kosher wine, you will see “mevushal” specifically referenced. Fine kosher wines exclusive for home consumption can be “non-mevushal.” The “P” next to the kosher symbol denotes that the wine may also be consumed during Passover.

The Search

The methodology of comparison was this: first, my friends and I tasted kosher wines within specific grape types to find the best within each category of grape for red and white. Most of the tastings were “blind.” Food pairings were always the same and the food was always kosher. The “best” kosher wine in each category was then compared to a non-kosher wine in the same category. By way of example, we tasted about ten kosher sauvignon blanc wines from various countries and in various price levels, and determined that Covenant’s 2012 Red C was really most drinkable.  Curiously, both the Red C and the runner-up were non-mevushal. (Red C seems to be going for a “hip” level of quasi-kosher; the label read “non-mev” instead of the usual “non-mevushal” statement.)

Red C was then compared to Honig’s Napa Valley 2012 Sauvignon Blanc. However, as drinkable as Red C was, it also did not compare well with the Honig, or other sauvignon blancs we tasted that day. (The tasting also included Domaine Serge Laloue Sancerre (France), Cloudy Bay (New Zealand) and Buitenverwachting (South Africa). The Chilean sauvignon blanc we tasted was so unremarkable it didn’t even make it to the tasting notes.

I also went to a number of public wine tastings of kosher wines. I quickly grew tired of having sub-standard product shoved at me, while the philanthropic donors who sponsored most of these events for charity rolled their eyes in ecstasy over glasses of brownish sludgy merlot at $120/bottle that would never be confused with a 2007 Duckhorn.

Failure and Success

I never did find a kosher red wine that seemed satisfactory in terms of both quality and price for the quality received. We had particularly poor luck with Israeli maker Barkan. Its Cabernet Sauvignon was an entirely undrinkable product. We tried everything from allowing it to breathe uncorked, to decanting, to the magical blender-aeration method, without any success. In fact, several of my tasters told me that Barkan normally tastes like that, and they couldn’t understand my complaint. If they are to be believed, they were regularly drinking something without complaint that tasted like vinegar. Poor quality vinegar, at that.

The best whites were non-mevushal. For what it’s worth, if I were interested in stocking only kosher wines, I wouldn’t buy non-mevushal wines, leading some to question the inclusion of non-mevushal wines in this survey. Surprisingly, the mevushal white table wines which scored consistently high in terms of quality and price-appropriateness came from Italian wine maker Bartenura.  Bartenura wines aren’t great, and they won’t be replacing my Napa and Sonoma bottles any time soon. Nonetheless, since they aren’t expensive, they could easily fill out the low end of the cellar quite nicely as a sort of kosher two-buck Chuck. Several of the Spanish cavas were equally good (try En Fuego, as an example of a drinkable Spanish Cava).

An Economic Vicious Cycle

I have several observations from all this. First, boiling wine is never going to be good for the product. Red wines seem particularly vulnerable to damage. The best reds and the best whites were not boiled. Second, the hindrance to a good kosher wine industry seems to be a marketing and economics problem; the percentage of people who drink kosher wines exclusively is very, very small. If you don’t or haven’t compared kosher wines to non-kosher fine wines, you probably don’t know what you are missing and you are unlikely to demand better product. Third, since the available offerings are small, people who really want kosher wine will buy and drink what is offered. Many times, the pricier red wines were found improperly racked at wine stores, and covered with dust. I suspect that the combination of wine-making methods and poor or improper storage explains the poor table experience. I’m also assuming that the boiling precludes proper aging after bottling.

One of the challenges being confronted by kosher wine makers is to find a way to make kosher wines mevushal by some other acceptable heating method that does not damage the wine. While I think this will ultimately solve the problem, the real issue is one of economics. Rather than make a wine that will satisfy the very small market of kosher wine drinkers, the wineries should focus on making fine wines for the broader market, while incidentally achieving the kosher designation. Just as kosher food products are mixed in to the non-kosher product at supermarkets, the day needs to come when Red C is found in the California whites section, not a kosher section. If you don’t keep kosher, you don’t go to that aisle and you would never see or try the product. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t keep kosher who heads to the kosher wine section first. Enlarging the market should naturally create the capital necessary for experimentation of new methods. There is no reason why a kosher wine should not be outstanding. While the industry is moving toward that grail, it’s not there yet.

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18 responses

  1. Part of the problem with the short spans of blog pages. The wines are boiled before being bottled. One of the fascinating methods being tested is “flash pasteurization” which super heats the wine. There is quite a debate within the rabbinic community whether the requirement is “boiling” or “heating.” In other words, there wasn’t a hebrew word for flash pasteurization three thousand years ago, but everyone knew how to boil, so…. One kosher winemaker told me that some of the wines listed as non-mevushal have actually gone through flash pasteurization, but the method was not accepted by the rabbinic authorities. So the answer may be that flash pasteurization heats the wine but doesn’t boil it, technically, so it has not been accepted. I find that all the mevushal wines have a funny aftertaste that i don’t find in non-kosher wines, but i have not been able to source it. Boiling? bad storage? But it ruins the tasting experience either way.

    • The only questions of relevance in bishul of wine is temperature at which it is performed, and whether it is a closed system (allowing no evaporation into the surrounding air) or an open system (with a very small valve open after the hot medium heat exchanger to allow some tiny amount of evaporation before cooling. In no case, typically, is actual boiling performed. No hashgachas require actual boiling to be achieved. It is merely required to reach a specific temperature. There are differnet shittas as to what is the minimum temperature for the status to be changed from non-mevushal (not thermally processed to the required temperature) or mevushal. The KAJ is one of the few hashgachas requiring an open system. The Tzelemer Rav required an elevated temperature, still under the typical boiling point of most wine at sea level. I have heard of some rabbis requiring actual boiling. I have never met one, nor are they associated with hashgacha. In their case, the idea is to have a decrease in quality, so as to discourage the wine’s use in socializing between Jews and nonJews. I’m certain that purpose would be achieved

  2. Mike–

    Could you please put me in touch with Rob Meltzer?  I am a professional broker in Los Angeles, and part of my portfolio is a line of kosher wine from South Africa, Backsberg Estate Cellars.  His research in this region (and France) was lacking, and that’s understandable given the lack of distribution of SA wine. 

    It was a very good article, but needed some modification and amplification.  Mevushal wine is not “boiled” but flash pasteurized for not much more than one second when it is immediately cooled back to room temperature.  This technique is used to sterilize many other wines.  I do agree that it is still not an optimal technique.

    There are so many work-arounds in certifying anything as kosher that this deserves further coverage, as well as the reasons for the traditional (but not biblical) rules are fascinating and may contain the key to better marketing and production techniques.

    There are also many “political” as well as demographic issues to be discussed.  The kosher food market is rising extremely fast (as is the number of Jews adopting the more Orthodox traditions of kosher food and they have large numbers of children per family).  When he mentions raising capital by making finer non-kosher wine or getting kosher wine placed in regular wine departments, he misses the fastest source of capital available as rapidly growing numbers of new buyers already want to buy this kind of product. 

    As an economist, I am sure you will recognize the paradigm of old marketing techniques not serving the new demographics.

      I appreciate your opening up a friendly dialog with Rob and myself.  It’s fascinating that he took on such a study and I would look forward to collaborating with him, and you, on understanding and encouraging this emerging niche in the world of wine.

    Best,

    Jim Ruxin Village Wine of Brentwood Representing Fine Cellars +1 310-471-7372 office +1 310-617-7372 mobile

    >________________________________ > From: The Wine Economist >To: jimruxin@yahoo.com >Sent: Thursday, October 17, 2013 5:16 AM >Subject: [New post] The Economic Origins of the Kosher Wine Conundrum > > > > WordPress.com >Mike Veseth posted: “Wine Economist reader Rob Meltzer has been searching for drinkable kosher wines (and trying to understand why he wasn’t finding them)  and he has been kind enough to share his observations with me along the way. I found his methods rigorous and his analys” >

  3. Mike, this is extremely, extremely strange article. First of all, I don’t know who is still boiling the kosher wines – to the best of my knowledge, the wines are going through the flash pasteurization. And now, there are so many amazing, stunning kosher wines coming from Israel ( Flan, Vitkin, Lewinsohn, Chateau du Castel and hundreds of others) which are simply world class wines, perfectly ageable, plus there are excellent kosher wines made all over the world – this is really a surprising article in 2013. I would probably understand it 10 yeras ago – but today, it really only misinforms people.

  4. Rob states, “For what it’s worth, if I were interested in stocking only kosher wines, I wouldn’t buy non-mevushal wines, leading some to question the inclusion of non-mevushal wines in this survey.” I do not understand this statement as rational. He recognizes that nonmevushal, he currently drinks nonkosher wine that is not thermally processed, and yet he would only purchase thermally processed kosher wine if he were to convert his cellar to kosher-only. That’s analogous to saying he recognizes that canned green beans have inferior sensory attributes compared to fresh, yet insisting that he would only purchase canned green beans, even after acknowledging the superiority of fresh. Obviously, this is a philosophical decision, one I cannot understand.

    As the winemaker for one of the most successful wines produced in the USA (GAN EDEN 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon), one that, it turns out, was certified kosher, and as the winemaker for many wines successful in competition at a time when competition results were considered indicative of quality and were relevant, I know many fine wines past and present which are certified kosher (and kosher for Passover). I also recognize that stylistic considerations often tend to dwarf quality considerations. It is true that kosher wines are rarely daring and exciting stylistically, tending towards the commercial as defined by the timeframe of their production and release (currently trending towards very clean, ripe, fruity and low acid). But style should not be confused with quality. I must assume that the wine survey was not comprehensive. The alternative is that Rob lacks a critical approach to wine evaluation. There are plenty of bad kosher wines, both mevushal and non-mevushal. Historically, quality kosher wines were few and far between. However, there are plenty of good, sometimes great, sometimes exciting kosher wines, enough so that the truncated results about which this article was written must have resulted from a poor, incomplete population from which to evaluate. I personally am by no means familiar with the breadth and depth of the kosher wine scene, but have been impressed often enough with the quality of product, and occasionally with particular prices as well.

  5. I should probably explain mevushal as well. The word means “cooked”, as it stems from the word “bishul”. It need not actually be boiled to qualify as mevushal. It must reach a temperature that Jewish law would define as cooking. But “thermally processed to a required temperature” would be a good definition. Anyone who has studied it would understand that thermal processing of food changes the chemistry of the food. However, if the food can be heated very quickly, cooled very quickly, and in the case of food, heated to a higher temperature, quality of thermally processed food is preserved in a state and taste closer to fresh. In the canning industry, the idea is to denature Clostridium Botulinum and inactivate enzyme systems. In mevushal wine, the idea is simply to reach a given temperature. It is therefore never flash pasteurized, a method developed to inactivate enzymes and destroy populations of microorganisms. However, it uses what amounts to flash pasteurization equipment to achieve the goal of heating and cooling quickly. When flash pasteurization of wine was developed at Davis, the purpose was to denature the Laccase enzyme to preserve the quality of the wine produced from marginal, moldy grapes. It was found that such processing performed early in the winemaking process contributed to preserving wine quality. Due to the fact that white juice is separated from its particulates prior to fermentation, it is easy to understand that white juice can undergo such thermal processing at a very early stage, prior to fermentation, while red wine, in order to go through the same equipment, must be separated from its particulates which occurs after the fermentation. This is why mevushal white wines can be better than mevushal red wines. White wine can very efficiently go through a plate heat exchanger, whereas reds containing particulates must go through a tube-in-shell unit, much less efficient heat transfer requiring far more btu input than a plate heat exchanger. Which is why red usually undergoes its thermal processing at a later stage of development, and to a greater degree of compromise. Even so, there are good mevushal red wines to be had.

  6. Thanks to everyone for their comments. Rob writes that his search was not just for a good kosher wine but for a kosher wine that can stand side by side with great wines generally and he says he still hasn’t found it.

    It is clear that others disagree with Rob about quality so I wonder if some of you might comment about Rob’s economic argument at the end of the article?

    Thanks again!

  7. If that was Rob’s search criterion, then I can understand his results. The great wines are those generating excitement due to impeccable balance and exciting flavor profile. Exciting flavor profile is rare in kosher wine. Generally, kosher winemakers strive for true-to-type flavor profile, with nothing additional which will cause polarization of consumers. The ideal, after all, is to sell product, assuming the winery is a business rather than a hobby. The theory is that one sells more product that is univerally liked rather than one which is passionately loved by some and hated by others. Unfortunately, that attitude selects against greatness.

  8. The economics of wine are really no different from any other product. If there is quality to it, it will sell. I sent Mike photos of the kosher wine section in two of our large wine shops in our fairly affluent town. Both stores had a kosher section inches above the floor, with five or six bottles of crappy kosher wine covered with dust, cobwebs, grime and backsplash from floor cleaner. In each instance, the bottles are freebies from the distributor so that the shop can claim to have a kosher section, but I think the bottles there are the same from when I started shopping there ten years ago. Yes, you too can own a 2003 Baron Herzon Cab. Yummy. In fact, if the stores had any product, including gum, which would sell on that shelf, I’m sure those kosher bottles would end up in the trash. Until such time as I see a kosher wine on an upper rack in the region of origin, I stand by my position that the kosher wine industry can’t compete in the general market. Which was my original point. Many of you don’t seem to think that they ought to compete in the general market. There’s the difference. What I can’t figure out is why a kosher wine can’t compete on that level. The proof is in the retailing.

  9. A muddled, not very clear article, that says a great deal about a pre-conceived view, far more common
    25 years ago, and less about knowledge or quality research. There is confusion about what makes a kosher wine, the status of Yayin Mevushal within Kosher and the quality developments in both Kosher and Mevushal wine.
    Having said that, the economics of kosher winemaking, the differences between quality and perception, and the search for greater quality, are important issues and worthy of discussion.
    Whilst disappointed the writer was not satisfied, I notice the reviews kosher wines receive from the world’s most famous wine critics, the awards received in the major wine tasting competitions in France, Italy and Britain and the scores in the American wine magazines. In these forums the wines are tasted as ‘wines’ and not as ‘kosher wines’. The third party recommendations received, would not support the generalized view outlined with such delight in this article.
    However, I am still not sure if the article is about kosher wines, mevushal wines or the retailing of kosher wines. However I am pleased to say there are many, many kosher wines that I proudly serve at home, and with a “clear conscience”!

  10. Gentlemen,

    I am not a winemaker. I am a wine marketer. So for those with greater knowledge, forgive my benign ignorance of what is admittedly an arcane subject.

    The “assumption” here is that the temperature is raised AFTER the grape juice has been fermented into wine.

    Let’s go back one production step.

    Why not heat the juice FIRST to the desired temperature (thereby killing any pathogens), cool it down to the desired temperature, THEN ferment the juice to wine?

    Self-evidently, this kills the indigent yeast on the skins, so no wild yeast fermentation can take place.

    But otherwise this technique seems less injurious to the end product.

    Thoughts, anyone?

    ~~ Bob

    • Elaborating . . .

      I can’t think of any technical impediment to moving the heating process one step back in the production process, by heating the grape juice instead of the wine.

      CURRENT APPROACH:

      1) destem and crush the grapes;
      2) collect the free run juice in a fermentation tank;
      3) add sulfur to kill off the “wild” yeast that resides on the skins of the grapes;
      4) add “domesticated” yeast to the fermentation tank to kick start fermentation;
      5) allow the fermentation to come to its natural end;
      6) transfer the wine into a heating vessel;
      7) heat the stored wine to make it kosher;
      8) transfer the now kosher wine to an aging tank; and
      9) bottle it when ready.

      MY SUGGESTION:

      1) destem and crush the grapes;
      2) collect the free run juice in a heating vessel;
      3) heat the stored grape juice to make it kosher (which also has a second benefit of killing off the “wild” yeast without resorting to sulfur);
      4) transfer the now kosher juice to a fermentation tank;
      5) add “domesticated” yeast to kick start fermentation;
      6) allow the fermentation to come to its natural end;
      7) transfer the now kosher wine [ ??? ] to an aging tank; and
      8) bottle it when ready

      No heating process ever takes place while the beverage is wine.

      Once again, I invite your thoughts.

      ~~ Bobl

      • Last night I launched a number of inquiries to winemakers and Masters of Wine I know around the world.

        Winemaker Randall Grahm wrote back:

        “Funny that you should mention this technique. It turns out that what you are proposing is something close to what is called “thermo-vinification.” Also, very close to what the Perrins grand-father (of Ch. Beaucastel) proposed probably 80 years ago, and is still a technique in use at the domaine, as far as I know. When you heat must, you actually extract quite a bit of colored material from the skins (the anthocyanins), and it is an interesting technique to get more “fruit,” body and of course, color, in your wine. There are only a few possible technical hiccups to what you propose – some of them are enological, some are possibly questions of Jewish law (or interpretation). First, in general, you probably don’t really want to heat the juice all the way to boiling, as this will denature all of the enzymes in the must, which are needed for some of the fermentation processes to take place without a drama, as well as to allow the wine to settle well. This could be a work-around if you added back (kosher) enzymes after the juice was pasteurized. (This wouldn’t of course be pasteurized.) The other question really would need to be answered by a rabbi or kaskruth scholar: It is possible that the timing of the heating is indeed critical to uphold the letter of the law, and I don’t quite understand exactly how it works. Presumably a number of bad (i.e. unkosher) things could happen to the wine if there is a period of time between its production and its bottling. The example most often cited is that a goyi cellar worker, eating a ham sandwich (they’re always eating ham sandwiches) near a tank of wine accidentally allows a bit of his sandwich to fall into the tank. Presumably the pasteurization process more or less wipes out any traces of the ham (or trichinosis organisms) residing in the wine. (Though the alcohol itself will probably do a pretty good job of killing them.) In any event, your instincts are absolutely correct as far as wine quality. Pasteurizing the must will be far more benign than pasteurizing the wine, in fact if done properly, could even be a quality enhancement. But may not be feasible for the reasons mentioned. Keep ideating. Randall”

        As other replies come in, I will update this posting.

        In my role as “personal wine shopper” for collectors here in Los Angeles, whose personal and corporate gift-giving “constituents” include those who keep kosher, I am trying to find a better “end product” than what I disappointingly sample at wine industry trade tastings.

        If someone has invented the proverbial “better mouse trap,” I want to know about it.

      • Los Angeles wine merchant Lou Amdur offered these observations:

        “The technique you propose will probably not meet the criteria for a mevushal wine, at least to an orthodox Jew. The anxiety not only regards how winemakers handle the raw must but also pertains to the potential mishandling of the finished wine by someone who is non-observant. Your technique as Randall pointed out fails the “ham sandwich” test–a non-observer could still contaminate the finished wine. By the way Randall is not entirely correct about ham and wine. The laws of kashruth allow for infinitesimal and accidental quantities of non-Kosher ingredients in kosher food and drink, not as deliberate additions but merely as a pragmatic approach (e.g., if you walk by a Honey Baked Ham shop and breathe in, you are inadvertently ingesting tiny ham particles). I do not like the idea of boiling the must, anyway, as even a flash pasteurization changes the quality of the finished product. Think of the difference between flash pasteurized orange juice and fresh squeezed: the quality difference is obvious.

        “I’d be more interested in the prospects of modern, tamper-obvious packaging for non-mevushal wine. If you can establish that only observant Jews grew the grapes and made the wine and at no point, even in shipping, do non-observers handle the wine, and in addition at the point of sale only observant Jews serve or sell the wine to you, the wine remains Kosher without resorting to boiling. Observant Jews who grow their own grapes and make their own wine for their own consumption do not need to boil the wine. Perhaps the entire bottle could be wrapped in a tamper-obvious package that would change color if the package was breached.”

    • Bob, much of the white wine is cooked at the juice stage before fermentation. The issue is not pathogens, nor indigenous yeast fermentation, nor SO2, but simply that it can be performed at the earliest stage because skins and seeds have been removed and it therefore can traverse a plate heat exchanger, the most efficient heating method. Red must, to be heated at the same winemaking stage, would require a much less efficient tube-in-shell heat exchanger and far more btus of boiler, as the juice, skins and seeds would all need to traverse the heat exchanger. It is a far more expensive way to perform the heating operation. It is done with thermovinification, and it is done for flash pasteurization of red must to denature enzymes and kill mold populations, but it is not a normal winemaking procedure, nor do most wineries have such heating capacity.

  11. Erratum.

    Sometimes the synapses misfire, and out pops a typo.

    To wit (or should I say “witlessly):

    “Self-evidently, this kills the INDIGENOUS yeast on the skins, so no wild yeast fermentation can take place.”

    Mea culpa.

    ~~ Bob

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