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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