For most Americans, kosher wines are the sickly sweet, syrupy beverages that taste like they contain more high-fructose corn syrup than actual grapes. It’s a strange association, as wine—like in many religions—has provided the backbone for Judaic rituals since biblical times. The fact that you don’t see many kosher wines score a 95 on the Wine Spectator scale might lead a curious gentile to wonder what, exactly, makes a kosher wine “kosher”? Furthermore, why does it never win over those with more discerning palates, the way that bottles from, say, Napa Valley do?
When most people blast kosher wines, they are usually criticizing a specific variant of kosher wine called mevushal and the distinct, near-boiling process often (but not always) used in Jewish wine production. Grapes—like all fruit—are inherently kosher on their own. No prep work is needed to ensure their theological cleanliness. What matters from a traditional koshering perspective is who comes into contact with those grapes during the winemaking process. In the strictest sense, only Sabbath-observing Jews can be involved in any step of the cultivation, separation, fermentation, and all other -ations for kosher wine.
In ancient times, wine was rendered “unkosher” if it was in any way handled by someone who practiced idolatry, which nowadays usually refers to non-Jews. (Likewise, any wine used for “idolatrous purposes”—basically any non-Jewish ceremonial purposes—was disqualified from consumption, though this is less of a concern today.) Debates still rage in certain rabbinical circles about whether monotheists in Christian and Muslim communities count as idolaters. But the old-school reasoning still stands for most people: To get the most traditional “kosher” seal, a wine—including any added yeast and finings—needs to be handled and overseen solely by practicing Jews. Hypothetically speaking, a winery in the Loire Valley could be overseen entirely by members of the tribe, and as long as no gentiles are involved in any production step or serving of the drink, that wine would remain kosher and potentially indistinguishable from its neighboring, non-kosher bottles.
Still, like any good rabbinical debate, there are exceptions and gray areas to all this. The most interesting is mevushal wine. Despite lacking a clear reason as to why, Talmudic tradition holds that wine becomes “useless” to idolaters when it is boiled early on, by Jews, to a certain temperature, after which point it can be handled by non-Jews without losing its kosher status. Mevushal wine is therefore popular in kosher restaurants and catering companies.
One hypothesis dating back to medieval times contends that mevushal wine was a means to keep Jews from fraternizing outside their communities. “There’s a theory, not fully proven, that mevushal wine was meant to prevent sharing between Jews and gentiles, and reduce instances of intermarriage,” says Gabe Greenberg, a mashgiach (kosher certifier) and rabbi at the Beth Israel Orthodox Congregation in Metairie, Louisiana. “Some rabbis even argued that the taste of mevushal wine discouraged non-Jews from drinking it. Not as fun, unfortunately.”
Thus, the intent of kosher wine was likely more about serving the Jewish population than creating a product for leisurely consumption. Depending on who’s performing the certification, mevushal wine is heated between 165 and 194 degrees Fahrenheit, which halts any fermentation. Unfortunately, heating wine to that temperature can also drastically alter the tannins and flavors—a side effect that surely gave rise to the stereotype that kosher wine is generally subpar. A casual sampling of the basic mevushal wines often offers similar, similarly unfortunate taste profiles: a processed grape flavor, sometimes verging on artificial, that’s useful as more of a dessert wine than anything that could be paired with dinner. Some of the more mass-market varieties could even be confused for lousy grape juice were it not for their alcohol content.
To combat this inevitability, steps are often taken to minimize the damage. According to Star-K, one of the more prominent koshering supervision services:
“Although there are [legal] opinions that maintain that bishul [kosher status derived from preparation only by Jews] is fulfilled once the wine begins evaporation, we are machmir [strict], exercise stringencies, and require that the wine should be cooked at the higher temperature to achieve bishul, generally 180 (degrees Fahrenheit). Once cooked the wine can no longer become Stam Yaynom [unsupervised wine] and can no longer ferment naturally. Therefore, the wine needs to have outside [kosher] wine enzymes added to the juice so that artificial fermentation can occur.”
“Everyone’s going to brag about who is the strictest,” says Rabbi Greenberg. “And that’s a good thing, because of the inherent trust placed on them. You want them to be strict.”
This all might seem excessive, but for observant Jews, it’s a solemn and important tradition. After all, an immense amount of trust is placed in these individuals to ensure their food and drinks keep with divine ordinance. And Jewish communities have reason to be extra careful, unfortunately. Occasionally, this trust is violated—whether purposefully or not—and results in kosher scandals.
Recently, a newer process has risen to prominence by claiming to reduce harmful effects on a mevuschal wine’s flavor. Flash pasteurization (also popular with milk) involves heating the wine to the necessary temperature before rapidly cooling it again, thereby—supposedly—curbing the potential drastic effects on taste. Discerning wine drinkers can probably still tell the difference, but it’s more or less good enough for the general public. Rabbis included: “I, myself, don’t really have the palate or expertise to tell,” admits Rabbi Greenberg—not that it affects his mashgiach abilities.
It also helps that, over the last couple decades, more vineyards are now being run by observant Jews in areas of the world known for great wine production, which is helping the stigma surrounding kosher wine fade away. France and California now feature kosher wineries alongside their gentile neighbors, and—thorny politics aside—the State Of Israel’s geography allows for increasingly well-regarded vineyards. A recent Wine Spectator cover story explored the “surprising quality from an emerging region” in Israel, and included a guide to more than 100 varieties worth sampling. And hey, if kosher wine is good enough for Drake, it should be good enough for the rest of us.