What makes kosher wine kosher?
(Tick, tick, tick, tick. . . .)
Don't feel bad if you didn't know, unless you're a rabbi. Rabbis are supposed to know stuff like that. But apart from rabbis and a few people in the wine business, there are few people -- Jewish or gentile -- who know that answer.
If your first thought was that the wine has to be sticky-sweet, heavy and as subtle as a Henny Youngman joke, that was a good guess. Wrong, but a good guess anyway. Most of the traditional kosher wines sold in the United States do fit that description.
But they don't have to. Kosher wines can be dry, light, complex and indistinguishable from fine non-kosher wine. And in growing numbers, they are.
That's because the answer to the question above has nothing to do with how the grapes are grown or how the wine is made. It has everything to do with who makes the wine.
The simple answer: observant Jews. There are a few other rules -- mostly that nothing that isn't kosher be added to the wine -- but the basic requirement is that from the time the grapes enter the winery to the point the wine is put into the bottle, only Sabbath-observant Jews can handle the wine and winemaking equipment.
Now this isn't just a whim. There is an important religious reason for these rules.
Wine occupies a central symbolic role in many religions. And in ancient times, the rabbis were concerned that wines bought from gentiles might have been used in such pagan rituals as pouring a libation to their gods. To the rabbis, such wines were unfit to be used in such holy Jewish occasions as the Passover seder.
To ensure the purity of wines for religious occasions, the early lawgivers decided that only observant Jews would be allowed to come into contact with the wine and that a rabbi would have to oversee the process and put his stamp of approval on the finished product. The rules also had the effect of discouraging fraternization with gentiles over an intoxicating beverage.
The rules are strict, but there's nothing in them that keeps you from making kosher wine that's as fine as any wine in the world. Just hire observant Jews as winery workers. Your chief winemaker doesn't even have to be Jewish. He or she can taste samples brought by a winery worker and relay instructions on what to do with the wine.
But there's a catch. Under Orthodox rules, being kosher and staying kosher are two different things.
Let's take a bottle of what might be the finest kosher wine of all: Yarden cabernet sauvignon from Golan Heights Winery. It's an $18 to $20 wine with all the depth, complexity and flavor of a fine California cabernet in the same price range. But if a gentile pulls the cork or pours from the bottle, the wine is no longer kosher. Same goes for Uncle David, who never goes to temple except for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
The problem is that the Yarden wine is not "mevushal" -- that is, it has not been "boiled." The boiling, which in today's terms means pasteurization, keeps it kosher even if it is handled by somebody who is not observant.
For catered events such as weddings and bar mitzvahs, where the waiters are likely to be non-Jews, it is virtually mandatory that the wine served be mevushal. And since many Jewish families have at least one member who is not observant, even the seder becomes complicated if the wine is not mevushal.
But this is where religion and aesthetics come into conflict. Heating the wine to levels where the wine becomes mevushal robs the wine of its delicate aromas and flavors.
"It means, in most cases, killing the wine," said Doron Rand, a non-observant Israeli Jew who works as marketing director for Golan Heights Winery.
In recent years, however, kosher winemakers have started to grapple more successfully with this dilemma. Golan Heights Winery and some California kosher wineries have adopted a version of the "flash pasteurization" technique used by Robert Mondavi for his sauvignon blanc. The wine is heated quickly (to about 120 degrees) and quickly cooled again, satisfying the rabbinical requirements while minimizing the time the wine remains hot.
In overseeing this process, where a few degrees can make a big difference in quality, the certifying rabbi can be a crucial player. And even among Orthodox rabbis, there are differences.
"They are all working according to the same book," Mr. Rand said diplomatically, "but some of them are able to look more deeply into the book and find some solutions."
So far, the flash pasteurization process seems to work well with light, fruity wines but poorly with more complex varietals. For instance, Golan Heights Winery uses it to make an attractive 1990 sauvignon blanc under its Gamla label. However, said Mr. Rand, "If we do the same thing with our chardonnay we lose everything."