Royal Kedem has kosher wines with fine spirit


March 13, 1994|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, king of the universe, who created the fruit of the vine.

-- From the Passover Haggadah

There is no ambivalence about wine in Judaism. It is a gift from God -- a vital sign that "His kindness endures forever."

During the Passover seder, four glasses of wine are raised in honor of the Lord. They are drunk in the spirit of joy over the deliverance of the Jewish people from bondage.

To the observant Jew, the quality of that wine is incidental to the ceremony. All that is required is that it be kosher for Passover, that is, that it be made by Sabbath-observant Jews in accord with religious law.

There is nothing in that law that requires that kosher wine be sweet, thick, syrupy and totally unpalatable by secular standards. But until recently, kosher wine in the United States was just that -- almost by definition.

In recent years, that has changed dramatically. A new wave of kosher winemakers has emerged, dedicated to changing the image of kosher wine. A philosophy has taken hold that says a well-made kosher wine -- dry or sweet -- does honor to the Lord.

The largest of the companies involved in this emerging market for world-class kosher wine is the Royal Kedem Wine Co., a large, Brooklyn-based concern that traces its roots back to the former Czechoslovakia. It's an unusual type of wine operation, acting both as winemaker and as a distributor of kosher wines from all over the world.

David Herzog, president of Royal Kedem, said his company has been making and distributing dry kosher wine since the 1970s, ** when "Jewish people didn't know what dry was."

But during the 1980s, when the trend toward dry kosher wines got off the ground, Royal Kedem never emerged as a top-quality player. That role was filled by small, boutique kosher wineries, such as California's Hagafen and Gan Eden.

Royal Kedem has made enormous strides in the '90s, however. Three years ago, most of its wines were mediocre. Now it is offering a broad range of fine wines that will give observant Jews the opportunity to taste wines from many of the world's great wine regions for the first time. In many cases, its wines are worth making an effort to find, whether you're Jewish or not.

The company put on a vivid demonstration of its quality turnaround in Baltimore in January. Royal Kedem staged a mock seder, presided over by Rabbi Ervin Preiss of Suburban Orthodox Congregation in Pikesville, at which its wines were served with gourmet kosher food prepared in the kitchen of the Sheraton Inner Harbor.

The purpose was not just to showcase kosher wine and food but to explain the religious significance of the seder to a mostly non-Jewish group from the wine-and-food press.

The event succeeded on both levels. It demonstrated the beautiful symbolism, the celebration of family and the spirit of joyful thanks that run through the seder. And it showed that Royal Kedem is making and marketing some truly remarkable wines:

* There is an inexpensive sauvignon blanc from California's Alexander Valley that is as crisp, fresh and racy as anything in its price class (1992 Weinstock Sauvignon Blanc, $9).

* There is a merlot from the Golan Heights that is as structured, intense and packed with black cherry fruit as anything from the best producers in California (1990 Yarden Merlot, Galil, $18).

* There's the $9 California zinfandel that rivals what some of the best wineries in the state are selling for $15-$20 (1991 Baron Herzog Zinfandel, California, $9).

* There's a red Bordeaux that resembles some of the best "cru bourgeois" growths of the Medoc (1989 Baron Edmond de Rothschild Haut-Medoc, $25).

* There's a luxury blend of Champagne that approaches the class of a Dom Perignon (1981 Bokobsa Cuvee de Centennaire Champagne, $50).

* There's an Italian Asti Spumante that could well be the ultimate wedding wine (Bartenura Asti Spumante).

* There's a sweet riesling that is almost absurdly inexpensive for quality that rivals the best dessert wines of California and Germany (1991 Herzog Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling Monterey County ($9/375 ml.).

What was most surprising was the high quality of many of the wines that were "mevushal" as well as kosher.

That requires some explanation.

Under Jewish law, once a wine is opened, it cannot be handled by a gentile or non-observant Jew and still be kosher unless it has been "boiled" -- which presumably would leave it unfit for pagan offerings.

Boiling, which under modern interpretations means pasteurization, makes the wine mevushal. Once it's mevushal, it can be opened and passed back and forth by the entire Holy Curia, and it's still kosher. Obviously, that makes it a lot more convenient to pour at catered affairs.

Unfortunately, while pasteurization never made a lot of difference with cream white concord, it tends to sap almost as much life out of fine dry wine as old-fashioned boiling. So almost all the best kosher wines were non-mevushal, which was fine for gentile connoisseurs but inconvenient for the observant.

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