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An unusual kosher wine-and-food event


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Last night I took part in an unusual event: a Passover-themed kosher-wine tasting for a few members of my synagogue. I was in charge of preparing the food, and helping to select kosher wines to pair with the foods.

There were a few challenges.

The first challenge was that I know less about kosher wine than I know about mainstream wine, and less about mainstream wine than people who really know about it. I do know this about kosher wine, though: several years ago we were eating at Gramercy Tavern with dear friends from North Carolina and we asked our captain, Christopher Russell, to select our wines. For one of the red selections, he brought the wine to the table in a decanter and didn’t show us the bottle. So we did the blind-tasting routine where, I have learned over the years by taking various classes and attending industry tastings, your best bet is to look, smell, drink and ask yourself a series of binary and multiple-choice questions: “Old world or new world?” “What grape?” That sort of thing. All of us guessed that we were drinking a California Cabernet in the $50 (retail) range. The bottle was revealed to be an Israeli wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon in the new-world style (at least I got that much right) from Yarden, with a retail price of $30.

I had for most of my life experienced kosher wine mostly as Manischewitz, one of the world’s most cloying libations. I also, in the 1990s, tasted a few acceptable dry kosher wines but upon seeing their prices (very high) concluded that there are very few good kosher wines and the ones that are good are a total ripoff. But that Gramercy Tavern blind-tasting experience totally changed my view of kosher wine, and particularly Israeli kosher wine. I stopped thinking of it as kosher wine, and just started thinking of it as Israeli wine. And they have, after all, been growing wine in that part of the world for quite some time.

A few years later, when I was working on my first book (well, my first book ever to be published). Christopher Russell had moved over to Union Square Café as general manager. He invited me to join him for a tasting in the cellar there, with a guy from Admiral Imports named Yoav Sisley. We had fun, much wine was consumed, and life went on.

Fast forward to present day. When presented with this wine-tasting challenge the first thing I did was reach out to Christopher Russell and ask “Do you know anybody in the kosher-wine business?” And his reply was something along the lines of yes, idiot, you already know Yoav Sisley.

Yoav Sisley, who is Israeli, distributes many brands of wine but one of the brands in his portfolio is an Israeli brand called Tishbi. The Tishbi family has been producing wine in what is now Israel since 1882, when Baron Edmond de Rothschild commissioned the current Tishbi generation’s great grandparents to plant the first modern vineyards there.

Before reaching out to Yoav, I picked up a couple of bottles of Tishbi wines to make sure they were legit. I was very impressed by the price-quality proposition, which seemed to me similar to what Yarden had offered that night at Gramercy Tavern. So I sent Yoav an email message asking for some advice. Yoav’s response was to 1- get me and the rabbi tickets to the world’s largest kosher-wine-tasting event, which happened to be coming up the next weekend, 2- provide us with 8 different Tishbi samples for our event, and 3- actually come to the event to help guide the tasting. That made my job easier.

The sixth annual Kosher Wine Extravaganza turned out to be a tasting of 353 kosher wines from around the world. The tickets Yoav left for me and Rabbi Josh turned out to be the better of the two breeds of tickets, so we got access to a private tasting of 18 additional wines led by a Greek guy (not Jewish) named Costas who apparently knows more about the kosher wines of the world than almost anyone. We got to taste several blockbuster kosher wines including Covenant and Generation XIII, which are boutique California Cabernets.

So, what makes wine kosher or not kosher? Two things. First, for wine to be kosher it needs to be produced by Jews (there are other requirements, like it can’t have bacon in it, but the handled-by-Jews one is the big one). That is not the case with kosher food; just with kosher wine. This is not something I support; I’m just reporting the orthodox position. It’s pretty easy to make kosher wine in Israel. If you make it elsewhere, it’s less convenient but you can pull together a crew. They even do it in New Zealand. Second, there is a process called “mevushal” that, while for various reasons is not absolutely required, is applied to pretty much all kosher wines especially those produced or sold outside of Israel. Mevushal literally means cooked, and once wine is cooked it can be handled by and shared with gentiles without losing its kosher status. Whatever. The question is, what does “cooked” mean and how does it affect the wine?

Needless to say, if you take a bottle of wine and boil it you will mess up the wine. But the requirements of mevushal can be satisfied with what is essentially flash pasteurization—a momentary heating of wine to 185 degrees F. This is what Louis Latour (needless to say, not a kosher producer) does to all its reds in order to stabilize them. And depending on when and how the process is implemented along the chain of production it can be transparent. I myself have not been able to detect mevushal wines in blind tasting. Costas, the guy who really knows, says he can’t tell. I’m told UC Davis has studied the matter and concluded the same. I think there is some question of, maybe you can’t tell now but it will change the way the wine ages. But we did taste some 10+ year-old bottles of mevushal wine and they were great. Would they have been better if not heat treated? I have no way of knowing. I doubt it.

So Yoav was going to bring 8 Tishbi wines for us, and armed with the knowledge picked up at the Kosher Wine Extravaganza we pulled together 8 non-Tishbi wines so that in each flight of our tasting we’d have a Tishbi wine and a non-Tishbi wine. Having been so impressed by today’s kosher wines, my intent at the tasting was to convince the guests—skeptics all—that today’s kosher wines, at least those in the new-world style, are competitive with mainstream wines, dollar for dollar and grape for grape.

Then it was time to plan a menu with those wines in mind, which brought us to the second challenge: the food had to be kosher. And the third challenge: it had to be kosher for Passover (meaning no bread products or products from an extended list of bread-like things such as corn). And the fourth challenge: we had to prepare all the food at Rabbi Josh’s apartment the night before the event and bring it to the venue the next day, and serve on disposable plates with disposable utensils etc. I’ll stop listing challenges, but you can do the math on how many glasses you need when you pour 16 different wines for 16 guests . . .

We started with chopped liver on little matzoh crackers as a standing hors d’oeuvre. With that we tried two inexpensive (under-$10) kosher whites: Tishbi Vineyard Emerald Riesling 2008 from Israel, and Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc 2007 from California. I particularly liked the Riesling, very floral and melony but not crazy sweet (the Chenin Blanc was just a bit on the sweet-seeming side for me), but both were wines I wouldn’t hesitate to order a case of for a party. There are some mainstream restaurants around New York using these wines as house whites. They don’t even tell you they’re kosher wines. So if you see “Herzog Chenin Blanc” listed somewhere as a house white, now you know.

For the first seated course I put together a trio of smoked and cured fish. On each plate, a curled up slice of smoked salmon, a small rectangle of smoked trout, and a couple of little pieces of pickled herring. I topped the smoked salmon with salmon roe, the trout with whitefish roe and the herring with fresh dill. With those we tasted Tishbi Estate Chardonnay 2007 (very nice for a $16 Chardonnay, lots of dried fruit aromas and clearly aged in oak but not aggressively so) and Goose Bay Viognier 2007 (from New Zealand, retailing at around $26, maybe not worth that much but very tasty: “crisp, lemony, tasty” is what I scribbled between doing a million other things).

For the next course I did a Moroccan-inspired meat pie with ground beef and veal, cashews, raisins, olives, cinnamon, allspice and a matzoh crust. We tried four wines with this course: Tishbi Estate Pinot Noir 2005, Tishbi Special Reserve Merlot 2002, Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee 2005 and Covenant Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2006 (the most expensive wine of the evening at $100 retail). I thought the Covenant was delicious but not worth $100, the Yarden continues to provide amazing Cabernet value, it’s still $30 retail, and it’s the wine I will continue to use to “convert” people to kosher wine. Of the Tishbis, the Special Reserve Merlot was the more impressive, predictably so because it’s from the “special reserve” line and costs more ($60 as opposed to $22). Lots of berry aromas, nicely oaked.

The last savory course I came up with thanks to some late-night instant-messenger consulting help from fellow eGullet Society manager Dave Scantland (“Dave the Cook”). I didn’t want to do brisket, because brisket is such a predictable Passover dish and also because the laws of supply and demand make kosher brisket stupidly expensive around Passover time because everybody wants to serve it. So I decided I’d get some chuck, which remains relatively cheap this time of year, and kind of treat it like braised brisket but make a stew of sorts. Then I thought about beef Bourgignon. The two problems with beef Bourgignon, from a kosher-for-Passover perspective, are that it’s made with bacon and that the beef is dredged in flour (remember, no flour on Passover) before being browned. I personally think dredging in flour is overrated, so I didn’t mind skipping that step. But what about the bacon? After talking about a few possibilities with Dave (pastrami, chipotle peppers) I settled on smoked paprika as a seasoning. It definitely provided some of the flavor profile of a smoked pork product but without the pork. Then, when I was doing the final shopping, right next to the beef chuck, they had kosher bison chuck. Hey, “Bison Bourgignon.” I bought the bison.

For the mirepoix I used onions, carrots and fennel. Added garlic and a whole lot of smoked paprika. Browned the bison in a separate skillet and added that to the pot. Deglazed the skillet with Zinfandel and added that to the pot. Added the rest of the bottle of wine, a can of chopped tomatoes, lots of carrots, pearl onions, quartered mushrooms, fresh marjoram, bay leaves, stock. Simmered for a couple of hours, refrigerated overnight, defatted, reheated at the event venue (the beautiful apartment of two synagogue members) and served. I thought it came out well. Some people came into the kitchen for seconds and every drop got eaten, which was nice.

We had six wines with the bison: Tishbi Estate Shiraz 2006, Herzog Zinfandel Lodi 2004 (that’s the same wine I used in cooking the dish), Tishbi Special Reserve Cabernet Blend from Sde Boker (that’s the name of Ben Gurion’s kibbutz in Israel) 2004, Jerusalem Heights Cabernet-Merlot 2002, Pardess Hevron Merlot 2002 and Baron Herzog 2005 Special Reserve Merlot. The Herzog Zinfandel, at $13.99, struck me as perhaps the most impressive value of the evening. A very respectable California old-vines Zinfandel brimming with vanilla, spice and dark berry. The Tishbi Special Reserve from Sde Boker, at around $50, was a champion. I thought it was fully as worthy as the $100 Covenant, and at $50 it offered a value proposition that Covenant could not. The Sde Boker is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. Cassis, vanilla, a little mint, terrific. The other wines were appropriate for price and grape, except for the $40 Pardess Merlot, which I thought was the weakest wine of the evening.

For dessert I made a compote of stewed chopped dried fruits (apricots, dates, figs) with apples, walnuts and sweet wine. (This is a Sephardic recipe for haroset, which at a Passover seder would come at the beginning but we used it as a dessert). On the side, some kosher-for-Passover dark-chocolate-covered candied orange peels that I found in a store and that were delicious. With dessert we had the Tishbi Vineyard Red Muscat 2006 (at $14, an excellent value in a fortified dessert wine), and the Jonathan Tishbi Barbera Zinfandel 2006. That last one is not available for sale in the US yet. Yoav scored us the only bottle on these shores. It’s a Port/Banyuls-style wine that will probably retail for around $75 and is great. I got plum, caramel, chocolate, nuts and more other sensory information than I could write down at that point.

Were our guests sold on the idea of kosher wine? I can surely say that every single person departed the event with a much higher opinion of kosher wine than he or she had upon arrival.

I threw together these recipe narratives for the attendees, in case anybody is interested:

Moroccan-style meat pie. (Adapted from a recipe by my mother-in-law.) For a pie the size we had last night, which was probably enough for 12 entrée-size portions: Begin with 2 finely chopped medium onions and sautee in oil or schmaltz over medium heat in a big sautee pan or stockpot (you will be adding 4 pounds of meat, so do choose a big one) until translucent and then a few minutes beyond that. Add 4 pounds of ground meat; you can use beef, veal, turkey, lamb or a combination thereof. If it’s kosher meat don’t add any salt, otherwise do add some at this point. Add four crushed garlic cloves. Sautee the meat, onions and garlic, repeatedly breaking up the meat with the spatula or spoon, until you have a cooked-through pot of meat. At this point if there’s excess liquid fat in the pot try to drain it off; if you’ve used lean meat there may not be any, though. Stir in 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon, 2 tablespoons ground allspice, 2 cups raisins, 2 cups nuts (cashews, pine nuts, etc.), 6 beaten eggs, 1/2 cup fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley, and 1 cup non-salty pitted olives (or skip the olives). Cook for another five or so minutes just to heat through those latest additions. While that’s happening, wet a few squares of matzoh, then drench them in egg (just like you’re making matzoh brie). Line the bottom of a deep 9x12 casserole (or some size in that neighborhood) with matzoh, top with the meat mixture, then top with another layer of matzoh. Cook, covered with foil, for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Or, you can make the meat mixture a day ahead, refrigerate it, then build the pie the next day, in which case you’ll need more like 50 minutes in the oven if you’re starting with cold ingredients. Present the whole pie at the table, because it’s ugly otherwise.

Bison “Bourgignon.” For about a dozen entrée-size portions I’d suggest starting with 4 pounds of stew meat in 1-inch cubes or thereabouts. We used bison but of course this dish would work with beef stew meat, or lamb, or any other stewable meat, even something like chicken thighs. But first, start with 2 finely chopped medium onions in a stockpot (8 or 10 quart size is good) and sautee in oil or schmaltz for a good long time over medium heat. You don’t want to burn them but you want to cook them way, way down to extract maximum flavor. Some salt and fresh-ground pepper at this point wouldn’t hurt, more or less depending on whether you’re using kosher meat. Add ½ cup finely chopped carrots (more carrots come later) and ½ cup finely chopped fennel. When the carrots and fennel have softened add 4 crushed garlic cloves, 4 bay leaves and 4 tablespoons smoked paprika. Let this whole mixture (aka mirepoix) simmer a bit, then add 2 cups of red wine (hold on to the rest of the wine in the bottle to use later). As that is heating, get a wide skillet (12” if you have, smaller if you don’t) good and hot, add some oil or schmaltz (guess which tastes better?) and brown the cubes of meat in batches (don’t crowd the skillet), turning with tongs to brown all sizes, then transferring the pieces of meat to the main pot (with the onions, wine, etc.) as they’re ready. Once all the meat is cooked, there will be some fat in the skillet as well as a lot of brown bits of goodness. Try to get rid of the fat but leave behind the brown bits (aka “fond”). Then pour the rest of the wine (there should be about a cup left) into the skillet and use a spatula to scrape up the brown bits and mix them into the wine so you get a nice pan sauce (the process known as deglazing). Dump that pan sauce into the main pot (we’re doing all this because we need to find every available source of flavor in order to compensate for this being a bacon-free version of Bourgignon). Add about 2 quarts of liquid, either water or stock (chicken, beef, veal, it doesn’t matter a whole lot). Once that comes up to a simmer (you don’t want a full-on boil), add about ½ pound roughly chopped carrots, 2 standard size (8 or 10 oz) boxes of mushrooms (quartered; white button are fine, though we used “baby bella” mushrooms because I was taken in by the marketing mumbo jumbo), and 2 pounds of peeled pearl onions. (Edited to add: and a can of chopped tomatoes.) You may at this point want to add more liquid. It depends. You want the dish right now to be like a thin soup; it will cook down to a thick stew over time. Once everything is in the pot and it returns to a simmer, turn down the heat to very low (just enough flame to maintain a slow, slow simmer) and cook, uncovered, for about 3 hours (or until the meat is nice and tender). If you’re serving it the next day (and it will be better if you do it this way), go for something more like 2.5 hours and then refrigerate overnight (if you can fit the whole pot in the refrigerator that’s the most convenient approach, though do let the pot cool to lukewarm on the stovetop before you put it in the fridge, covered). If you’ve refrigerated overnight, skim off the fat that has collected at the top of the pot. Then reheat until you’re back up to a simmer, add about a cup of fresh chopped herbs (we used marjoram and parsley; you can also use thyme, oregano, whatever strikes your fancy) and simmer for another half hour, though you can also simmer gently for longer if that works well with the timing of your meal. When serving (in bowls), remember to give everybody a little bit of everything: meat, carrots, mushrooms, onions, sauce, but don’t give anyone a bay leaf.

Sephardic haroset (my wife’s recipe). For enough haroset for a really big seder, start with about 2 cups each (this is very approximate; if your package sizes are bigger or smaller, don’t worry about it) of dried figs, pitted dates and dried apricots (you can also improvise with other dried fruits, like prunes, raisins, cranberries, etc.), and about 4 large apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped. Put all that in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat a bit and simmer for about 15 minutes. Drain off the water (it’s pretty flavorful; you may want to keep it, cook it down to a syrup and add it back in to the haroset). Dump the cooked fruit-apple mixture into a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Pulse it just enough to get a rough, rustic mixture. Put everything in a bowl and stir in about ½ cup of sweet wine (Manischewitz works very well here, or you can use most anything red and sweet) and about 2 cups of chopped walnuts (or a standard supermarket bag of chopped walnuts). If you’re planning to make this ahead and serve it a day or two later, hold off on the walnuts until the day of service, so they stay crunchy.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Thanks for the insight and depth of the article. I will resist being a nitpicker and poke holes in your post.

However, I do not agree with your intention to call kosher wines Israeli wines. Kosher simply indicates that the wines have been produced in a manner that conforms to the laws of Kashrut under the supervision of a rabbinical authority. Secondly, not all kosher wines come from Israel. There are amazing wines from around the world that are kosher. My wife and I enjoy Capcanes Peraj Petita as a favorite red wine in our house. It is a Montsant wine from Spain. We have also recently purchased a few wines from Georgia to try out. I have also had wines from Chile, Agentina, Austrailia, Italy, and even an authentic Port that all happened to be kosher. On top of that, not all Israeli wines are kosher.

Secondly, not all kosher wines are mevushal. The Peraj Petita is a wonderful example of a non-mevushal wine.

I also want to suggest that you find yourself a bottle Teperberg Silver 2006 Late Harvest Reisling. It is very well rounded and not cloyingly sweet. My wife and I just purchased a case of it because we liked it so much.

Dan

Edited by DanM (log)

"Salt is born of the purest of parents: the sun and the sea." --Pythagoras.

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However, I do not agree with your intention to call kosher wines Israeli wines.

I didn't say that. I said that I now think of kosher Israeli wines as Israeli wines rather than kosher wines. There are of course kosher wines from all over. We had wines from California and New Zealand at our tasting, for example.

Secondly, not all kosher wines are mevushal.

I didn't say they were. What I said, which is true, is that the overwhelming majority of kosher wines sold outside of Israel are mevushal. That's what consumers demand. Even many Israeli kosher wines that are non-mevushal are produced in special mevushal batches for export.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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However, I do not agree with your intention to call kosher wines Israeli wines.

I didn't say that. I said that I now think of kosher Israeli wines as Israeli wines rather than kosher wines. There are of course kosher wines from all over. We had wines from California and New Zealand at our tasting, for example.

Secondly, not all kosher wines are mevushal.

I didn't say they were. What I said, which is true, is that the overwhelming majority of kosher wines sold outside of Israel are mevushal. That's what consumers demand. Even many Israeli kosher wines that are non-mevushal are produced in special mevushal batches for export.

My appologies. I misread what you wrote.

Dan

"Salt is born of the purest of parents: the sun and the sea." --Pythagoras.

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Interesting addendum: today the World Association Wine and Spirit Writers and Journalists (WAWWJ) announced its top 100 wines, and two of the wines from our tasting the other night made the cut at number 3 (the Tishbi Sde Boker) and number 18 (Tishbi Shiraz). The WAWWJ list from what I know of it is a composite of international competition results from around the world during the preceding year. Each competition has a point value based on its prestige, and the wines that win the most awards and the most prestigious ones are the wines that make the cut for WAWWJ. Needless to say this is not the be-all-end-all way to rank wines, it may not even be a smart way, and you will see many great wines missing from this list. Still, to see some of the wines from our tasting on this list is kind of cool. The list isn't online yet but when it is I'll post a link.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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  • 1 month later...

If one were to hold a kosher wine tasting (i.e., wine-and-cheese format), would the cheeses and other nibbles presented at the tasting have to be kosher as well? It would be a public event at a restaurant.

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