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Hard to Swallow

But it’s true: finding delicious kosher wine in Pennsylvania is an easily attainable goal.
By Katie Loeb
he mere mention of kosher wine has a way of evoking the worst and most unappetizing of thoughts. Powerful sense memories of thick, syrupy hangover-inducing wine with the flavor of a grape Jolly Rancher lurch through your head. Today though, the concepts , of quality wine and kosher wine are no longer mutually exclusive. In fact, that very prejudice about kosher wines means that many of these varietals can be purchased at prices that undervalue their quality and ability to compete side by side with wines from some of the world’s best growing regions and producers. Knowing what to look for and where to look locally is the key to upgrading your kosher wine experience. First, we have to understand what makes a wine kosher. For a wine to be kosher, exacting regulations must be followed. The


this is forbidden for kosher wine. Kosher winemakers will instead use a collagen-based substance, made from the bladders of fish, called isinglass; or they may use a clay material, called bentonite, which pulls suspended particles to the bottom of the barrel. There are really two levels of kosher wine. The first includes the restrictions outlined above, while the second, known as mevushal, utilizes an additional process. Kashrut law stipulates that in order for a wine to retain its kosher standing once opened and poured by a non-Jew (such as a waiter or sommelier, for instance), the wine must be mevushal. This is generally accomplished by “flash” heat pasteurization, whereby the wine is held at an elevated temperature for a few seconds. A wine that is produced in this manner retains its religious purity, regardless of

Which wine goes with matzo? The kind you drink.
wine must be made under strict rabbinical supervision. All of the equipment, tools and winemaking storage facilities must be used solely for the production of kosher wine. The grapes and wine can be handled only by Sabbath-observant Jews. Since no tasks can take place on the Sabbath or other holy days, this can make the time-sensitive business of a harvesting and winemaking schedule rather difficult. As many of the most experienced winemakers are not observant, this means that they can’t touch the wine or the equipment during the winemaking process. During the production of kosher wine, no animal products may be used and no artificial products or colorings can be added. While non-kosher winemakers occasionally use gelatin or egg whites to clarify the wine, who opens or pours it. While wine aficionados argue whether this positively or adversely affects the wine, an unpublished 1993 study conducted at the University of California at Davis concluded that it is not possible to consistently taste the difference between non-mevushal and mevushal wine. Why would anyone want to pasteurize wine, you may ask? Because of a Rabbinic ruling made over 2,000 years ago. You see, in those days many idol worshippers lived in Israel. If a Jew wanted to have a banquet he had to hire some waiters. Chances are that some of them would be idol worshippers. Or, he might order wine at an inn and the waiter could be an idol worshipper. The rabbis were concerned that an idol-worshipping waiter, while he was holding an open

container of wine, could pour a libation and consecrate the wine to his god(s). The Jew would be unaware of what the waiter had done but by drinking this wine he would be participating in idolatry, which is a grave sin. I suspect this is less of a problem these days than it was then. Hence, if you normally drink non-kosher wines the rest of the year, you can seek out either mevushal or non-mevushal wines for your seder table. Finding kosher wines in the Delaware Valley isn’t as difficult as one might think. There’s a staggering wealth of possibilities available at Rosenberg Blue Star Wine Company (144 Montgomery Avenue, 610.667.3880) in Bala Cynwyd. Blue Star has one of the largest selections of kosher wines on the East Coast, and since they specialize in “sacramental wines,” they can sell their wines outside of the purview of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Prices range from around $6 for the Kedem and Manischewitz Concord and fruit-flavored wines (which can also be found at the PLCB stores) to Grand Cru Bordeaux in the $300 price range. Although closed on Saturdays, the store is open on Sundays until 4 p.m., which makes shopping convenient for those of us that can’t make it there during the week. If do you go to Blue Star, be sure to ask for Ruvane Ribiat, the store’s jovial general manager. Mr. Ribiat is a passionate oenophile, and will gladly engage you in a discussion about any of the wines he carries. What is quite refreshing is that he will be as fanatical about a $12 bottle as he is about a $120 bottle. He’s tried everything that he carries, and is trained as a sommelier, so he could easily suggest wines to accompany your meal if you bring along your menu. Finding kosher wines through the PLCB is a bit more of a challenge. Many of the higher quality wines are purchased in very limited quantities, and can be sprinkled throughout the state quite haphazardly The eas. iest way to find which wines are available—and where—is to check the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board Product Search page at: ProductDefault_inter.asp?plcbPASSOVER PALATE

Premium kosher wines in all three colors are available throughout the Delaware Valley.
Nav=|32369|. If one enters KOSHER in the pull-down menu under the “wine type” heading, every bottle of available kosher wine in Pennsylvania from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia will be listed. Wines listed as “regular” means that those products are available at all PLCB Wine & Spirit shops. “SLO”—Special Liquor Order wines—must be special ordered. A store manager could assist you with that process if you were so inclined. Wines listed as “specialty” are those wines that are only available in limited quantities. You can figure out if a wine you are interested in is available near you by clicking on its code in the far left column, and then either specifying a county or simply submitting your request to see how many units are available and at which stores. The inventory system is reasonably accurate, although I would caution to call a particular store in advance and have the bottles put aside for you if there are less than a halfdozen bottles left. A lesser-known, but very effective means of getting exactly what you want from the PLCB is to avail yourself of their online store ( The great thing about this is that you can order virtually anything at all directly from the PLCB, and have it conveniently shipped to the Wine & Spirits shop of your choosing. You have to sign up to use the service, but with several free shipping promotions every year and advance notice of special purchases, it makes shopping in a state-controlled, non-retail environment a whole lot more pleasant and productive. If you use the “Search” function at the very top of the page, you can locate the wines you seek either by keyword or by entering the code you located on the Product Search page. There are shipping charges most of the time, but it can save a lot of time and effort running around from store to store, unless you are lucky enough to live close to one of the better stocked Wine & Spirits stores like Ardmore, Jenkintown or 12th & Chestnut. Think of this feature as having the entire state’s inventory at your disposal and it makes it a bit easier to swallow, so to speak. So, which wines to drink? There is a kosher wine for every table, and from every corner of the world. The wine you enjoy the rest of the year undoubtedly has its kosher counterpart. Fond of Spanish wine? Blue Star carries the Capcanes Peraj Ha’abib 2004 that is a blend of Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carignan ($48) and has been praised as outstanding by no less than the likes of The Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker. A lover of California Chardonnay? Segal’s Chardonnay Special Reserve 2004 from Israel ($14.99 from PLCB; ≈ $16 at Blue Star) is fermented in French and American oak barrels and undergoes malolactic fermentation, which gives it that delicious butterscotch flavor that so many California chardonnays possess. Enjoy a nice Aussie Shiraz? Teal Lake Cellars kosher Australian Shiraz ($12.99 from PLCB;≈ $13 at Blue Star) has the same delicious peppery black cherry flavors of its non-kosher counterparts from Australia’s best growing regions. In addition to these specific bottles, the wines from Israel’s Galil Mountain Winery, Yarden Wine Vineyards, Mount Tabor Fine Wines or Golan Cellars are consistently rated as excellent values, as are the Italian wines from Bartenura, and the California wines from Baron Herzog. Wines from these fine producers are available both from the PLCB as well as from Rosenberg Blue Star wines. Now that you know how to track down what you want, determining which wines to drink is only a matter of your personal taste and pocketbook. I suggest trying some new wines as well as old favorites this Passover season. It’s one of the best ways to toast freedom I can think of. To a delicious and healthy Passover— L’Chaim!

Katie Loeb is an independent beverage consultant and something of an oenophile herself.

8 April 10, 2008