RAMOT NAFTALI, Israel — For the past six years, Yitzhak Cohen has supervised the grape harvest as Druze and Thai workers carefully separate the clusters from the vines and ready them for transport to his Ramot Naftali winery in northern Israel.
This harvest, however, he will have to keep his distance from the wine. From the time the crushing begins until the bottles are sealed, Cohen will not be allowed to touch the grapes, the juice or even the containers where the juice ferments into wine.
This year Cohen has decided to begin producing kosher wine.
Religious Jews follow a series of strict laws determining what food and beverages they are allowed to consume. These laws range from a prohibition on pork and shellfish to the forbidding of eating milk and meat together. And for wine there is a special set of laws.
Until about 25 years ago, Israeli wine production was dominated by large wineries producing only kosher wines, mostly sweet sacramental wines as well as poor quality table wines.
Then in 1983 a consortium of collective farms opened the Golan Heights Winery on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and produced a number of world class wines made from the so-called noble grape varieties: cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay.
Their success led to a revolution in Israeli wines. Consumption nearly doubled over the past 12 years, and dozens of smaller wineries opened, many producing excellent wines, usually in the California style. Some of these smaller producers, like Cohen, either couldn't afford or didn't want to be kosher. According to the rankings of Israeli wine critic Daniel Rogov, five of the 10 best Israeli wineries are not kosher, although the Israel Wine Council estimates that 95% of Israeli wines are kosher.
Wines lacking this certification cannot be served at kosher restaurants or most catering halls. In addition, although most Israelis don't keep kosher rules, much of the wine sold in Israel is sold prior to the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah (which begins Friday) and Passover. Israeli wine expert Jonathan Livny said that many people prefer to buy kosher wine for these holidays.
Although many people associate kosher wine with thick, sweet almost syrupy sacramental wines, in fact the kosher label has nothing to do with the quality of the wine and more to do with who makes it. In essence, kosher wine must be made by Jews who have been rabbinically certified as religious Jews.
The original regulations about kosher wine, says Livny, date from the fifth and sixth centuries and were based on a Talmudic prohibition against a type of wine that had been used to honor pagan gods.
The regulations changed in the tenth century, when rabbis wanted to prevent Jews from mixing with non-Jews. Religious laws were established forbidding Jews from drinking wine that had even been touched by a non-Jew. At a time when water was unsafe to drink, and most people drank wine, "if you couldn't drink someone's wine you couldn't socialize with him," Livny said.
What this means for Cohen is that once juice begins to flow from the grapes he can no longer have any contact with the product. Instead he must hire a religious Jew who has been certified by the rabbinical authorities to handle the wine and make sure it is kept kosher. For instance when Cohen wants to taste one of the wines fermenting in the barrel, he must call over a religious worker to extract the wine from the barrel, pour it in a cup and bring it to him.
Although the winemakers select the workers, rabbinical authorities check their backgrounds to ensure that they are religious Jews. While most have no winemaking experience, they follow the directions of the winemaker, essentially becoming the winemaker's hands.
In addition all products added to the wine and even the barrels themselves must be certified as kosher. For Israeli wines the grapes must be grown and harvested according to Jewish law.
Cohen seems to take the regulations in stride but admits, "It's difficult for me, I miss the fun of handling the grapes."
Observing these regulations can be costly. Cohen recalled an incident shortly after the Golan Heights Winery opened when a driver who was not rabbinically certified merely touched a container, and thousands of liters of wine had to be destroyed. According to Livny many wineries have similar stories.
Shuki Yashuv of the Yagur Winery located in the hills around Jerusalem decided he needed to convert to a kosher winery several years ago and is now releasing his first kosher vintages. For him as a proud secular Jew, the transition was more unsettling: "Of course it bothers me, I think it's ridiculous, it's extremely annoying from a theological point of view."
While Yashuv made the switch for economic reasons, "When I started producing 5,000 bottles a year I decided I needed to open myself to a bigger market." He thinks there are social benefits as well: "Enjoying the fruit of the land is what our existence is all about, I want to build a bridge between our various sects, this is my role as a winemaker."
The Israel Wine Council estimates the domestic wine market at $215 million annually, and Livny believes that this market can support small to medium-size non-kosher wineries. One of these is Clos de Gat, an estate winery located near the city of Modi'in. Spokesman William White says that the Israeli owner made a personal decision not to become kosher and has no intention of switching, "We have global distribution through a French company and they have been doing so successfully for 5 years."
Cohen estimates that the strict regulations and corresponding increased cost will add 15% to his expenses, but he thinks the investment will pay off in the end. For instance his winery, which produces wines that are far more delicate and subtle than most Israeli wines, exports to Italy. His agent there said that were he to export wines certified kosher, he could significantly increase sales. "A lot of Jews outside the country drink Israeli wine and they want kosher wine," Cohen said.
Israeli wine exports have risen by 42% over the past five years, with 95% of it certified kosher.
Eli Ben Zaken, who owns Castel, one of Israel's most highly ranked wineries agrees that kosher certification is a boon to export sales.
His winery began in 1995 producing non-kosher wine that quickly gained a reputation for excellence. By 2000 he was producing 50,000 bottles a year and preparing to ramp up to 100,000.
Then in 2002 he received a special order for 3,000 bottles of kosher wine. Zaken found the process less burdensome than he expected, which persuaded him to produce kosher wine exclusively.
"I'm very happy we did it, economically it is working out, our export market is growing. Last year we exported 44% of our wine. If I wasn't kosher I would sell only in Israel."
Livny, however points out that being kosher can be a double-edged sword in the Israeli wine export market. "Israeli wines are put in the kosher section of the wine store, and you know where they keep the kosher wines? In the back on the way to the toilet."
Livny would prefer to see Israeli wines gain their own shelf space in wine stores as a separate region but admits that in the end the kosher label adds to its uniqueness.
"There are a lot of good wines being produced in the world, being kosher gives Israeli wines something no one else has."
(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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