May 7, 2006
Kosher wines

My intentions were good, and I thought they’d be easy to fulfill. I’d offered to bring wine to the Passover seder. Like every other food writer, I’ve reported on the surge in popularity of kosher food in recent years. Thus, I’d assumed it would be relatively easy to find wines sanctioned as kosher for Passover.

I found one at Beverages & More, but it wasn’t a varietal or brand I had in mind. I went to three more outlets before finding a single other kosher wine. Everywhere, clerks more or less said that while kosher wines sell well at Passover, they don’t the rest of the year, so why bother to stock them.

Ernie Weir is making terrific kosher wines at Hagafen Cellars, his winery in the Napa Valley. I was looking specifically for his latest rieslings. This past harvest, he made two styles from different appellations, and this spring they’re snatching up awards all across the competition circuit, including a gold medal in a judging in the Finger Lakes area of New York, home to the nation’s best riesling.
But I had no luck finding either one.

The shortage of kosher wines got me to thinking that maybe the market for kosher products has cooled, but Rabbi Menachem Genack, chief executive officer of OU Kosher, the certifying branch of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, says it is continuing to grow. He and other officials with the union said sales of kosher wines are flourishing in markets with large Jewish populations, such as New Jersey, New York, Chicago and Florida. The Sacramento market, they suggest, just may be too small to sustain much interest in kosher wines.

Napa winemaker Weir has another thought: Often, kosher wines are segregated into their own little section of the wine shop. Customers see it and perhaps conclude that these are traditionally thick and sweet kosher wines like Manischewitz.

Kosher wines today, however, are more likely to be dry, and as varietally intense and balanced as any other fine table wine. Weir would like to see them stocked right alongside all other wines.

“We’d like to have equal footing, not put in an area of the store that in some way communicates that they are negatively different,” says Weir. “Merchants who (integrate kosher wines with other choices) give everyone a chance to bump into them, and they are able to sell them all year round.”

Here’s another possible reason why kosher wines aren’t so easy to find: Some Jews don’t adhere to strict kosher rules. The Hagafen Cellars cabernet sauvignon I finally found for the Seder was a distinctive and elegant representative of the varietal, pairing quite nicely with the flambeed duck in cherry sauce and the brisket.

But it had some pretty impressive company, two other stylish Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons. Neither was kosher.

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