The Kosher Grapevine


Wine is an essential part of Judaism. It is mentioned 136 times in the Hebrew Bible, sometimes to emphasize its possible harmful effects on people, as with Noah, Laban, and King Ahasuerus; sometimes as part of the sacrifice that was offered to God, as in the book of Leviticus and elsewhere; and sometimes to praise it, as in Song of Songs and Proverbs. Wine was so important that when wine was poured as a sacrifice on the altar, the Levites in the Temple would break into song. Wine introduces the meal on holidays and on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, the Sabbath, when meals are served that are more sumptuous than meals during the rest of the week. A blessing is said before eating those meals over the wine because wine taste good and enhances the meal and it is therefore a suitable introduction to the meal. The drinking of the wine at these meals came to be thought of as being on a human level similar to the wine offered to God with sacrifices,[1] and therefore, just as only the best kind of wine was offered as a sacrifice, so many Jews felt that only the best kind of wine should be used for this blessing, which is called kiddush, meaning “sanctification,” and which teaches the possibility for holiness that can exist in the Sabbath if it is properly observed.[2]

Rabbis extolled wine in the Talmud. Bava Batra 12b states: “one who routinely drinks wine – even if his heart is totally stopped up – the wine will make him intelligent.”[3] Nedarim 10b states that a Nazarite who swears off drinking wine because he wants to rectify a personal failing or to rise to a higher spiritual level through abstinence must bring a sin offering because one should not abstain from legitimate pleasures. Wine is considered so special that while the blessing over bread at the beginning of a meal covers all foods during the meal – meaning, people do not have to make additional blessings for each type of food – this rule does not apply to wine; whether drunk alone, before the meal, or during the meal, one must say the blessing thanking God for the wine.

Irving Langer relates the history of the Jewish consumption of wine in his book “The Kosher Grapevine.” He tells about the different kinds of wines and how they can be enjoyed. Historians estimate that there were hundreds of wine presses scattered throughout Israel during the Roman period (63 BCE – 70 CE) and the ancient Jews of the second temple period (516 BCE – 70 CE) consumed about three hundred gallons of wine each year and also produced huge amounts of wine for export. Wine making flourished in Israel and came to an end with the Islamic conquest of the country in the seventh century CE. Jews outside of Israel also produced wine, but in the Middle Ages, Jews were prohibited from owning land and this put an end to this activity.

When Jews settled in America, the Jewish desire for wine prompted the making of wine in New York State from Concord grapes, but the result was coarse and bitter and had to be sweetened with lots of sugar to make it palatable. Not knowing that these Manischewitz and Shapiro sweetened wines were inferior wines that needed to be adulterated, several generations of Jews began to believe that kosher wine needed to be sweet, a belief that many still have today. Twenty-five years ago, more than ninety percent of kosher wines were sweet, today, over eighty percent of kosher wines are dry, and the best of the sweet kosher wines are produced at great expense to make the very best dessert wines.

The production of dry kosher wines in America began in the late 1950s. Today there are over 1500 types of kosher wines[4] produced throughout virtually every wine growing area in Europe, including five different areas in Israel where world-class quality wines are produced.[5] Israel began to produce wine again in 1848 in the Old City of Jerusalem. By 2010, Carmel Winery, the largest winemaker in Israel, won the Decanter International Trophy in the Red Rhone varietal group, beating nearly eleven thousand wines from forty-one countries. Barkan Winery is the second largest winery in Israel, producing about seven to nine million bottles of wine a year.

There are many varieties of wine, but there are six “big varieties,” three whites and three reds: Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blank (all whites), and Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon (reds). Irving Langer explains how professional wine critics taste in only a sip of wine “earthy,” “bright,” “spicy,” “fruity,” “complex,” about the various “aroma qualities,” “taste qualities,” “aftertaste,” “color,” and more. He also gives ten steps that one should take to secure the best enjoyment in drinking wine. He tells how there are two tastes that wine gives: the first when the wine is on your tongue and the second when you swallow. He explains that different wine glasses are used for different varieties, how to order wine in a restaurant, how to store wine, why wine is taken from the middle and not the top or bottom of the winery barrel, and much more.

All in all, this book is a good introduction to the history and enjoyment of kosher wines.


[1] Rav Achai Gaon wrote in Sheiltot 54 that one of the reasons for saying the kiddush on wine is that the kiddush is a kind of song and is reminiscent of the song that the Levites sang when wine was poured on the Temple altar.

[2] Bava Batra 97a states that “One may not recite kiddush of a holy day except on wine that is fit to be poured on the altar.” Since only non-pasteurized wine, wine that is not mevushal, could be sacrificed, Maimonides and later Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik felt that only non-mevushal wine may be used for kiddush. Mevushal means “cooked.” After the grapes are crushed, the common practice is to rapidly raise the temperature of the liquid to 176-194 degrees F and hold it there for a moment and then rapidly reduce the temperature to 60 degrees. Many Orthodox Jews feel that if non-mevushal wine is touched by a non-Jew it becomes not kosher. Most winemakers feel that the pasteurized wine loses essential essences, has a “cooked” sensation, and shows signs of deterioration after six months. Since one can only use wine for kiddush that is fit for the altar, many Jews feel that only red wine should be used (see Bava Batra 97b and Pessachim 108b), Ramban forbids using wine that is completely white, but allows rose, but the Shulchan Aruch 272:4 permits white wine.

[3] The ancients were convinced that thinking comes from the heart, not the mind. So the phrase “his heart is totally stopped up” means his mind is empty.

[4] There are about four thousand varieties of grapes but only about a dozen are used in wine making. The different wines are the result, among other things, of combining/blending grapes.

[5] Negev, Harie Yehudah, Shimshon, Shomron, and Galil. The seventeen largest wineries in Israel are all kosher.