Vintners boost quality of kosher products
By Tara Q. Thomas
Special to the Denver Post

This Passover weekend, you could suffer through the usual four glasses of thick, sweet wine at your seder. Or you could choose one of the new wave of high-quality kosher wines, and actually enjoy it.

There's a revolution going on in the kosher wine market. Winemakers from California to Israel are out to change the image of kosher wine as thick, sweet syrups reserved for symbolic drinking, to one of quality wines that can be enjoyed at any time. Many vintners are now eschewing the heating of the wine that makes kosher wines mevushal, a sort-of super-kosher designation important to the most observant Jews. Without heating, the process of making a kosher wine is pretty much identical to the making of a non-kosher wine, which means there's no reason a kosher wine shouldn't be just as good as any other.

Case in point: Covenant. It may be the most stunning entry in the new wave of kosher wines, at $85 a bottle. That's pretty shocking when the reference point is $4 Manischewitz. But Covenant isn't a high-end Manischewitz. It's a high-end California cabernet sauvignon that happens to be kosher.

Covenant was started on the very premise that there was no reason kosher wine couldn't be good. "It began as a challenge, actually," says Jeff Morgan, one of the partners in the venture. Leslie Rudd, his business partner and proprietor of Rudd Winery in Oakville, had asked him why there were no good kosher wines. "I said there's no reason there can't be," Morgan recalls, "And he said, "Prove it."

Morgan has, by doing everything any good winemaker would: by sourcing grapes from a top vineyard - the Larkmead Vineyard in Napa, in this case - and treating the grapes gently. The difference in Covenant is that the people who handle the grapes in the winery are all Sabbath-observant Jews, and the equipment used to make the wine is exclusively used to make kosher wines.

Those differences can mean a lot to people spiritually, but for the non-observant, they are undetectable. The winery workers are trained like any others, the winery equipment is the same sort used in any modern winery, and the grapes are of the same high quality as go into other $85 California cabs. The result is a kosher wine that stands on its own as a quality wine, able to please the observant and nonobservant alike.
Covenant is made at Herzog Wine Cellars, a 20-year-old brand that just opened a 70,000-square-foot state-of-the-art winery in Oxnard, Calif. Herzog has itself begun selling single-vineyard wines and upscale blends in addition to its everyday-priced wines. In particular, check out the syrah and syrah blends that winemaker Joe Hurliman is putting out: Hurliman picked up a lot of pointers on Rhone-style winemaking when he worked with John Alban of Alban Vineyards, a legendary name in syrah-lovers circles.