There is a revolution taking place in the Israeli wine industry—a kosher revolution. It is not accompanied by loud crowds and intensive media coverage, nor is it widely known and curiously followed by millions. All the same, this is a revolution felt all over the world. Wherever there are observant Jews, its ramifications are bound to be noticed. Suddenly, shopping for kosher wines has become that much more complicated…how can you decide between such a variety of high-quality, top-notch wines?

This difficulty is a relatively new development—kosher wine was not always a contender in the wine market. For years, kosher wines had a terrible reputation. They were too sweet and obviously inferior—the kind of wine consumed because, well, one does need something to make Kiddush on…but those were hardly the wines to gladden the heart of man.

Why was kosher wine always so inferior? There were a few reasons. Firstly, wineries didn’t really feel the need to cater to kosher costumers, especially as that would take the control of the wine making—something very dear to most wine maker’s hearts—out of their hands. Secondly, it was common knowledge that many ingredients used in the wine industry, from tartaric acid to melolactic bacteria, were simply unavailable in kosher forms.1 Accordingly, there was little interest in producing quality kosher wines.

The difficulty of finding kosher ingredients is now a problem of the past, and the OK played a major role in that change. Rabbis at the OK worked tirelessly for years to make all the necessary ingredients kosher and eliminate this obstacle.

This, however, was only one part of the journey. Working in Israel, we had to cope with a tricky situation where supervision at the wineries is required from the very beginning—the planting of the grapes. Wineries certified by the OK can only use grapes from vineyard plots supervised and approved by the OK, and this is only the beginning.

Despite the demanding nature of kosher wine certification, we see more and more prestigious boutique wineries applying to be kosher and putting up with all the kashrus requirements.

Rabbi Yitzhak Rosenfeld, head kosher supervisor at multiple wineries, explains: “Once a non-kosher winery has reached 20,000 or 30,000 bottles a year, it just doesn’t have any way to go further. More bottles would mean starting to sell to supermarkets instead of only to hotels and restaurants. And, in order to get into the supermarkets, they need to have a kosher certification. And so they apply to us.”

Even after the vintners are assured that their wine quality is not going to suffer because of the kashrus, the process isn’t easy for them. “What kind of person starts a boutique winery?” asks Rabbi Rosenfeld. “Well, here in Israel those people are usually wine-lovers. They have high-flying careers and earn hundreds of thousands shekels a month – but their real love is wine. The winery becomes like a club, where they work with their close friends. Giving up the direct contact with the wine making is very, very hard for them.”

Handing the keys over

Due to the special nature of wine, there are unique circumstances that require a frum Jew to perform each task involved in the kosher winemaking process. For many winery owners, this means they have to step aside and relinquish their physical role in the production. Despite the emotional difficulties, most wineries ultimately choose the lucrative route —handing the winery keys over to the mashgiach. But it’s not easy for them to reach this point. “Take Flam winery, for example’” says Rabbi Eidelman, another supervisor. “Its owner, Yisrael Flam, is one of the main wine experts in Israel. He established his winery as a family business where he worked with his wife and sons. They were doing extremely well—their wines were the most sought after by Israeli restaurants. However, he wanted more than that. He knew he was making very special wines and he wanted the entire Jewish population to have access to them. So he thought about getting kosher certified. But surrendering the winery keys! He had been in contact with us for five years before he could take this step. It took that much time for him to reconcile himself to the idea that he couldn’t be intimately involved in the wine making process anymore.

“We gave him all the professional and psychological support, without giving up any of our standards. We wouldn’t agree, for instance, to certify only a part of the winery. Some kosher agencies do that, but we never agree to such an arrangement. We think it can cause great confusion among kosher consumers.”

Despite the demanding nature of kosher wine certification, we see more and more prestigious boutique wineries applying to be kosher and putting up with all the kashrus requirements.

“So, Flam winery became kosher and the family couldn’t work there anymore—but they sort of adopted me into the family. They saw how we cherished their interests, how we worked to solve all the technical problems, to obtain all the necessary kosher ingredients…and they are definitely not sorry about the decision. Only a few weeks ago, we held the first terumos u’maasros (tithing) ceremony ever at the Flam winery—one of the most emotional ones I’ve ever attended.”

The Saslove winery has a similar story. Rabbi Perlov, the company rabbi, relates: “The winery belongs to a vintner from Canada, for whom each harvest was a family occasion. The whole family came from abroad to help. For the longest time he just couldn’t give up this experience.”

As with Flam winery, it took him five years to make his decision. And, despite the loss of the family harvest, he never looked back.

Rabbi Rosenfeld also agrees that the vintners’ attitudes change pretty quickly. “In the beginning, it’s something of a shock for them. Yes, they have already heard from their friends that they won’t be able to work with the wine – but they usually don’t realize how far it will go. They find themselves transforming from wine makers to winery CEOs…not involved at all in the production. Some start out by following us everywhere, watching our every movement to make sure we know what we are doing, making sure those orthodox Jews aren’t spoiling their wine…but they relax pretty quickly. The truth is, our mashgichim are so skilled and professional, we sometime even add to the winemakers’ knowledge, teaching them new and faster ways to do things…they come to trust us completely—and that’s when they become fully at peace with the major step they took in becoming kosher.”

Sometimes, the cooperation with the wineries poses special challenges. Such was the case with Tulip winery, which is located near a home for people with special needs. The residents used to work in the winery and were nearly heartbroken at the idea of not being able to participate in the winery work anymore. “We had to make an effort to think of things they could do—like taking out the waste, etc.” says Rabbi Perlov. One of the residents was so impressed by the newcomers that he once borrowed Rabbi Haskel’s yarmulke and posed proudly as ‘the new winery mashgiach’.

“The mashgiach is my mouth and my nose”

And what do the vintners themselves say? Their satisfaction is evident. Eli Ben Zaken, the manager of Castle Winery relates: “I had great success with my wines, but I just couldn’t avoid the thought that it wasn’t enough. The whole world might love my wines…but I want all the Jews to be able to enjoy them. That was when I decided to get a kosher certification.”

Interestingly enough, he says, even Jews who don’t keep kosher, expect Israeli wines to be kosher. Indeed, 90% of the kosher wines are purchased by costumers who don’t usually keep kosher. “We found out that when a Jew in the Diaspora buys an Israeli wine, he wants to feel the connection to Israel—and the kosher certification is one of things symbolizing this connection for him. If he sees a non-kosher wine, he would rather buy a well-known French brand.”

Yisrael Flam is another vintner who sees only the positive side of getting certification. “The mashgichim and their workers do a great job carrying out all our instructions. Our main mashgiach has become a true wine expert. In addition to everything else, I have gained a lot personally—I now have much more free time to try experiments I couldn’t find time for before.”

In Tzora, Eran the vintner, has great confidence in the mashgiach’s abilities: “Avi, the mashgiach I have here, has become my mouth and my nose. I have complete trust in him.”

Rabbi Haskel isn’t surprised by the vintners’ responses. “We always tell vintners who find the change especially intimidating: let’s try it for one year. If after one harvest you feel you can’t go on—we will go our separate ways.”

So far, he reports, no winery ever choose to give up the certification. “All of the 26 wineries we certify in Israel have never considered it, despite how difficult they initially found our requirements.”

And indeed, despite being torn away from their favorite work, vintners first and foremost want people to enjoy their wines, and the certification has proved itself a sure way to increase sales—without harming the quality of the wine in the least. Daniel Rogov, a well-known Israeli wine critic, has recently declared that getting kosher certification doesn’t change anything in the quality of the wine, and the multitudes of happy customers seem to agree.

“There was once a nasty rumor that mevushal wine is inferior to regular wine,” says Rabbi Rosenfeld. “To prove it isn’t true I gathered a few vintners and wine experts and let them taste a few wines – some mevushal and some not. They couldn’t tell the difference between the two kinds.”

So the revolution is continuing, and its greatest advancers are the very people who watched it warily for a long time before taking the leap. The vintners forced to relinquish the direct touch with their wines are the most enthusiastic advocates for kosher certification. “Take Yoav Levi from Bazelet Hagolan Winery,” says Rabbi Perlov. “He used to be a staunch atheist before he started working with us. Now he tells everybody that there is a special blessing in kosher wine: every year by bottling time, all the wine has already been pre-sold! Not only does he urge all doubting wineries to get certified, but he told us more than once: “Now that I don’t work on Shabbat I have more time for my family. And my boy took advantage of that to persuade me to take him to shul… the first time I was there for a very long time!”

A special blessing indeed.

1. See Rabbi Haskel’s article on kosher wine in Kosher Spirit Spring 2008.

Interview with Michel Rolland

Michel Rolland

Michel Rolland is a famed Bordeaux-based wine expert and vintner, with hundreds of clients across 13 countries and influencing wine style around the world.

KS: Recently, you made wine in Bulgaria under OK supervision. Tell me about the wine you made under the “Ruba Costra” label.

MR: We have one of the best winery infrastructures in the business, so we are able to produce a classical wine variety like other high-end winemakers. Under the “Ruba Costra” label, we produced Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Rubin (a Bulgarian grape). We specifically chose to make a wine native to Bulgaria to showcase the wine personality of Bulgaria. It is a soft, elegant wine that is not too powerful and not as strong as wines produced in the Americas. The Bulgarian climate and soil lends itself to a very elegant wine.

KS: How was your working relationship with the rabbis during wine production?

MR: We had a very good working relationship with no problems. It is quite unusual to have someone watching the wine tanks day and night. Sometimes we went two days without any work on the wines, but the rabbis were still there! In Bordeaux, the winemaking was more complicated because we were doing larger quantities and different types of wine, so we needed more supervision. In Bulgaria, we worked to make the production easier on everyone involved.

KS: The “Ruba Costra” wine was made in September. How did you work around the Jewish holidays?

MR: The schedule presented a bit of a problem. Often we left on Friday and couldn’t come back to check the wines until Monday. In classical winemaking, the wine is tasted and checked every day, so we had to skip a few days due to the holidays.

KS: Are kosher requirements an obstacle to producing top quality wine?

MR: Not at all. Kosher wine can definitely be produced as top quality wine. The quality comes from the grapes themselves. Since we can choose the picking date, there is no reason why kosher wine can’t be made at a very high quality level.

KS: So, one of the main secrets is when you pick the grapes?

MR: Yes. After the grapes are picked, there is no difference in wine production from non-kosher wine, aside from the rabbinic supervision. The quality of my kosher wine is quite special. Very often I taste regular wine and they are very close in quality (kosher and mainstream high quality wines). Kosher wine CAN be very high quality if winemakers try to make good wine.

KS: Do you have a closing statement about kosher wine production or the kosher wine market?

MR: I think that kosher wine is very interesting for the Jewish community. Today, kosher observant people can drink very good wine. If they want good wine, and believe in good quality, there are definitely kosher wines to choose from. There is no reason to look to non-kosher wine, because high-quality kosher wines are widely available.