Most people can pinpoint what their first sip of alcohol was. For American Jews growing up in religiously observant households, it’s almost always Manischewitz.
The sweet, low-alcohol, and cheap kosher wine made from Concord grapes has long been a staple at the table of Jews for the Kiddush, a traditional blessing over wine, at their weekly Shabbat dinner, during most holidays, and poured into the four cups of wine that are ceremoniously sipped during Passover. Concord grapes produce a rather bitter wine, so Manischewitz is sweetened with large amounts of residual sugar — usually corn syrup.
“We are not drinkers, the Jews; we’re eaters. And I believed that that was wine. That was it. I never saw another bottle of wine,” recalls Judy Gold, a two-time Emmy award-winning standup comedian, actress, television writer, and producer. She’s also the host of the “Kill Me Now” podcast and author of “Yes, I Can Say That,” a book about the attempted censorship of comedians.
“Kids are sneaking vodka and I’m opening the fridge when no one is looking and pouring a little Manischewitz Concord grape,” she recalls. “It was dangerous. I thought I was doing something really bad by sneaking it. But now as an adult, you’re like, ‘Did I really drink that?’”
Jeff Morgan, co-founder of Covenant Wines, one of the most renowned producers of kosher wine in the U.S. and Israel, and the former West Coast editor of Wine Spectator — he once even attended a Passover Seder where Rodney Dangerfield fell asleep in his matzo ball soup — has an extreme distaste for Concord grape-based kosher wine that goes far beyond its actual taste. It’s personal.
“We Jews were deprived of decent wine grapes for nearly two millennia once the Romans threw us out of Israel,” says Morgan. “Some went to places where they could grow grapes but most went where they couldn’t, like Eastern Europe.”
Morgan is referencing the destruction of the Second Temple and most of Jerusalem during the Roman Empire, after which Roman oppression and persecution resulted in many Jews immigrating from Israel to parts of the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa.
Then, when more than one million Jews migrated to New York in the late 19th century and early 20th century, they needed to make wine for the Kiddush ritual. New York was rife with Concord grapes. “It was like ‘Oh my God, God has sent us to a place where we can make all the Kiddush wine we want,’” says Morgan.
“They sweetened it up and it became known as traditional kosher wine, which in my opinion is a gross misnomer as it’s not traditional to my people who were making great wine 2-3,0000 years ago, alongside their viticultural brethren in Greece and Rome. It is not traditional. It’s the result of diaspora, of the longstanding trials and travels of the Jewish people.”
Sweet Concord grape wines like Manischewitz have placed a stigma on kosher wine in America that’s been hard to shake, despite the fact that in reality, kosher wines can be produced using almost the exact same ingredients and methods as non-kosher wine. The major difference is that kosher wine must be handled by Sabbath-observant Jews only.
Gold started to appreciate wine more in adulthood when her Orthodox neighbors would serve Bartenura Kosher Pinot Grigio, famously packaged in a blue bottle, at Shabbat dinner. In the last two decades, she’s witnessed a big shift in the kosher wine market via the development of quality, dry kosher wines made from Vitis vinifera grapes sourced largely from Israel, Europe, and the U.S.
“All of a sudden, I noticed at the liquor stores in my neighborhood, the kosher wine section was getting bigger and bigger,” she says, adding that there are now some really good kosher wines. “My holiday meals have definitely improved in the last 15-20 years because I don’t dread buying the wine. It had gotten to the point where I’d be like, ‘Here’s the wine for the dinner and this is my special bottle.’”
It may have taken thousands of years, but Kiddush is finally cool again.
3 kosher wines to try:
Like Manischewitz, Riesling has also long battled the sweet stigma, but this crisp and dry production from Hagafen, a fully kosher Napa winery, will pair with just about anything and prove the haters wrong.
Beautiful honey notes shine through this fresh and tropical Viognier from Israel, making it an ideal match with Challah and honey on Shabbat. Barrel fermented in neutral oak barrels for added texture and richness, it’s also a great white for winter weather.
This famed Napa Valley winery started producing a kosher version of their classic Cabernet Sauvignon in 2014, when the Orthodox Jewish Schottenstein family became partners in the winery. This wine is bursting with red fruit flavors, structured, yet approachable, and a perfect match for brisket.
Available for purchase by request through the Mayacamas website.
Note: this wine can be purchased by emailing Mayacamas: firstname.lastname@example.org