Sometime during the late 1980s, my family’s Passover seder table found itself embroiled in revolution. The cause of revolution had arrived one seder night disguised as an innocent gift from my uncle. This uncle bore a bottle of wine that, upon closer inspection, became an object of considerable suspicion. This bottle of wine, marked kosher yet bright pink, simply did not look Jewish.
We placed this bottle, called Baron Herzog White Zinfandel, as far away as possible from the bottle of Manischewitz. The Manischewitz, after all, had reigned supreme for years in the center of our table and no one wanted to offend it. Furthermore, it seemed blasphemous to fulfill the mitzvah of the four cups with a drier, white wine that had a better chance of seamlessly assimilating among non-Jews in a bar. It didn’t matter that many of us equated Manischewitz with the taste of cough syrup. It mattered that the story of Exodus had become inextricably linked to a sweet aftertaste that lingers thickly in the mouth.
Yet, my uncle boldly filled his cup with the infidel White Zinfandel, and some of us tentatively followed suit. Little did we know there would be no turning back.
More than 10 years later, I arrive at the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, headquarters of the Royal Wine Corporation — better known as “Kedem” and the company that the magazine Bon Appetit calls “the driving force behind many, if not most, premium kosher wines available in the United States.” By this time, I have enjoyed myriad glasses of kosher Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet. Yet, I cannot shake the nagging suspicion that kosher wine hasn’t quite come of age.
Best known for their production of Kedem, Baron Herzog and Weinstock wines, the Royal Wine Corporation also oversees the marketing and distribution for roughly 10 other lines, including Israeli labels such as Gamla, Golan and Yarden. The company reports combined annual sales of more than a million cases a year, and of the some 400 kosher wines currently available in the market place, “we’ve got our hands in about 250 of them,” says Jay Buchsbaum, the vice president of marketing for the Royal Wine Corporation.
Buchsbaum — a 20-year veteran of the company who previously worked in non-kosher wineries — proves to be a formidable opponent against my lingering prejudices. Today, he says, there’s no logical reason to believe that kosher wine cannot measure up to its non-kosher counterpart. “In another 20 years, this isn’t going to be an issue. [Kosher wine] isn’t only equal, it’s better. We’re more sensitive to the concept of ‘kosher wine must be sweet,’ so we’re opting for the best grapes and going overboard.”
Buchsbaum shares some cold, hard facts — like the Wall Street Journal calling the Weinstock White Zinfandel “the best White Zinfandel in America” or that the Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc wins the most medals in America of all California wines. He then proceeds to dispel myth No. 1 about kosher wine: it hasn’t always been sweet. “For centuries, kosher wine tasted like the local wine of any given country. Only in the last 60 years did kosher wine turn sweet,” he says. “It’s actually a very modern tradition.”
When Eastern European Jews arrived in America, the local variety of grape — called labrusca — required sugar in order to be fit for consumption. Before 1976, Kedem only sold sweet wines but the kosher wine consumer “didn’t know any better,” Buchsbaum points out. “It’s like they enjoyed their black-and-white TVs and didn’t know there would be color TV.”
Kedem’s roots lie in 19th century Czechoslovakia, when the Herzog family winery achieved distinction as the sole wine supplier to Franz Joseph — the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The winery remained under the ownership of the Herzogs until World War II, when the Nazis seized their business and the family went into hiding.
Although the Herzogs reclaimed the winery in 1945, the family relocated to New York in 1948 and its patriarch — Eugene (Yonah) Herzog — went to work for the Royal Wine Company as a truck driver, winemaker and salesperson. “He had it much tougher than we had,” says Jacob Eckstein, one of Kedem’s “master” winemakers and a long-time employee. “When he started out, he produced wine and delivered it. He’d walk up 10 flights of stairs in [housing] projects to deliver wine.”
In 10 years, Yonah became a majority stockholder and bought the company. Kedem records indicated that as early as the 1950s, Yonah wanted to “introduce American Jews to drier wine varieties.”
In 1976, Kedem began selling European varietals — made from grapes that produced drier wines. These first wines, however, “were not completely dry. They were transition wines for consumers used to the sweet wines,” Buchsbaum recalls. “We increased prices from $1.99 to $4.99 and people said ‘what are you crazy? $4.99 for kosher wine?’ But we sold out the on the first day those wines came in.”
Then came 1984 — the year when kosher-keeping Jews no longer had to wonder why people went bonkers for wine from California. Kedem’s new Baron Herzog line now offered varietals from the Golden State. “This was a huge turning point. Today, 70 percent of our sales are varietals,” says Buchsbaum, who notes that Kedem sells some 120,000 cases of Baron Herzog wines annually. “Today, you have religious [Jews] digging space in their homes for wine cellars and saving old vintages of wine. … I would call this a revolution.”
Yet, the 30 percent of sales that accounts for Kedem’s sweet wines indicates that people still yearn for the Malaga or the Cream Pink Concord that’s produced at the Kedem winery in upstate Milton. “There’s some deep-rooted attachment,” Buchsbaum observes of the phenomenon of Jews who feel most comfortable saying kiddush over a glass of the sweet stuff. “Look, I use grape juice when I make kiddush. I have five children who don’t like wine, so to use a great bottle of wine for kiddush would be a waste.”
I leave the Kedem offices and head downstairs to watch what happens to the wine that arrives in tanker trucks from the Milton winery. Kedem’s current and fourth location — in what used to be the Schaeffer Brewery — boasts of endless, cavernous space. With Buchsbaum playing tour guide, we traverse the 30,000-square-foot warehouse loaded with cases of Kedem, Baron Herzog and other wines that await shipment to locales around the world. Some 40 new wines will be introduced to the kosher consumer this Passover, and workers who move like chaotic traffic in Cairo and Bangkok scream at us to move out of the way.
We hustle over to another vast room of mostly stainless steel tanks which houses the wine from the company’s upstate facility. “This is dirty wine, you got to get it clean,” says Mattas Weinberger, the plant manager, who’s worked at Kedem for 25 years and claims to drink only “a little wine for kiddush.”
Weinberger concisely explains what needs to be done with “dirty wine”: filtering, pasteurizing, adding sugar, bottling. “We’ve got four or five [bottling] lines running right now,” he says, gesturing at the nearby line bottling Kedem Rouge Soft wine. He estimates that the plant during Passover season yields some 156,000 bottles a day. “This is our busiest time of the year.”
Besides adding sugar, wine making requires knowledge “of chemistry,” says Eckstein, an acknowledged master of the craft. “You also have to do a lot of tasting, blending and smelling. Aroma is very important. But after 35 years, I really have only learned one thing … that there is a lot more to learn.”
Eli Herzog nods his head in agreement. Also a master wine maker and the grandson of Kedem’s founder, Herzog says his craft poses a never-ending “challenge, because from year to year, the grapes always vary. They’re never the same. But thank God, we have to be proud of what we’re doing, supplying the Jewish community with kosher wine,” he adds.
Do Herzog and Eckstein ever tire of wine? “How can I get tired of it?” retorts an incredulous Eckstein who opens a bottle of Kedem Cream Pink Concord and fills a glass to press his point. “Wine is good for the heart and for the soul. If I don’t drink wine, then I will get tired.”
Back in the Kedem offices, I share Eckstein’s sentiments while eyeing the 20 bottles arrayed on a table in front of me. Buchsbaum has offered to conduct a traditional wine tasting — starting with dry whites, moving onto full-bodied reds and concluding with light, sweet dessert wines.
My photographer and I marvel at our good fortune and duly acknowledge that work rarely gets to be this fun. We wind up raving about the same wines. The new Weinstock Contour offers a light, smooth blend of Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. The 1996 Baron Herzog Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, at $20 a bottle, cannot be described in earthly terms. Its rich, oaky flavor simply speaks of the World to Come. And while I’m not usually a dessert wine drinker, I would happily sip a glass of the sweet and fruity Muscatini from the Joseph Zakon winery with a piece of cake.
As my photographer and I toast to the possibility of achieving mortal bliss, Buchsbaum gives us a knowing glance. “See? You asked how we stack up against treif?” he reminds me. “Well?”
As Passover approaches, I am still dreaming about that special reserve Cabernet. I also know that the bottle of Manischewitz will retain its turf on my family’s seder table. For as Buchsbaum himself noted, “there’s some deep-rooted attachment” with wine that lingers on the tongue — heavy, sweet and rich with tradition and memory.