One of the minor hazards of being a wine writer is being asked by friends and family for advice on selecting wines — especially wines for catered celebrations. Not long ago, wine selection for kosher catered events was almost an afterthought. But with today’s abundance of kosher wines, finding just the right wines for a celebration can often seem like a bit of a daunting task.
In the last few decades, the American-Jewish population, observant and non-observant alike, has joined the general American population in a new appreciation of wine. And that, in turn, has spurred an incredible growth in the multimillion-dollar kosher wine industry. It’s not only that Jews are just drinking more; it’s that they are drinking differently and more boldly. Concord grape wines, which were once de rigueur at almost all Jewish celebrations, have lost much of their popularity. And while those sweet, syrupy wines are still available at almost every corner wine shop, Jews are increasingly turning to dryer, more sophisticated wines for both ceremonial and recreational purposes.
Surprisingly however, there are still a number of kosher caterers who seem to be under the impression that a few bottles of cream-Concord and a bottle of blended Scotch is all that’s required for most catered events. If having good wine at your catered event is important to you, then make sure that your caterer knows that you consider the wine to be an important element of the meal, and don’t wanted it to be treated as an afterthought.
Wine should be discussed at one of the first meetings with your caterer. Likely the caterer will have a small list of wines that he regularly serves, and they may very well fit your needs, but you should also inquire about the possibility of supplying your own wine. In fact, with discounts from retailers on bulk purchasing, and the possibility, depending on local laws, of buying wine directly from a wholesaler, it is often more economical to supply your own wine.
Whether or not you are supplying your own wine, it’s important that you taste, and like, all of the wines that will be served. Buy a bottle of each wine you are considering serving, and taste it with family and friends. If possible try to arrange to sample the wines while sampling the fare for the event. That way you can get a sense of which wines might best compliment your menu. (If tasting more than a handful of wines in a sitting, you should sip and spit the wines. Otherwise after the first few wines, your taste buds will be numbed from the alcohol, and all of the wines will start to taste more or less the same.) Don’t ever let any caterer, wine shop owner, or wine critic, convince you to buy multiple cases of a wine that you have never tried and don’t know that you will like.
If you are supplying your own wine, do keep in mind that almost all kosher caterers in the U.S. will require you to serve mevushal wine (i.e., wines that have been heated during the winemaking process, so that according to Jewish law they may be handled my non-Jews). However, with modern flash-pasteurization technology, mevushal wines need no longer be inferior to non-mevushal wines.
For the most part, the best mevushal wines come from California, and with the weak dollar causing the prices of imported wines to constantly rise, kosher Californian wines are often among the most economical choices. For value-priced mevushal wines, consider the wines of Baron Herzog, Weinstock and Don Ernesto. If money is not an object, consider the wines of Hagafen, Prix Vineyards, and Herzog’s Special Reserve line — these are not only some of the best mevushal wines on the market, but some of them are among the very best kosher wines made anywhere.
If you’d rather serve something a bit exotic, but still moderately priced, consider the Goose Bay wines from New Zealand, or perhaps one of the growing number of mevushal kosher wines from Spain, such as Ramon Cordova’s Rioja.
When it comes to moderately priced mevushal sparkling wines, Italian Proseccos such as Bellenda Prosecco, and Bartenura Prosecco, are good choices, as is Herzog Selection’s Blanc de Blancs from France. However, nothing beats the luxurious taste and feel of true Champagne, and if your budget will allow it, consider the excellent mevushal Grand Cru Champagne from the house of Louis de Sacy.
As a general rule, a bottle of wine will serve about five glasses, and one should assume that each adult guest will drink on average a glass and a half during a meal or reception. If you’re planning a wedding it’s a good idea to assume that each guest will have a glass and a half both at the pre-ceremony reception, and at the meal itself. That works out to five cases of wine per hundred wedding guests.
Although nothing can replace the elegance of pouring good wine at a seated meal, at a stand-up reception there are a few options that are less pricy than serving wine by the glass, which can also be quite elegant.
One option is to have a “Champagne bar.” Classic sparkling wine-based mixed drinks such as the Mimosa (sparkling wine with orange juice), the Bellini (sparkling wine with peach puree), the Kir Royal (sparkling wine with crème de cassis) and the Champagne Cocktail (sparkling wine with an Angostura Bitters soaked sugar cube) are fun yet elegant beverages that will allow one to squeeze seven or eight drinks out of a single bottle of wine.
Another option is to serve a good wine-based punch. Few culinary treats are more visually appealing, or more difficult to resist, than a nicely garnished punch bowl; and serving punch is often as little as half the cost of serving wine by the glass. There are dozens, if not hundreds of good punch recipes out there, however I have provided one of my favorite wine-based punch recipes in the box above.
One final note of advice: Don’t allow yourself to be overcome by stress while planning the drinks or food for your catered celebration. Your guests are there for the celebration, not the food and wine, and it is the celebration that they will remember.
Gamliel Kronemer writes the Fruit of the Vine kosher wine column for the paper.
Bengal Lancers Punch
(Makes approximately 3 liters of punch. Serves 12-14)
This recipe is based on one found in Charles H. Baker’s culinary travelogue, “The Gentleman’s Companion, Volume 2” (1939). Baker wrote that a “Captain Ferguson, late of His Majesty’s Cavalry in upper India, gave us this one back in 1926, and it was a specialty of his Colonel on quite special occasions.”
1 bottle of dry sparkling wine
1 bottle of a light-bodied Cabernet or Merlot based wine
1 12-ounce can of seltzer
6 tablespoons of lime juice (approximately 4 limes)
6 tablespoons of orange juice (approximately 1½ oranges)
6 tablespoons of pineapple juice (juice from a can or a carton
can be used in a pinch)
6 tablespoons of simple syrup (see recipe below)
4½ tablespoons of dark rum
4½ tablespoons of Leroux Orange Curaçao
1 lime, thinly sliced
a block of ice (not ice cubes)
Place the block of ice in the punch bowl and add the ingredients in the following order: red wine, rum, juices, syrup, Curaçao, sparkling wine, and seltzer. Stir the punch, and float the lime slices on top as a garnish.
Please note: When making punch it is important to use only quality ingredients.
Always use fresh juices that were juiced within a day of making the punch. As sugar dissolves slowly in cold liquids, it is best to use a simple sugar syrup in punches. (To make simple syrup, heat equal parts superfine sugar and water over a low flame until the sugar is fully dissolved. One can also buy a pre-made simple syrup, such as Monin’s Pure Cane Syrup.) When making punch one should also always use a solid block of ice, at least three or four inches thick on each side, as ice cubes will melt much too quickly and will dilute a punch. It is also important that all the ingredients, and the punch bowl itself, are well chilled before making the punch. In punches that call for seltzer and/or sparkling wine, these ingredients should be added just before serving.