I’m writing this blog from Israel, where we’ve recently bottled our newest Covenant Israel wines and also participated in a number of fantastic wine events, including Sommelier—an annual Tel Aviv tasting that features a large number of local Israeli wineries. They show up for two days to pour their wines to the trade and the wine-loving public.
I manned our Covenant booth at Sommelier and talked to a broad cross-section of wine enthusiasts—both observant and non-religious—a real potpourri of just about anyone in Israel who’s interested in wine. This being Israel, there were many kosher and non-kosher wineries in attendance. But the focus was mainly Israeli wine, regardless of its status as kosher or non-kosher. What distinguished Sommelier from many fully kosher wine tastings—particularly in America—was that there were no designated pourers, and no glasses rinsed with water between pours.
Here’s why: Kosher dietary laws may restrict anyone who is not strictly Sabbath-observant from pouring kosher wine from the bottle to someone’s glass. The definition of “Sabbath-observant” is somewhat fluid. But for the purposes of our and many other kosher wineries, it’s pretty clear: If you want to work in the cellar and touch the wines, you need to follow “all the rules,” meaning eating and drinking only kosher foods and beverages and following all the requirements regarding Shabbat. It’s a commitment.
That said, I’m not here to question the rules. Except maybe for one; that is, who can pour the wine from a certified kosher bottle, and how they must do it.
At kosher wine tasting events—especially in the U.S.—certified Sabbath-observant pourers are typically engaged to pour all the wines. And between pours, they rinse each taster’s glass with water to prevent what might be considered a “treifed” wine from contaminating the new wine as it enters the glass.
In Israel, the rules are looser. At kosher restaurants, for example, non-Sabbath-observant wait staff will often open and pour wine to diners. I’ve never seen any protest.
At the Sommelier event, a similar philosophy prevailed. There were no rules regarding pourers or how they poured. And both secular and religious oenophile were happy to taste.
I’m just a winemaker, and I’m not qualified to argue the rules of kashrut with the rabbis. But I can tell you that every time you pour a wine into a glass with a few drops of water, you diminish the essence of the wine. (Yes, every drop counts.) This is why professional wine tasters rarely rinse their glasses with water during a tasting. We rinse with wine.
Additionally, at many tastings where only certified pourers can pour the wines, bottlenecks are common. The pourers just can’t keep up with demand. And the ensuing wine traffic jams diminish everyone’s enjoyment.
So my question is this: Why in America do we have to go through a complex pouring ritual, while in Israel we don’t? Since we’re talking “truth in wine,” I truthfully know than I’m not going to change much by writing this blog. But maybe someday, those American rabbis who interpret the rules will decide that a wine made strictly under kosher supervision will not lose its kosher status because of who pours it. In my humble winemaker’s opinion, if the wine was kosher going into the bottle, it’s still kosher going out of the bottle!
I understand the rabbinical perspective: certified kosher pourers are simply upholding tradition and halakha. But I think it’s self-defeating. It diminishes the way we experience our time-honored and most holy of beverages. Can we not somehow make it as easy to get a glass of fine kosher wine in the States as it is in Israel?
I’m hoping so….in my lifetime. But alas, I’m not counting on it.
Vintner Jeff Morgan is the co-owner of Covenant Winery, in California and Israel. He’s also the author of nine books on food and wine and a former wine journalist.