by Fred McMillin
for October 3, 1997

The Story of Kosher Wine

Prologue: The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur begins at sundown, Friday, Oct. 10. In honor of this "Day of Atonement" today's column discusses one of America's leading kosher wineries, Hagafen, which in Hebrew means "the vine."

Kosher Origins: In ancient times, leaders of the Jewish community recognized that heathens (non-Jews) often used their wine to make libations to heathen idols. Hence, they forbid any use of wine made or handled by non-Jews. To insure this, approved wines were made under the supervision of a rabbi. Hence the name "kosher," which in Hebrew means "correct."

Kosher Comes to America: Wine is a symbol of joy in the Jewish culture. It has played an important role in sustaining that heritage. However, the early Jewish congregations in America (there were only five in 1825) were not concerned with strict adherence to dietary laws. But, early in this century a large number of Orthodox Jews arrived on our shores and they adhered strictly to the dietary laws. Kosher had come to America.

And Next, Kosher Wine...How Sweet It Is: Young Leo Star made a little extra-sweet Concord wine each spring in New York City during Prohibition. The Jewish community drank it with their spring Passover feast. Upon Repeal in 1933 Leo tried selling the wine in retail stores. The merchants said they couldn't sell it after spring and wanted him to take it back. He refused...and then as the public tried it, orders poured in. Leo thought it sold because it was kosher, so he went to a kosher food firm and used their name, Manischewitz. The sweet kosher wine industry was born...but by accident. It was being purchased mostly by non-Jews who weren't sure what kosher meant, but surely liked the flavor. In time, sales rose to three million gallons!

Dry Kosher Table Wine: Ernie Weir graduated from U.C.-Davis (Wine Science) and decided to try to make "premium Napa Valley dry table wines but infused with my Jewish cultural identity." So, he founded Hagafen (hu-GAF-en) Cellars in 1979. How's he doing? Not long ago, the "Wine Enthusiast" wrote, "Hagafen, one of the more mature kosher California wineries, appears regularly on the lists of wine competition winners. It is expanding. The dynamite Cabernet is in great demand...the Johannisberg Riesling is terrific." The White House agrees, having served both the Riesling and the Chardonnay at Israeli State Dinners. Ernie may be on his way to selling three million gallons, too!

1. See the 4/23/97 WineDay for more kosher & Hagafen details.
2. An important reference for this piece was Robert C. Fuller's "Religion and Wine," U. Of Tennessee Press, 1996.

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

Read more articles by Fred McMillin in the eGGsf

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