On Friday, many Jewish families will mark the first night of Passover with a special Seder dinner. During this ceremonial meal, family members retell the story of Exodus.
"Passover is the night when we celebrate our redemption from Egypt many years ago," Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue, tells NPR's Michel Martin.
Herzfeld says wine plays a large role in the Seder dinner because Passover is meant to be a joyful time when Jews celebrate their freedom from bondage. For each of the four major rituals, participants drink one glass of wine.
In the past, the options for kosher wine were limited and didn't exactly thrill wine lovers. But kosher wine enthusiasts say all of that has changed, and now there are hundreds of options from around the world.
What Makes Wine Kosher?
Kosher wine aficionado Yossie Horwitz gives a general idea of what many observant Jews look for in this wine.
He says there are two basic requirements: From the time the grapes arrive at the winery to the time the wine is bottled, everything must be handled by Sabbath-observing Jews. Also, every ingredient in the wine needs to be kosher.
Observant Jews also believe that if a non-Jew opens and serves a bottle of wine, it's no longer kosher. To get around that rule, Horwitz says, there's a concept called mevushal, which in Hebrew literally means "cooked."
"If the wine has been boiled, then any person can handle the wine without rendering it unkosher," says Horwitz.
He adds that, over the years, winemakers have developed flash pasteurization techniques that have very little effect on the taste of the wine.
Why The Bad Reputation?
The "kosher wine revolution," as Horwitz calls it, has been a long time coming. He says options for kosher wine have been increasing for the past 30 years mainly because of growing demand by more sophisticated kosher wine consumers.
Horwitz says that for most people who do not drink kosher wine on a regular basis, their idea of kosher wine is Manischewitz. And that wine can be sweet, thick and "not exactly what you would serve with a fine meal."
Horwitz says he maintains a high bar when it comes to kosher wine. He is a regular judge for Jewish Week's annual Kosher Wine Guide, and in the past year he sampled more than 700 kosher wines, he says.
Adds Herzfeld, "Yossie told me that he only serves wine at the Seder that he would serve to the Messiah when he comes."
But for those sitting at the Seder table who would rather pass on wine altogether, the rabbi has an alternative: grape juice.
"If you can't drink wine, then you can drink grape juice and you can fulfill your commandment and the ritual requirement to drink wine," Herzfeld says.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We are going to continue our Faith Matters conversation now with a look at Passover. Tonight, Jewish families will get together for a special Seder dinner. That's a ceremonial meal that begins the holiday. They will retell the story of Moses, who freed the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. They'll eat matzo, or unleavened bread, and they will drink four glasses of wine.
And, when it comes to kosher wine, there used to be, let's say, slim pickings, and they weren't generally known as taste sensations. But our next guests say that is no longer the case. The kosher wine world now offers hundreds of options from all over the world.
Here to tell us more about that, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. He is the senior rabbi at Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. He joins us often to tell us more about the Jewish holidays and customs.
And, also with us, Yossie Horwitz. He is a lawyer by day and a wine aficionado by night. He's also a regular judge for Jewish Week's annual Kosher Wine Guide, and he writes a newsletter about kosher wine.
Gentlemen, thank you both so much for joining us.
RABBI SHMUEL HERZFELD: It's good to be here, Michel.
YOSSIE HORWITZ: Thank you, Michel, for having us.
MARTIN: So, Rabbi, could you just tell us, first of all, what is the role of wine in Passover, and why is it customary for Jews to drink four cups of wine during the Seder?
HERZFELD: Passover is the night where we celebrate our redemption from Egypt many years ago. And one of the keys to making a Passover Seder meaningful and engaging everyone in the Passover Seder is to actually view ourselves as having been redeemed this night.
And so tonight, as we sit at our Seder, we are going to be celebrating our freedom from bondage. And one of the ways our rabbis teach us that we celebrate is by drinking wine. It's a festive occasion, and so that's why we have four cups of wine at the Passover Seder.
There are two explanations for four. One is that it corresponds to four expressions of redemption when God speaks to Moses in the book of Exodus. And the second explanation is that, at every ritual that we do, we try to have wine. And there are four major parts to the Passover Seder that we drink wine for.
MARTIN: Yossi, can you explain to us briefly what makes a wine kosher, and can any wine be kosher?
HORWITZ: Sure, Michel. In general, yes. Any wine can be kosher. All that is required, in a nutshell, for a wine to be kosher is that it is handled - from the time the grapes arrive at the winery until the time it goes into a bottle - by Sabbath-observant Jews, and that every ingredient in the wine is kosher.
There are multitudes of rules and regulations that surround these two points, and the most important thing to note is that being kosher has nothing to do with the quality of the wine.
MARTIN: And I was going to ask you: Why is it - and I'm not being mean, here - but why is it that kosher wine has such a terrible reputation? Or should I say, had such a terrible reputation?
HORWITZ: Well, I think it's a historical thing. As Rabbi Herzfeld said, the kosher wine revolution, or the resurgence of quality kosher wine has occurred over the last 30 years. The primary consumer of these wines is the kosher wine consumer. And I think, in recent years, they have become more sophisticated in the area of culinary, gastronomic and oenophilic delights. And I think with that increasing sophistication comes an increased demand for a better wine to put on the table.
And, while most people who do not - who are not kosher on a regular basis, who do not drink kosher wine on a regular basis, their memories of kosher wine come to Manischewitz, which is - and can be - cloyingly sweet, thick and not exactly what you would serve with a fine meal.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: I have fond memories of Manischewitz, but then again, I think a fine vintage is Sprite. So it shows you what I know. Tonight marks the first night of Passover, and we are talking about kosher wine. Our guests are kosher wine aficionado Yossi Horwitz. Also with us, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C.
We're going to actually sample a couple of bottles here, and these are both widely distributed in the U.S. To start, we have - I think it's a sauvignon blanc. Right?
MARTIN: From Ella Valley Vineyards in Israel. And, Rabbi, I understand - or maybe, Yossi, this is a question for you. I understand that the rabbi has to open it in order for it to remain kosher. Is that - do I have this right?
HORWITZ: That is correct.
MARTIN: So he has to open it? OK.
HORWITZ: If a non-Jew were to open a bottle of wine, an observant Jew can no longer sample that wine. In order to get around that, there is a concept called mevushal, which means - literally translated from Hebrew - cooked, otherwise known as boiled. If the wine has been boiled, then any person can handle the wine without rendering it un-kosher.
MARTIN: So, Rabbi, will you do the honors?
HERZFELD: All right. First of all, Michel...
MARTIN: Yossie, we need you.
HERZFELD: ...in my home, my wife opens the bottle of wine.
MARTIN: OK. And Rabbi is not giving up his day job for a career as a sommelier. I'll just mention that. So...
HERZFELD: I'm going to need help here. Can I stick this between my...
MARTIN: You can do whatever you need to do to open that.
HERZFELD: That makes it easier.
MARTIN: Yay. There you are.
HERZFELD: Yeah. Michel, I'm going to need to recite a blessing before I drink the wine.
(SOUNDBITE OF WINE BEING POURED)
HORWITZ: And I'm getting thirsty.
HERZFELD: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha'olam borei p'ri hagafen.
MARTIN: How is it?
HORWITZ: It's a perfect wine.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Yossi, you recommended this one, too, I think.
HORWITZ: I did.
MARTIN: What do you like about it?
HORWITZ: Well, it actually comes from the Ella Valley Winery, like you said, which is in the Ella Valley in Israel, which has, actually, some great historical importance. It is the scene of the famous battle between David and Goliath.
In more modern times, it is the scene of a incredible little winery that makes a number of really, really special wines. The wine in question that you guys are enjoying is a fresh, vibrant, fruity wine that has a nice bit of acid in it that helps it go well with food - should be overtones of some citrus, grapefruits, things like that.
MARTIN: You getting all that, Rabbi?
HERZFELD: Yes. He told me prior to the show that he only serves wine at the Seder that he would serve to the Messiah when he comes. So...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Well, that's good to know.
HERZFELD: ...that's a good rule.
MARTIN: That is a good rule. That is a good rule. Let's move into red wine. The next bottle you selected for us is from California. It's a 2007 Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. And, Rabbi, will you do the honors again?
(SOUNDBITE OF WINE BEING POURED)
HORWITZ: The second bottle you are sampling is actually a mevushal bottle.
HORWITZ: So anyone can actually handle that bottle.
MARTIN: Anyone can handle that one.
HORWITZ: And the wine that you guys are enjoying - and making me thirsty - is from the Alexander Valley. It's a cabernet sauvignon, and they make it very well.
MARTIN: Rabbi, what do you think?
HERZFELD: I like the white one.
MARTIN: You like the white? You're more of a - in general, are you more of a red or a white...
HERZFELD: It is a custom to drink red wine at the Passover Seder, because the red reminds us that the first plague was done with blood. So there is a added practice. So, in our Passover Seder, we only drink red wine. But it just so happens to be, I like this white wine more than this red wine.
MARTIN: So, finally, before we let you go, Rabbi, some people can't drink wine...
MARTIN: ...for whatever reason. They might be expecting. They might - it might just not agree with them. They might have, perhaps, an issue where it is best that they not drink wine. Is there an option? What should they do?
HERZFELD: Well, the first option is grape juice. If you can't drink wine, then you can drink grape juice, and you can fulfill your commandment and the ritual requirement to drink wine by drinking the grape juice, especially if you're a child or an alcoholic, etc. But if you can't drink wine and you can't drink grape juice, call me and we'll work it out. No problem.
MARTIN: All right. Just be sure you show up at the Seder. That's right. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld leads Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue here in Washington, D.C. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Yossi Horwitz is a lawyer by day and a wine aficionado by night. He joined us from member station WLRN in Miami, Florida, where he is observing the holidays with his family.
Rabbi, thank you so much. Yossi, thank you so much for joining us. And what's the proper greeting? Is it Happy Passover? Gut Yontiff?
HERZFELD: Gut Yontiff is perfect, Michel.
MARTIN: Gut Yontiff.
HERZFELD: Thank you. Gut Yontiff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.