I was raised in an Irish Catholic home—and the Easter celebration was the highlight of my year.
Yes, there was the Easter bunny, plus egg hunts, loads of candy and an epic brunch where I could eat as much French toast as my little belly could hold. Beyond the festivities that even the non-religious celebrate was the morning Mass, where we would receive the most important communion of the year, on the day when Christians believe Jesus ascended into heaven. The night before his crucifixion, at the Last Supper, he offered his disciples wine and bread. The wine represented his blood, which would be spilled for them. He broke bread and gave it to them to eat, and said the torn pieces were his body, which would be broken for them.
Heavy stuff. Thankfully, it was immediately followed by some lighthearted fun.
In the evening, the whole crazy, hard-partying, Irish-Canadian family would gather at my grandmother’s house for a huge dinner. This was probably my favorite part—because I was allowed to drink wine with the grown-ups. Not copious amounts, of course; they weren’t trying to turn me into a pint-sized Betty Ford, but they were allowing me to participate in the joy of the day. I had my own little glass that I’m sure came with a holiday gift set of Carolans Irish Cream, and that petite liqueur glass was the perfect size for me.
Perhaps this early introduction to wine—and me equating it to joy, family and celebrations—is why I made a career out of it. It’s funny that I never really associated wine with the church, even though that was the whole point of the day.
Now, as a sommelier, this is the time of year when I focus my attention on finding kosher wines for customers celebrating Passover. Wine is equally as important in the Jewish faith as it is to Christians. Ironically, there is no specific wine Christians choose for their celebrations; I’m sometimes asked what will pair best with honey ham, or lamb. Other times, people are looking for wines with rabbits, eggs or a cross on the label—ya know, bottles that will look good sitting on the table.
By contrast, I’ve learned that during the Passover seder, each adult drinks wine from four different cups, each representing the four promises made to them by God—and the wines suitable for this occasion have very specific requirements.
For a wine to be kosher, all aspects of the growing, harvesting, fermenting and bottling must be handled and overseen by observant Jews. The ingredients that turn the grape juice into vino must also be kosher—including the yeast and the fining agents that take all the little floaties out.
I was educated about a type of kosher wine called “mevushal,” which is Hebrew for “cooked” or “boiled.” In the simplest terms, this is a wine that has been heated to a certain temperature, which allows non-observant Jews and gentiles to handle the bottle after it’s been opened without removing its kosher status.
So, does kosher wine taste different than “regular” wine? Well, no, not really. It’s important to remember that good wine is good wine, regardless of the religion of the person making it. The quality of wine still comes down to the quality of the grapes, the conditions during the growing season, the soil, the sun and the skill of the winemaker. Those are universal wine truths.
If you’re looking for Passover wines that go beyond Manischewitz, here are some of the stellar examples I’ve come across.
The Tzora Judean Hills Blanc is a blend of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc from the coastal plain of Israel. Made by the first Israeli Master of Wine and a University of California, Davis, graduate, Eran Pick, the wine is loaded with bright citrus fruits and beautiful minerality.
Yarden is the flagship label of the Golan Heights Winery in Galilee. They make a delicious gewurztraminer that is just slightly off-dry, with flavors of passionfruit, melon, spice and honeysuckle blossoms.
Galil Mountain Winery produces a Bordeaux-inspired blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot and a little syrah, called Yiron. Produced from grapes grown in the Upper Galilee, this luscious red displays plenty of ripe, red berry aromas, plus black cherries and plums, before finishing with the perfect amount of vanilla and clove.
Not all kosher wine is made in Israel. I recently discovered the Alavida organic and kosher malbec, from the high elevation region of Tupungato in Mendoza, Argentina. This wine is made by the premiere estate of Domaine Bousquet, a winery known for outstanding, organically farmed malbec. Floral aromatics waft out of the glass, with scents of boysenberries and blueberries, and a touch of mocha.
This Easter, I’m going to bust out the little liqueur glasses I inherited from my mother; invite my crazy, hard-partying friends over; and let my boys participate in the joy of the day. And given that the Last Supper was probably a Passover seder, I think some kosher wine is only fitting.