Alicia Wilbur on Kosher Wine

We’ve written about kosher wine before as part of a Celebrity Wine FAQ with actor Mayim Bialik. Then we got the chance to interview Alicia Wilbur, winemaker at Herzog Wine Cellars, and we jumped at it. With Passover starting this Saturday, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to learn more about kosher wine and wine that is also kosher for Passover.

As it turned out, we had to do the interview by email – and it worked out great! Our questions are bolded, with the responses by Alicia Wilbur.

What makes a wine kosher?
Photo of winemaker Alicia Wilbur, who shares about kosher wine
Winemaker Alicia Wilbur

Grapes on the vine are inherently kosher – our job is to ensure they remain kosher throughout the winemaking process.  The fundamental difference in the kosher winemaking process is who does the physical work:  anyone who handles the juice or wine must be Shabbat observant.  There are some further considerations with winemaking ingredients (such as yeast) which must be certified kosher. And lastly, our calendar follows the Jewish calendar, which prohibits work on the Sabbath and holidays.  In general, one can say that Kosher is a high level of scrutiny, or attention to detail.

Is there a difference between kosher and kosher for Passover when it comes to wine?

Being kosher for Passover is another level of detail, making sure that any winemaking ingredients are not only kosher, but kosher for Passover.  Our barrels must also be kosher for Passover!  The traditional glue used in barrel heads is made with flour – obviously this isn’t possible for KLP wines, so we have our barrels specially made for us with Rabbinic supervision.

How do you know a wine is kosher?

The best way to tell a wine is kosher is to look for the certification.  The Orthodox Union (OU) and many other agencies certify wines and wineries and their labels will be displayed on the label.

Photo of the Variations line up of Herzog kosher wine.
Herzog Wines
Two things we have heard about kosher wines is that they tend to be sweet, or that they have a cooked flavor (as we understand it, from the meshuval process). Do you as a winemaker go with the sweet or how do you work against it?

When Jews arrived in the United States, they settled mostly on the East Coast.  The grapes they found growing wild are type Vitis labrusca, native eastern North American grapes, as opposed to Vitis vinifera which are native European grapes.  Vitis labrusca grapes are commonly known as Concord and have a distinct flavor profile.  One way to make the juice taste better was to allow for lots of sweetness in the finished wine.  Since wine and grape juice are required for Jewish ritual observance, the wines our early American ancestors made was from concord grapes made extra sweet and this style was associated for many years with kosher wine.  

Nowadays especially for us at Herzog sweet wine is a stylistic choice and made intentionally. Some of the wines we make are sweet, bust most of the wines we make are not sweet at all.  And all of our varieties are Vitis vinifera (Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Muscat).  It’s important to note that fruity notes or expressive fruity flavors do not mean the wine is sweet!  Our palates/taste buds often equate fruity and sweet, but they are different tastes and sensations.

As for making wines mevushal, this generally has no perceptible impact on the flavor of the wine being made.  It is absolutely possible for mevushal wine to be age-worthy, point worthy, impressive, expressive – our 2014 Alexander Valley Special Reserve was written about in Wine Spectator, receiving a 92 point score and hailed as a 20 year age worthy wine.

What are the best wines to pair with a Seder dinner, which has a lot of varying flavors?

For Seder, I love starting out with lighter, lower alcohol wines such as a Sauvignon Blanc or sparkling wine.  Then I move into a rose or more structured white such as an oaked Chardonnay for the second cup.  Third and fourth is when I bring out the big, opulent red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, depending on the main course.  The meal is long and relaxed, and the perfect opportunity to try new things.  

And so, a special thanks to Alicia Wilbur, a winemaker at Herzog Wine Cellars for her thoughts.

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