By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; E05
Wine features prominently in the Bible. Noah planted vines on Mount Ararat after the floodwaters receded, demonstrating wine's importance to daily life. Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, symbolizing wine's importance in life's celebrations. And at the Last Supper, a Passover meal, Jesus used wine as a ritual symbol of God's love and redemption.
Our biblical ancestors were no dummies. Today, it is a winemaking cliche that high-altitude vineyards such as those on Mount Ararat produce wines of the greatest complexity and highest quality. California winemakers turn water into wine by adding it during fermentation to compensate for overripe grapes. Wine still carries religious significance, even ersatz wine, such as the thimblefuls of Welch's grape juice I quaffed at Methodist Communion in my youth. Perhaps nowhere does wine retain its symbolic power as thoroughly as at a Seder, the annual ritual Passover meal observed in Jewish households around the world. The holiday begins this year on March 29.
"The Passover Seder is a fairly proscribed ritual in which four cups of wine are consumed by each adult participant at various stages of the meal," says Steve Kerbel, director of education for Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac. The four cups mentioned in the Seder Haggadah, the text that tells the story of Passover, represent the stages of the Israelites' journey from slavery under the Egyptians to freedom in the wilderness, he says. A fifth cup is poured for the prophet Elijah, in hopes that he will bring news of the Messiah. That cup represents entry into the Holy Land, a deferred blessing for the Israelites on their exodus from Egypt.
The wine consumed and the wine left for Elijah at a Seder must be kosher. For wine lovers, kosher is really no big deal. As Kerbel says: "What makes a wine kosher has almost nothing to do with what goes into a wine but the process of winemaking and the supervision. According to Jewish law, wine consumed by Jews must be supervised by observant Jews."
Not surprisingly, a cottage industry has sprung up to certify wines and other products as kosher.
"What you need to look for on a wine label is a phrase or symbol designating the wine as 'Kosher for Passover,' " says Lou Marmon, wine writer for the local Gazette newspapers and Washington Jewish Week. Kosher for Passover status is illustrated by the letters U or K in a circle, with a P in superscript, representing the two most common kosher certifications. Marmon, who keeps kosher, says the various certifications may carry special meaning for specific Jewish communities. But they have two traits in common: They indicate that the wine was produced under the supervision of rabbis and that it is acceptable for use in Jewish religious ceremonies. The addition of the "P" means the wine can be used during Passover.
Kosher wines typically are labeled either mevushal or non-mevushal. The word translates rather unfortunately as "boiled," but today it means the wine has been flash-pasteurized to ensure ritual purity. A mevushal wine remains kosher even if it is handled or poured by a non-observant person, so such wines are preferred by caterers and restaurants for observant Jewish patrons. Although heat is the enemy of wine, flash-pasteurization should not affect the wine's quality.
And don't think kosher wines must come from Israel, although the best do. As Kerbel pointed out, kosher dietary laws were developed as a means of maintaining ritual purity during the Diaspora, the period of exile from the Holy Land. Kosher wines are produced today wherever fine wines are grown.
Other than assessing a wine's purity for religious ceremonies, Kerbel says, observant Jews should take the same approach as wine lovers of any religion: "The only wines you need to worry about are the ones you like and the ones you don't like."
McIntyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.