“Four cups of wine is a lot for some people, but at least it’s a long dinner,” says Amber Simco, a neighbor of mine in Silver Spring, explaining the role wine plays in the traditional Passover Seder. The four cups, drunk at specific times during the ritual meal, symbolize God’s promises in the Book of Exodus to free the Jews from slavery in Egypt. An additional cup is left unconsumed for the prophet Elijah, in hopes he will arrive bearing news of the Messiah and the Jews’ entry into the promised land.
Not that the idea is to get tipsy, but “the wine is meant to enhance the joy, or simca, of the celebration,” Simco adds. “That’s why many people look for wines lower in alcohol, so you don’t end up on the floor.”
Humor aside, good kosher wines are not easy to find. Simco, a financial analyst with the National Institutes of Health, and her husband, Avi Mendell, a research scientist with NASA, keep kosher — including wine, which they drink two or three evenings a week with dinner. But they search far and wide to find good kosher wines, even for everyday drinking.
The selection in Montgomery County, where the county controls the choice and distribution of wines, “is not great, so people who like wine will make a pilgrimage to Baltimore or the District to find good ones,” she tells me. Another option is to order directly from online sites such as Kosherwine.com (though out-of-state retailers can’t legally ship to customers in Maryland). Many local synagogues hold wine tastings in the weeks leading up to Passover, selling wines by the case as fundraisers.
Kosher wines are produced under a rabbi’s supervision, and there are several kosher certifications. Only those marked “kosher for Passover” are suitable for the holiday ritual (sometimes denoted by a U or K in a circle with the letter P in superscript). Wines marked “mevushal” (translated as “cooked”) are flash-pasteurized, so they remain kosher no matter what kind of handling they receive. That makes mevushal wines popular with caterers.
The good news: Kosher wines for Passover have gotten better in recent years. Wine lovers no longer need to compromise on quality to satisfy the ritual requirements of the Seder meal, even if they need to search out the good options.
“Not too many years ago, if you were looking for kosher wines for a celebration or holiday, your choices were pretty dismal,” says Steven Schattman, a sales and marketing representative with M. Touton Selection, a major importer concentrating on French wine but with a strong portfolio in kosher wines as well. Before joining M Touton, Schattman was a wine buyer at Rodman’s in the District. “There was Manischevitz and an assortment of rather anemic and poorly made Israeli wines,” he says.
“Today, the breadth and depth of the selection has increased a lot, and the quality is dramatically better,” Schattman says. “Forget they’re kosher. Many of today’s kosher wines are good by any standard.”
William Mendel, a portfolio manager for Victor Kosher Wines, an importer based in Hollywood, Fla., recalls his family drinking only red wines during Seders when he was young. Today, he always uses red for Elijah’s cup, as it “symbolizes the blood spilled during the exodus from Egypt,” he says. But he’ll have other types of kosher wines available for the meal.
Mendel says the wines have improved in part because winemakers, especially from Israel, have studied at the University of California at Davis and interned at non-kosher wineries to hone their craft.
Lindsay Dahlberg, winemaker at O’Dwyers Creek winery in Marlborough, New Zealand, produces a delicious mevushal sauvignon blanc. He attributes the rise in quality of kosher wines to two factors: the use of vinifera grape varieties instead of hybrids, and improvements in winemaking techniques.
Laurent Bunan, winemaker at his family’s Domaines Bunan in southern France, agrees. “Wine quality has improved all over the world,” he said via email. “Why not kosher wines?”
Bunan recalls a Seder from his youth when prophecy almost came true. “At the end of the long meal, someone knocked on the door, and all us kids were afraid. We thought Elijah had come for his dinner!”
Good thing they had saved that untouched cup of wine.