Kosher Wine Comes of Age

Throughout the ages, alcohol has always played a vital role in historical and religious observance. Dovid Hamelech’s declaration ויין ישמח לבב אנוש,1 “Wine will gladden the hearts of humanity,” certainly has borne itself out in modern history. Wine accompanies happy occasions in almost every society known to man. Chazal declare אין שמחה אלא ביין.2
When I was growing up, there weren’t many choices when it came to kosher wine. When my parents bought our childhood home, my father was thrilled to find that it came with a wine cellar. He was then faced with the formidable challenge of finding kosher wine good enough to bother storing. I remember a time when there were only two wines from Eretz Yisroel available, both from Carmel Chateau Rishon: Vin Rouge and Vin Blanc; basically, the whole range was sweet red and white! Domestic wines were even more limited; while there were a few different brands available,3 Extra Heavy Red Concord was basically all that could be had.
I remember both children and adults making funny faces at Kiddush when drinking the small shot glass of wine they felt religiously obligated to endure. No such reactions were evident at a Kiddush when schnapps, herring, and kichel were served!
However, over the past 30 years kosher wine has experienced a tremendous resurgence in quality, variety and quantity. Since the days of my father, the challenge of searching for good kosher wine to store in our wine cellar has developed into the pursuit of wine that is actually worthy of being stored. A recent online search4 revealed over 1000 different kosher wines available in the United States produced from a wide range of European countries, in addition to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Eretz Yisroel. Noteworthy is the emergence of Israel as a world leader in wine production, not only for the resurgence of this ancient Jewish industry but also for its significance as a harbinger of the coming of Moshiach (Sotah 49).
Modern winemaking is a fascinating mix of art and science. Kosher winemaking does not only require all-kosher ingredients and equipment, as well as a Shomer Shabbos staff, but it also demands close attention to the following common issues unique to the winemaking process.

The Winemaking Process

The winemaking process is quite complex and weaves together ancient tradition and modern technology. It’s important to understand that the process is really broken down into three or four stages of supervision: 1. Crush, 2. Fermentation, 3. Aging, 4. Bottling.

1. Crush

From the time the grapes are crushed (hamshacha),5 the wine may only be handled by Shomrei Shabbos individuals. This requires a kashrus team that is large enough to accomplish all of the tasks involving direct contact with the product in any way until the wine is sealed properly, according to halacha. In certain cases, the requirement for Shomrei Shabbos personnel can even include truck or forklift drivers. Mevushal wine requires a full team of Shomrei Shabbos staff only until the wine is pasteurized in a manner that meets the mevushal requirement. Any time the wine is unsealed, full-time supervision is necessary; however, contact with Mevushal wine may be performed by non-Shomer Shabbos individuals.

2. Fermentation

The ‘must’ or juice is fermented with the addition of yeast and other processing aids for a certain period of time and under varying conditions, depending upon the type of grapes and style of wine that is being produced. Under kosher supervision, the wine must be either under the constant scrutiny of a Shomer Shabbos individual or double sealed properly, according to halacha.

3. Aging

Certain wines are aged in barrels or tanks for different periods of time, during which the wine is sealed properly according to halacha. However, there is usually a need for the seals to be opened either for the winemakers to taste the wine and determine the status of the wine or, in the case of barrel aged wines, in order to top off the barrels as the wine evaporates through the porous wood. When opening and resealing the wine, supervision is required; and, in the case of non-mevushal wine, even the drawing of the wine from the tank or barrel is exclusively done by Shomrei Shabbos personnel.

4. Bottling

Bottling is carried out under supervision. The kosher seals for the bottling are managed by the mashgichim and are designed to provide a double seal, as required by halacha. When non-mevushal wine is bottled, a larger Shomer Shabbos staff is required to ensure that the wine remains kosher by mitigating the need for ordinary plant staff.

The Ingredients

Although grapes are always kosher, and the other ingredients in wine are seemingly not kosher-sensitive, there are actually a number of issues associated with the ingredients used in kosher wineries.
Since kosher wine is virtually always Kosher for Pesach (KFP), the following items need to be carefully addressed:

  • Yeast must not only be kosher, but it must be KFP with no grain-based media used in its growth;
  • Any nutrients and processing aids added or used need to be KFP;
  • Barrels must be either new or confirmed kosher and KFP (many barrels are made with a flour paste which is kosher but also chometz!);
  • Corks or caps must be KFP, as well.

The Winery

There are really two main categories of kosher wine production facilities:

  • Kosher wines made in all-kosher facilities; and
  • Kosher wines made in facilities that also produce non-kosher wine

All-Kosher Wineries

All-kosher wineries avoid the challenge of having to kasher non-kosher equipment. They have the advantage of dedicated on-site mashgichim/staff members who are well trained and expert in the processes needed to achieve the results the winery expects. Generally, having an all-kosher winery also dramatically lowers the number of mashgichim required for oversight, sealing and production. Furthermore, there is no fear of cross-contamination or mistakes with non-kosher product or ingredients.

Non-Kosher Facilities

At the outset of the kosher wine renaissance, kosher wine merchants leaned heavily upon the expertise and resources of non-kosher wineries. With centuries of traditions and a wealth of scientific knowledge, non-kosher wineries allowed kosher wine to spring forward in a short time to a level long believed to be impossible to achieve. Making a non-kosher winery partially kosher is achievable, but certainly a challenge.

    • Kosherization issues
      Large tanks with no internal heating mechanism are a challenge and an expense to kosherize. They can be kashered either through milui v’irui,6 filling with fresh water for 24 hours and emptying for three days in a row or through irui kli rishon,7 pouring boiling water on the surfaces. It can be expensive and technically challenging to kosherize large tanks and facilities and requires experienced, well trained hashgacha staff. Kashrus agencies and companies are often required to dedicate kosher tanks to avoid the need for kashering every year.
    • Proper sealing, supervision and segregation of the wine
      Kosher wine must be constantly sealed or supervised properly, guarding against kashrus or Pesach issues. Chosam B’Toch Chosam seals are not sufficient in some cases when the wine is in a non-Jew’s possession.8 Often, kashrus agencies either rent the areas where the wine is stored or ensure that there is a Jewish ownership share in the wine to avoid this problem.

Israeli Wineries

With the advent of wine from Eretz Yisroel, there are certain Mitzvos Hateluyos B’aaretz that must be addressed.

        • Orla – unlike chutz l’Aretz, sofek orla is a major issue in Eretz Yisroel, where it is not permitted. When a vine dies, often a hishtalmut9 is used, the planting of a new vine in the middle of a row of an established vineyard. This creates a challenge because during the first three years, this vine may not be harvested. The Rabbanut Harashit and many hechsherim oversee many vineyards and often use specially trained religious agronomists to identify and prune these vines to ensure they are not harvested. This is a very difficult and tedious process with many challenges regarding oversight and certification, especially in large vineyard operations. Some religious growers have a very commendable policy not to allow hishtalmuyot in order to avoid this problem.
        • Terumos U’Maaseros – must be separated correctly at the appropriate time.
        • Shvi’is – While wine with Kedushas Shevi’is is generally not exported chutz l’Aretz, within Eretz Yisroel the vineyards and wineries are obligated to address shemitta k’halacha. For some, this means not producing any wine at all; others will either make wine under the Otzar Beis Din10 or rely on the Heter Mechira.11 STAR-K and other international certifications do not certify or allow any of these wines from the Shemitta crop.12

“Garage” or Boutique Wineries

There is a new and growing trend of kosher micro-wineries in Israel that are founded in people’s garages. These wineries may present the following kashrus advantages because of their small size, provided the owner is Shomer Shabbos.

        • These wineries are usually Shomer Shabbos and family owned/operated, so there is never a lack of Shomer Shabbos supervision.
        • They are all-kosher and rely on no kosherization.
        • The productions are small and easily controlled.
        • The small amount of work is done easily only by the religious owners, with no pressure to find outside help or expertise.

In former times, whenever wine was required by halacha (i.e., Arba Kosos and Friday night), Poskim searched for the minimum shiur allowed. This was often because of the tremendous expense and scarcity of good drinkable wine. Today, as we can see from emerging quality wine productions, we can safely say וכל המרבה הרי זה משובח.

תהילים ק”ד, ט”ו . 1
פסחים קט ע”א . 2
3. Some readers may remember some of the many kosher wine companies in the Lower East Side of Manhattan selling this ubiquitous varietal (Schapiro’s, Hersh’s, Lifshitz’s, Baumgarten’s, Ganeles-Lenger – to name just a few).
4. Search captured at on June 10, 2018 at 10:12 a.m.
שו”ע יו”ד קכ”ג סע’ י”ז . 5
ע’ שו”ע יו”ד ס’קל”ה ואו”ח ס’ תנ”א סע” ס’ ועוד . 6
ע’ בדברי הש”ך יו”ד קל”ה ס”ק ל”ג . 7
ע’ הגהות רע”א שו”ע יו”ד ס’ קכ”ג סע’ ג’ ד”ה דאע”ג ושו”ת הר צבי יו”ד ס’ קי”א . 8
9. A new vine is planted to “fill in” the place of the old, dead vine.
ע’ מנחת ירושלים פרק ט’ וחזו”א שביעית ס’ ע”א’ אות ז . 10
ע’ ספר השמיטה להגאון ר’ יחיאל מיכל טיקוצינסקי זצ”ל . 11
12. Nevo Chazan, who operates an eponymous STAR-K certified boutique winery in Moshav Matta, is a wonderful example of a religious farmer and vintner. His vertically integrated winery grows grapes, produces wine and sells it directly to consumers. He is a third-generation Shomer Shemitta, who opens his vineyards to the public for harvest during Shemitta, and does not harvest any of his Shemitta grapes for production. He also eschews the practice of hishtalmuyot, due to the serious challenges of observing Orla properly. Nevo is an example of a Mehadrin winery striving to make the best wine at the highest possible level of kashrus.