Until very recently, kosher examples from newly popular American wine regions were few and far between, but a recent influx of new wines is giving the discerning kosher wine connoisseur a proper seat at the table.
By Dr. Kenneth Friedman
As the world of kosher and kosher wine continually expands, new horizons open in remote appellations across the globe. Sometimes we need only look as far as our backyard, as America has become a growing global purveyor of superlative wines and regions with their own distinct styles and greatly varied microclimates.
Let us take a look at some of what our bountiful country now offers the kosher wine consumer in 2022.
New York State/Finger Lakes AVA
While New York is known for its global comestible delights (many originating in Jewish culture, of course), even wine aficionados oft do not realize that New York State has grown to be the fourth-largest wine-producing state in the country, behind California, Washington and Oregon.
And while this Eastern Seaboard state sits several thousand miles from its well-known American wine region counterparts out west, New York State boasts seven American Viticultural Areas (AVA) spread throughout distinct, cool climate. Among the most notable are the Finger Lakes AVA and the Long Island AVA. Today, kosher wines are being produced in both these important regions.
Due to their northerly location, the Finger Lakes are known for their cool-climate varieties, most notably riesling. Outside of Germany and Alsace, the Finger Lakes have become a leading riesling wine region.
Nestled between two gorges and waterside at Cayuga Lake (one of the Finger Lakes), Sheldrake Point Winery first produced kosher wines for the 2019 vintage and in 2020 produced a dry riesling and gewürztraminer.
The 2021 vintage promises both varieties plus a kosher gewürztraminer ice wine. Sheldrake Point is produced from all-estate fruit in the Finger Lakes, utilizing cool climate grape-growing practices and winemaking.
Ari Lockspeiser, a négociant building a portfolio of wines sold exclusively through KosherWine.com (separately, he also imports wine for The Cellar wine store in Lakewood), is making a career bringing wines from new regions to the kosher consumer.
“I believe we who keep kosher should have the opportunity to experience and enjoy all regions and grapes from all around the world,” said Lockspeiser.
Sheldrake Point, Gewürztraminer, 2020: Estate-grown and hand-harvested, the wine in the glass shows bright, clear, straw gold. The pronounced bouquet on this gewürz will blow you away with citrus and stone fruits, most prominently lychee. The palate shows lively, refreshing acid, some good heft in the body, and characteristic moderate off-dry sweetness.
Sheldrake Point, Dry Riesling, 2020: Certain to be a hit. It’s a fun riesling. While perhaps a bit more off-dry for my preferred taste, this wine is a big crowd-pleaser—no simple feat for a variety of which many in the kosher wine drinking crowd are wary. In the glass, pale gold, with a pronounced nose of stone fruit and salinity. The palate shows a bit of acidity and great balance with beautiful fruit.
Since emerging as an international darling following the legendary Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 when blind tastings qualified the unheralded Californian wines as superior to the French entrants, California has set the bar for American AVAs.
In fact, both seasoned and unseasoned kosher wine drinkers alike are familiar with the brilliant wines we have been afforded from established producers like Herzog Wine Cellars of Oxnard, Covenant Wines of Berkeley, and Hagafen Cellars of Napa Valley.
With a storied history, Herzog Wine Cellars moved its operations from New York to California in 1985. Herzog produces a great variety of wines offering examples from disparate AVAs in California such as Lake County, Napa Valley, Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Clarksburg, Lodi, Monterey County and Paso Robles. Joseph “Mordy” Herzog’s “Generation VI and IX series” explores wine from even more high-end regions, such as the To Kalon and Stag’s Leap districts of Napa.
Covenant’s cabernet sauvignon is sourced from several exceptional vineyards in Napa Valley and Sonoma. Pinot noir is sourced from Francis Mahoney’s hilltop Carneros vineyard. Fruit also comes from Sonoma’s Bennett Valley, Sonoma Mountain, Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley, Lodi and Lake County.
Beginning back in 1979, Ernie Weir of Hagafen Cellars issued his first release and soon established an estate winery in Napa, nestled between the famed Stag’s Leap and Oak Knoll Districts, both well-known AVAs. Known for its great quality, Hagafen utilizes grapes from premier vineyards in Napa, Carneros, Lodi, Bennett Valley, Sonoma Mountain, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley and Lake County AVAs.
So what is California doing in a piece about “emerging American wine regions”? Most wine drinkers are familiar with Napa and Sonoma reputations as appellations for producing some of the best grapes in the world. But recent years have put other, less-heralded California regions on the map, including the Central Coast, and more specifically, Santa Ynez and Santa Maria.
Winemaker brothers Gabriel and Shimon Weiss of Shirah Wine and Twin Suns Reserve have featured the Central Coast AVAs of Santa Ynez and Santa Maria in their wines, focusing on the grapes that best represent them: zinfandel from Santa Ynez and pinot noir from Santa Maria Valley.
A fluctuating climate in Santa Ynez allows for wines which show as well-balanced with high acidity. The first-named AVA of the Central Coast was Santa Maria Valley, known for ideal temperature conditions for the notoriously fickle pinot noir grape.
A longer growing season allows for the pinot grapes to spend longer on the vine, concentrating flavors and giving Santa Maria pinot noir a lushness that is distinctive to the variety.
Twin Suns, Reserve, Santa Ynez Valley, Zinfandel, 2019: Loved by fans of robust wines, this one will not disappoint. Ruby red in the glass, with a pronounced nose of ripe strawberry and blackberry, sweet tobacco and vanilla. On the palate big fruit, full-bodied, medium-plus tannins, medium-plus acidity. Lush and jammy. Aged 15 months in 100% French oak.
Washington State: Would you guess that Washington is now second in the nation, following only California, in terms of wine production? I would not have. The Columbia Valley AVA is the largest in Washington State, and its geography and climate allow for balanced wines which are fruit-forward but still austere.
Pacifica, Evan’s Collection, Washington State, Riesling, 2019: Anyone who knows me knows I love riesling. Riesling is just so expressive. And great riesling will age and gain greater character, some funk, and more body—traits we all carry! So when a new dry riesling hits the market, well, I am down. In the glass, medium yellow and clear.
Aromatic and pronounced nose of fresh citrus, stone fruit and some tropicals, with the beginnings of petrol funk. The palate shows a medium body, refreshing acidity, balanced off-dry-plus sweetness, nice petrol, citrus, mineral and a long finish. This wine should change with a few years of cellaring. Worth checking back in on.
Known for its lush, world-class cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot, the sunny and dry southeastern corner of Washington State is home to the cult-status Walla Walla Valley AVA, a small fraction of the huge surrounding Columbia Valley AVA.
Originally founded as a trading post in the 1850s, this region’s foray into winemaking is incredibly recent, dating to just the 1970s. Quickly building its reputation in producing some of the best North American red wines, Walla Walla now produces red wines that command high prices and great demand. So it is with some fanfare when a kosher option from Walla Walla becomes available.
Sleight of Hand, Kosher Magic, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2019: Produced by cult winery Sleight of Hand in the famed wine region of the Walla Walla Valley. (Cool little fact for Gen X-ers: Sleight of Hand Cellars took its name from the Pearl Jam song.) Sourced entirely from estate grapes of “Elene’s Block” at Phinny Hill Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.
Dark, impenetrable purple in the glass. The nose shows dark fruit, cassis and cocoa. On the palate, full-bodied, balanced and complex. More black fruit, black cherry, nice acid and medium-plus tannins. Very enjoyable. Sold exclusively at KosherWine.com.
Oregon: Becoming an official AVA in 1983, the Willamette Valley now stands near the apex of the world in producing award-winning pinot noir. The Valley is named for the river that runs through it, and maintains the largest concentration of wineries in Oregon.
Willamette Valley’s temperate climate of mild temperatures and medium rainfall allow for pinot noir, which serves as a bridge between California and Burgundian styles.
Ami and Larissa Nahari of The River Wine, an importer, distributor and producer of wines around the world, are very excited by several of their new offerings. “We are now producing under the Twin Suns Reserve label a pinot noir and pinot noir rosé in Willamette Valley, which results in a more classic, subtle pinot noir,” the Naharis told me. “Willamette Valley is the ultimate region for pinot noir.
Working with one of the area’s top winemakers, we are introducing the only Willamette Valley pinot noirs to kosher in red and rosé.”
The pinots were, so sadly, not yet available as of my deadline, but it should go without saying that I am looking forward to tasting both.
Allentown, Pennsylvania? Yes! Beginning with the 2019 harvest, upstart kosher winemaker Kevin Danna of Binah Winery has been focusing on making premium wines from varieties that are a natural fit for the climate in the Lehigh Valley.
“The reason I was so excited to bring the United States East Coast wine region to the kosher market is because it’s not on the radar, and it should be,” said Danna. “Our region is overlooked because it has a history of subpar wines, but the truth is, world-class wines have been consistently produced in our region for at least a couple of decades now.”
Danna has focused on creating wines from less-familiar grapes such as Chambourcin, Traminette, Blaufränkisch, Seyval Blanc, Chardonel and Vignoles in this North American region of well-drained shale and limestone soil similar to regions of France, Germany and Eastern Europe.
“These are wines our Jewish ancestors were familiar with in the Old Country,” said Danna, “and now they’re being made right in our backyard. Who would have thought? Meshuge!”
Binah, Traminette, 2020: It’s pretty cool that this is the only kosher Traminette in the world. The nose on this wine is lovely, with big aromatics. Lychee, orange blossom, tropical fruits. The palate is medium bodied (dare I say it is nearing full-bodied?), with mouth-coating acid, and nice sweetness without being cloying. Long tangy finish. Really nice wine.
Binah, Grüner Veltliner, Lehigh Valley, 2020: You may hear Grüner Veltliner and think of Austria, but this grüner is produced in Allentown, Pennsylvania, another cool-climate region. In the glass, pale, straw-colored and clear.
Very slight effervescence that immediately coalesced. On the nose, aromatic, loads of citrus lemon-lime and hibiscus. On the palate, tropical fruit, citrus, bursting with acidity. Long, tingly finish. Nice.
Soon enough, as American wine production from underdog and unfamiliar regions continues to grow, one might need to travel only a short distance to enjoy a glass of world-class kosher wine, overlooking the vineyard in which it is produced.
America’s refreshing lack of stringent laws regarding wine production allows vintners to plant wherever and whatever they like, with some astonishing results. With the great array of disparate microclimates, there’s no telling what American kosher wine we may be sipping in the next generation.