By Channa Fischer
Kosher wine education has taken a dramatic turn; a deepening knowledge base that was begun by many during the COVID lockdown has continued during the post-pandemic phase. Many non-kosher wine experts have found certificate programs to better their knowledge and depth of the subject, but for many years, the vast majority of kosher-keeping wine professionals have been privately or self-taught.
In 2021, kosher-keeping wine enthusiasts saw the introduction of a Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 course, and this past year, a kosher WSET Level 3 course was offered for the first time ever in America; both courses were offered through KosherWine.com. Pulling together these high-level courses was no easy feat, but the passion and drive of KosherWine.com CEO Dovid Riven and Lead Wine Consultant Brad du Plessis, along with a dedicated instructor and an enthusiastic cohort, could lead to major professional advancements in the kosher wine world.
Kosher WSET Level 3: Could It Be Done?
Both Riven and du Plessis are no strangers to advanced wine education; they both are currently in pursuit of a wine diploma (WSET Level 4) from Capital Wine School in Washington, D.C. Riven, based in D.C. himself, began toying with the idea of offering a kosher WSET Level 3 course—
something which he thought could catch on for industry professionals and aficionados alike. But how would he pull it off?
Riven explained that unlike Level 2, which does not have any tasting component in the exam, WSET
Level 3 can be complicated for kosher-keeping students who must participate in a tasting examination.
“Anyone who registers for a Level 3 course has no way of ensuring that the wines being tasted will be kosher,” he said. “It ultimately boiled down to finding a wine school that would be able to work with us on putting this course together and help us match the requirements with kosher wines that are
Riven approached the owner of Capital Wine School, Master of Wine (MW) Jay Youmans, for help on building out the kosher WSET Level 3. “We discussed what would be involved and what the hurdles are; and he ultimately told me that we can make it work. So we got to work on making it work,” said Riven. “[Riven] really had the sense that we would be able to pull this off,” said Youmans. “We did not have any expectations other than the fact that I know the bare minimum about kosher wine, but it was a fast study. We really pulled it off.”
Youmans was curious about how different a kosher Level 3 course would be, and checked with one of his students who works for WSET. “She told me that as long as you taste the required wines, there are no issues with it. So we covered every category … we had all of the bases covered,” he said.
Rivens and Youmans worked together to match the certification requirements with kosher wines, and were mostly successful, with a few exceptions. “We were able to maneuver around some of those exceptions. For example, oloroso sherry just doesn’t exist in the kosher world, and we dropped it; it ended up not being on the exam at all, so it wasn’t an issue,” explained Riven. In total, the kosher WSET Level 3 course managed to taste a total of 28 wines, coordinated with help from du Plessis, who managed the operational side of the course.
“There may not be a ‘need’ for high level certification in the kosher wine world, but there is certainly a ‘need’ for offerings that are available to the non-kosher world that we can do,too,” Riven said of the pursuit to put together the Level 3 course. “If we can do it, why shouldn’t we? There’s an interest in the kosher market for exploring and taking things to the next level, and seeing how much enrollment we have in our Academy courses, I knew this is something we should do as the leading kosher wine retailer in the U.S.”
Riven is referring to the Kosher Wine Academy, an online set of courses offered by KosherWine.com for enthusiasts who want to learn a little more about the kosher wine world. He described these courses as casual compared to the WSET courses, but did not discount their value, noting that a handful of the Level 3 students came from the Academy 202 course. “Our Academy 200-level courses are comparable in a lot of ways to the WSET Level 2, in the sense that they both explore regions, styles of wine and the like. There are people who took the 200-level courses who were ready to take on the WSET Level 3 with a solid foundation,” Riven explained.
Du Plessis, who called the Kosher Wine Academy “his baby,” noted the same growth from Academy students and a need for a higher level course offering like the WSET Level 2 and Level 3. “The academy is very approachable and consumable. So when we offered WSET Level 2, a bunch of people reached out and said, ‘We loved your class, we want to learn more, is this the avenue to go?’ and I always told them that the WSET is absolutely the way to go,” he shared. “There were a handful of people who went through the Academy and all the way up to WSET Level 3, which is pretty amazing. I feel like a proud parent.”
The first-ever kosher WSET Level 3 course exam was held at Kayco Headquarters in Bayonne, New Jersey.
Experiencing the First-Ever Kosher WSET Level 3 Course and Exam
Riven and du Plessis pulled together a cohort of about 30 students, which exceeded their expectations. As with other wine courses offered by KosherWine.com, the classes were given online—but this time, they were led by Youmans himself, who had never really tasted kosher wine before.
“In a blind tasting, you would never know these wines were kosher,” said Youmans of his newfound kosher wine experience. “There are a lot of really high-quality kosher wines available on the market. You can’t tell the difference.” Jewish Link Wine Guide Editor Elizabeth Kratz, one of the students in this first-ever WSET Level 3 course, observed Youmans’ statements that quality kosher wine don’t differ in any measurable way from non-kosher wines. She said that one of the major benefits of this course was “having a teacher who was not from the kosher wine world, and listening to him taste the wines as we were tasting them … he indicated that these wines, which he had never tasted before, were on par with the wines that he has in his other classes.”
Kratz overall found the course to be “very valuable,” and an exciting way to expand on the knowledge she gained from passing the previous year’s WSET Level 2 course, also offered through KosherWine.com. “I feel like Level 3 gave me a lot of skills in terms of understanding the wine processes, as well as the different kinds of wines of the world, geographically speaking; as well as how they are made and how careful winemaking affects the product that ends up in our glasses,” she said. Kosherwine.com’s Level 3 course ran for a duration of 10 weeks, with students tasting three to four kosher wines per class in preparation for the exam. “Level 3 is not about guessing the wines,” explained Youmans about his approach to teaching the course. “It’s about calibrating your calls on a
list of things like color, appearance, taste, acidity and tannins. During those weeks, we just went through the wines and broke them down.”
“Level 3 covers a lot,” said Riven. “It ends up being about 50 hours of reading and coursework, whereas our top-level Academy courses are somewhere in the 12-hour range.” And, after 50-odd hours of studying and tasting the wines with Youmans, the WSET Level 3 cohorts took their exams, complete with an entirely kosher tasting component. The exam is a total of two and a half hours long. “It’s really to see how well you can calibrate and assess those different things in the wine,” said
Youmans. “There’s a theory section that’s multiple-choice and four shortanswer questions. You have to know the material very deeply.”
“Once you’ve reached Level 3, you’re pretty confident in your tasting, at least to the extent that you can describe the characteristics of the wine in your glass,” explained Kratz. “Describing the wine according to the Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT) is definitely not the most difficult part of the exam.” So what was the most difficult part of the Level 3 exam? “The essay questions ask you to apply information you learned from studying certain winemaking regions and to other regions of the world, or questions about climate and how winemakers deal with things like topography and weather patterns. These are really intensive, in-the-weeds questions,” said Kratz. The timing of the most recent exam was planned in synchronization with the 2023 Kosher Food & Wine Experience (KFWE), an annual event hosted by Royal Wine Corp. Youmans and the students who traveled to the New York
area for the WSET Level 3 exam were able to attend KFWE with the new wine knowledge now top of mind. A second Level 3 exam with kosher wines for the tasting component was scheduled to take place at the Capital Wine School in April.
At this current moment of writing, the first cohort has not received the final results of their exam, and are still considered Level 3 candidates. But to Kratz, the certification isn’t as important as the knowledge gained throughout the course. “As the editor of a wine publication like this one, it’s important for me to understand the wines of the world and have as much understanding as possible as the wine professionals who send us their wine,” she reflected. “This course gave me a strong base
in that. And there is an incredible value in people of the kosher wine world deepening their understanding; the more knowledge we have in the kosher wine world, the more impetus there will be for winemakers to continue improving their selections and reaching ever higher. The finest kiddush Hashem we can make in winemaking is ensuring that kosher wine continues to thrive from generation to generation.”
What’s Next for Kosher Wine Education?
For now, WSET Level 3 may be the highest level a strictly kosher-keeping wine enthusiast can reach. Riven explained that WSET Level 4, which is the diploma level, brings on its own set of complications when it comes to keeping kosher. “The Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT) is about
calibrating your process of tasting wine to your instructor,” said Riven. “There’s a very consistent method there which we can’t replace when it comes to the tasting.” He continued that while
this was relatively easy to navigate for the Level 3 course, it would be an enormous challenge in a hypothetical kosher WSET Level 4 course.
“We’ve thought about having the individual wine schools commit to hosting a kosher exam at least once per year, to take the pressure off of gathering a large enough cohort for a Level 4 course. We could even coordinate having kosher wines tasted during the course, but logistically speaking, it’s a lot,” he explained.
“Schools send out samples of wines to the students, which presents issues with non-mevushal wines and makes the selection restrictive,” Riven said of the course structure, which he added has become more prominent since the onset of the pandemic. “While it’s relatively simple for us to choose kosher wines for the exam— since those wines follow general parameters and don’t need to be a specific brand—it’s complicated to regulate the wines that are being tasted during the course itself. It’s really important to calibrate your palate with the instructor, and that makes it difficult to choose your own assortment of wines to taste. How can you study for the same exam without tasting the same wines and having the same instructor?”
Logistical nightmares aside, Riven pointed out that there is an entire section of WSET Level 4 that presents a kashrut problem: fortified wines. “Only two or three styles of fortified wine are actually kosher. For example, a huge chunk of that section is on Madeira, but not a single kosher Madeira has ever been produced. These types of wines make it impossible to do a Level 4 course for kosher-keeping students.”
But the good news is that high-level certifications may not be the ultimate goal for those interested in deepening their wine knowledge. “I don’t believe that any sort of formal wine education is important
for the vast majority of people,” said du Plessis. As an alternative, he encourages more informal presentations on the “deep concepts of the wine industry,” which he said is forthcoming from
“I’d love to do a ‘deep dive’ into a specific varietal or region, or a specific category, and really get into the nittygritty details,” du Plessis shared. “I just want people to leave feeling like they know a lot more about that specific topic,but not necessarily having to be experts on it.”
Riven confirmed this rollout, explaining that it will require a minimal commitment from enrollees—just one or two nights as opposed to a six-week course, which is the standard in the Kosher Wine Academy. “My ultimate goal is not to make someone an overall expert … it’s to make someone more confident when they go to KosherWine.com and look at the 1,200 different SKUs,” said du Plessis of the Kosher Wine Academy offerings. “It’s to help someone know what they’re looking for and ensure they’re not intimidated by it.”
“I’m very grateful to KosherWine.com for introducing these professional-level courses and making them available to us,” said Kratz. “I do not think that we would have been able to do this without them. I think that not only my magazine, but my wine store, my table and kosher winemakers worldwide will benefit from these kinds of educational advancements.”
Looking to the Future of the Kosher Wine World
The rapid expansion of kosher wine education is a welcome benefit of the growth of the kosher wine market, with myriad new wines for consumers to try and appreciate. “It’s a great time to be a kosher wine consumer,” said Riven. “There are fantastic wines out there, and there are also a lot of new wines
emerging from various regions, and in different styles that have never been made kosher.”Even without the extensive kosher wine background, Youmans had a similar prediction. “My sense is that you’ll see more and more kosher wines within categories that aren’t available now,” he said.
“You’ll see them soon—it’s a pretty vibrant, thriving market. Of course, it’s small, but my sense is that kosher consumers don’t mind paying more money for these wines, especially the good ones.”
Du Plessis shared an anecdote that reflected both Riven’s and Youmans’ predictions. “At the end of our Academy 202 class, I had someone thank me for introducing them to a $100 bottle of Champagne. He told me that despite the fact that he is now spending more on wine than he used to, I had given him the chance to really appreciate and understand what’s so great about it. I’m not saying you really need to spend that much … but for someone who can feel confident about spending a bit more on a product they really love and enjoy, that’s an amazing thing.”