Like never before, both formal and informal opportunities abound to bring your kosher wine palate to the next level.
By Gamliel Kronemer
There are two questions that virtually every oenophile can answer: What was the wine that gave you that first aha moment of appreciation? And how did you learn to understand wine?
When I had that aha moment in the 1990s, it was with a bottle of Georges Duboeuf’s Beaujolais-Villages, of which he made a kosher run in 1994.
I knew then that I wanted to learn everything I could about wine. But at the time I didn’t have any friends who had more than a passing interest in wine, there were no kosher wine internet groups, and there were certainly no kosher wine appreciation classes. So I had to teach myself.
I bought a few books (Jancis Robinson’s “Masterglass”—now published under the title “How to Taste”—was, and remains, a great introduction) and as many different kosher wines as my student budget could afford, and thus launched myself into one of my life’s great passions.
The opportunities for kosher wine education have changed a lot in the past few decades, and most particularly during the COVID pandemic. So it seemed a good time to look back on how kosher wine education has developed, and explore how a more educated consumer base may be changing the kosher wine industry.
Before one can address the formal classes now available, one must understand what came before. One of the first informal opportunities for wine education came with website/email lists such as the late Daniel Rogov’s forum, which taught its followers both about particular wines and how to taste them. Rogov was the wine critic for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz and would patiently answer questions about specific wines as well as wine in general. Greg Raykher, a kosher wine collector and a founding judge for The Jewish Link Wine Guide, first learned about wine in the Rogov forum.
“He created a common language for people coming into wine … it was not organized, but it created a framework for people around the world to start concentrating around the topic [of kosher wine].”
When Rogov died in 2011, his forum slowly dissipated. But the role that forum played, of creating a framework to discuss kosher wine, has been largely continued by a number of Facebook groups.
According to Yehuda Nahar, the winemaker for Jezreel Valley Winery, in Israel many younger wine enthusiasts get their wine knowledge “mostly from Facebook groups. It makes wine a language . . . mostly the younger generation is consuming their wine information from the internet.” In the U.S. one of the most influential of these online wine groups is run by Gabriel Geller, the director of marketing for kosher wine giant Royal Wine Corp. “These days there is quite a lot of that sort of thing [wine explanation and criticism] on Gabriel’s group . . . with winemakers and other experts,” said Raykher.
The last few decades has also seen a growth of kosher wineries with visitor centers and tasting rooms. Ernie Weir’s Hagafen Cellars in the Napa Valley has one of the oldest kosher winery tasting rooms.
“When someone comes to our winery we offer them a tasting menu with five or six wines,” explained Weir. “If you pay attention to the wine, in 45 minutes you are going to understand, not everything, but quite a bit more. You can make a wine taster out of anyone if they are paying attention. If they just want to drink alcohol they are not going to get anything, but most [who visit Hagafen] do pay attention.”
According to Nahar, “In Israel, because of all of the regulation that we had at the beginning of the pandemic, when they started shutting down the restaurant industry, wineries were not under the same category as restaurants. We had a boom at the visitor centers … they were open and we started seeing an increase of 100% of people visiting wineries. But even when the restaurants reopened, they [the visits to the wineries] did not drop. It created a situation where a lot of people discovered the option of hanging out in the winery … and [with repeated visits] they start to understand ‘what is wine.’”
There continues to be a growing variety of informal opportunities to learn about wine: in-store tastings, winemaker dinners and large-scale tastings, such as Royal Wine Corp.’s annual Kosher Food and Wine Experience, though the pandemic has dampened some of these opportunities.
During this time, however, for a growing number of kosher oenophiles, formal wine instruction began to be offered, and with many people working from home and unable to go out in evenings, they were able to take advantage of internet-based classes. These can “provide a little bit of structure to wine prospective,” said Eli Feldman, a kosher wine collector who recently participated in KosherWine.com’s Academy.
Until very recently there has been little formalized education for those wishing to study kosher wine. The first formal kosher wine class in the U.S. was given by the Wine Spectator School, which is affiliated with the magazine. Offered in 2006, the “ABCs of Kosher Wine” was what one participant described as a straightforward introduction to wine class with a “thin veneer of ‘Jewish’/kosher information.” The course seemingly was not profitable for the Spectator, as they only offered it briefly.
But more recently, and particularly in Israel, formal kosher wine education has really taken off. “Just a few years ago,” said Nahar, “you had to be a super crazy wine geek to go to the WSET [Wine & Spirit Education Trust] to take a wine tasting course. These days I think, like, every second waiter in a restaurant who serves wine and likes the subject is taking a course. … My visitor center manager is doing a diploma with the WSET, and he now knows about wines from around the world much more than I do.”
The WSET and its sister organization, the Court of the Master Sommeliers (the Court), are both offshoots of the Worshipful Company of Vintners, one of the City of London’s medieval livery companies. Both WSET and the Court were formed in the post-World War II era to provide certifications and education for those working in the wine trade. Still based in the U.K., they have become the world’s leading wine education institutions.
The WSET was established for those working in retail, and the Court for those working in restaurants. While initially they were both restrictive in who could take their courses, in recent decades they have opened enrollment to virtually anyone willing to pay tuition.
“The courses at the Court of the Master Sommeliers have a much greater focus on the service side of things and require you to have restaurant experience to get the advanced certification, [while] the WSET is slightly more on the academics of wine,” explained Brad du Plessis, head of the KosherWine.com Academy, who is currently pursuing a WSET diploma.
The KosherWine.com Academy provides online wine courses offered collaboratively by the online wine retailer KosherWine.com. “The pandemic has been good to e-retailers,” explained du Plessis, who joined the team at KosherWine.com in the early months of the pandemic during a hiring push.
“There were a lot of amazing people joining the team who did not have a foundational wine knowledge. I talked to our management about running an internal wine class to get people up to speed on wine basics 101. … They said, ‘This is great but . . . let’s do this for our customers [too]’.”
The academy offers three six-week courses a year (101, 201 and 202); the initial 101 offering had 65 students, and du Plessis described the palpable excitement in the virtual room during the class sessions as “lightning in a bottle.”
In addition to their Academy, KosherWine.com also recently hosted the first U.S.-based kosher WSET Level 2 Award in Wines course. (The WSET offers three certificates and a more advanced diploma, the Master of Wine.) Raykher, who took the Level 2 course and graduated with distinction, came into the course already quite self-educated on wine. (“For me that involved reading a lot of books . . . and of course tasting a lot of wine,” he explained.) For Raykher, wine is a passion, but his day job is in finance, with a focus on zero-carbon renewable energy projects.
“I was surprised how many people were signing up for courses like this. It was not a cheap class, at 900-odd dollars,” said Raykher, explaining that this level of interest in kosher wine courses “is clearly rather a new thing.” He also noted that half the participants were women, which was an interesting deviation from the male-dominated Rogov forum.
I spoke to a few of Raykher’s classmates, all of whom came to wine from a different path. Meredith Kellman, a social worker who lives in West Orange, New Jersey, said she discovered wine after looking for new evening activities about eight years ago. “I saw a Facebook event for a wine tasting at a liquor store in Monsey; I went, and the manager of the store led us through a tasting of about 10 different wines … that started my [wine] journey. … It’s a great hobby and I just love it.”
The appreciation of wine sometimes comes only after an appreciation of another spirit, according to Jules Polonetsky, who came to wine appreciation as a hobby and also joined the WSET course. Based in Potomac, Maryland, Polonetsky is the CEO of a global technology policy think tank. “Like many, for me wine is what you had on Shabbos,” he said. I did not stray far from a cabernet or a merlot. I’d choose an Israeli bottle to support Israel. That was the extent of my wine appreciation.
“Wine was not so accessible,” Polonetsky continued. “It is a complicated, multi-layered thing. Frankly, I was too busy to dig into wine. COVID changed that. I had more time at home to explore. … So when all of a sudden there was an opportunity to have a kosher wine training and I was home Thursday nights, it was a fantastic opportunity to dig in.”
It is not just KosherWine.com and WSET that are providing new opportunities for kosher wine education. Cornell University, which has offered a very popular undergraduate wine appreciation course since the 1950s, is using kosher wines in its tastings. For the first time this semester, working with Cornell’s Hillel to provide the necessary kosher wines, it has kosher-observant students enrolled in the course.
According to Rabbi Ari Weiss, executive director of the Hillel: “The professor was more than open to working with us. This is a pilot project for us. Once we are able to let students know that this is an option, I think it will increase enrollment in the course.”
The Impact of Education on the Kosher Wine World
I asked everyone I spoke to for this article what the impact of wine education was on the demands of kosher wine consumers. All agreed it was having a positive impact on the kosher wine industry, but not all agreed on the nature of the impact.
According to Weir, as wine consumers become more educated, they stop buying wines because of what some critic wrote. “They taste and buy what they like themselves. … and at least those who visit Hagafen … are drawn to drier, bigger, bolder wines.”
Gabriel Geller, of Royal Wine Corp., sees a somewhat different trend: “People are really starting to open their minds. It is no longer ‘Give me the cab, give me the cab, give me the cab.’ People, when they come to wine from whisky and other hard liquor, are drawn at first towards those big, bold, fruit-forward wines. However, those who really get into it, they eventually try other stuff and can be drawn to more elegant wines. I know a lot of people who focused on big, bold Israeli and Californian wines, and are now much more diverse in their tastes.”
Before the WSET/KosherWine.com course, said Kellman, “all I knew was Israeli wine. It made up my entire collection … and I discovered that I really have a taste for Spanish wines. That is where I am going to see my biggest area of growth.”
Polonetsky said that as a result of the WSET course, “I started buying every wine book I could get my hands on, from halacha [Jewish law] to [wine] encyclopedias, to wine follies. I really started realizing that if I understood the difference between a Tempranillo and a Montepulciano, grapes that I never would have ventured to try before; without some understanding of the nuances, I probably would never have appreciated them. The education has opened me up to a much broader diversity of wines … and it has broadened my palate.”
Polonetsky made one final point in summing up the value of wine education. “Wine is maybe unfairly kept from the layman. If you walk into a wine store and you don’t have an education, you are just picking names and brands.”
It was a point that reminded me of a conversation I had with a kosher wine industry executive several years ago. I asked him if kosher consumers were becoming more educated, and he said, “I hope so. To quote Sy Syms, ‘An educated consumer is our best customer.’”