Kosher, Mevushal and Israeli Wines? Not What You Think

Ever since I became aware that the wonderful wines being produced in Israel today are beginning to enter the US market, I have been attempting to get wine lovers to try them. Nevertheless, I am not having much success. As soon as people hear the words 'kosher wines' or 'Israeli wines' they say 'ugh' and tune me out. Why is this?

After asking a lot of questions and considering the answers, I think I know why.  It's not, as commonly believed, because 'kosher wines' connote an image of 'cloyingly sweet.'  We've gotten past that canard.  I believe it is the result of people being exposed only to kosher wines that have a 'cooked' taste. Why do they have a cooked taste? It's because they have been heated nearly to the boiling point, or pasteurized. It's called being mevushal, which means 'cooked' in Hebrew.

Why, you may ask would anyone want to pasteurize wine? Well, it's because of a Rabbinic ruling made over 2000 years ago. You see, in those days many idol worshipers lived in the Land of Israel. If a Jew wanted to have a banquet he had to hire some waiters. Chances are that some of them would be idol worshipers. Or, he could order wine at an inn and the waiter could be an idol worshiper. The Rabbis were concerned that an idol worshipping waiter, while he was holding an open container of wine, could pour a libation and consecrate the wine to his god. The Jew would be unaware of what the waiter had done but by drinking this wine he would be participating in idolatry, which is a grave sin.

In order to prevent this the Rabbis ruled that wine, which may be under the control of a non—Jew at any time, must be mevushal in order for a Jew to drink it. They reasoned that the mevushal process would make the wine unsuitable for an idol worshiper to use for consecration to his god. They were probably not very concerned about affecting the taste of the wine. On the contrary, they felt there would be an additional benefit from damaging the taste of the wine. It would discourage Jews and non—Jews from drinking together. This was important, as they believed drinking together could result in intermarriage.

Very likely this law was effective, as it has remained on the books for so long. However, the problems which underlie this ruling do not seem very important today. There aren't many idolatrous waiters in the USA now. And if an observant Jew wishes to drink with a non—Jew, he doesn't have to drink wine. He can drink hard liquor, which doesn't have to be kosher. So what is the status of the law today?

Rulings based on this law have been made in recent years by two of the most authoritative rabbis of our time. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the great American halachic authority (1895—1986), ruled that non—Jews may be employed in kosher wineries under rabbinic supervision, but all kosher wines must be mevushal. Rabbi Feinstein also ruled that the required temperature for the mevushal process should be 'Too hot to touch', which is understood to mean as low as 180 degrees, and that it could be done by flash pasteurization. This lessened the damage to the wine, but it did not eliminate it. This law is now observed by most of the kosher wineries in the US and the rest of the Diaspora.

However, in Israel the law is different. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1900—1995), the great Israeli halachic authority, said that all workers in the Israeli kosher wineries must be Shabbat observant Jews and that Israeli kosher wines do not have to be mevushal. Mevushal wines are only required if the wines are going to be handled and poured by non—Jews. As a result, Israeli mevushal wines you will see in the USA are usually meant for banquet use. Most Israeli kosher wines are not mevushal because Israelis do not have to buy mevushal wine for personal use. Neither do you, if you buy Israeli wines.

But you may say that you have heard or read comments from time to time by wine experts who say that pasteurizing the wine does not hurt it, in fact it may help the wine. But I would question whether or not these experts are biased. Do they make their living by producing, selling or writing about mevushal wines?

For example: Most of the wineries that make mevushal wines cite an unpublished 1993 study which was financed by some of these very same wineries. It was conducted by a graduate student  at the University of California, Davis, who concluded that there is no taste difference between mevushal and nonmevushal wines. However, the conclusion reached by this study is suspect because of the funding source and the fact that if this study were clearly definitive, it would have been published.

Also, writing about kosher wines in the April 2004 Wine Enthusiast magazine, Jeff Morgan says,

'However, if there is any discernible problem with mevushal wines, it's that heating a wine to a high temperature does not usually improve its sensory qualities.  Under the wrong conditions, heated wines can take on a sweet, cooked, possibly stale Madiera—like taste, or even a burned, rubbery edge.  That said, mevushal wines are not necessarily bad.'  

Better yet, I would read the comments of an authoritative wine critic who concentrates on evaluating kosher and non— kosher Israeli wines on a daily basis. Such a person is Daniel Rogov, wine critic for the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, two of the foremost Israeli newspapers. Daniel Rogov says the following in his book titled 'Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines,' (Toby Press, 2005).

'With very few exceptions, wines that have been pasteurized lose many of their essential essences, often being incapable of developing in the bottle and quite often imparting a 'cooked' sensation to the nose and palate.

Probably the best way for anyone to appreciate the difference is to take two wines of the same variety of grapes and of comparable value, one mevushal and the other not, and drink them side by side. Then decide for yourself. Or serve them to your guests at home. Then tell them what they are drinking and ask which one they prefer. When buying the wines, look for the word 'Mevushal' at the bottom of the label on the back of the bottle. It may be abbreviated as 'Mev.' or written in Hebrew.

Many of these Israeli wines are not yet available in the US. However, most of the ones that are available here are very good. Try to find some of the new kosher wines from wineries like Dalton, Galil Mountain, Segal, Recanati, Castel or others. If you don't require kosher wines, you may be lucky enough to find a bottle of Amphorae, Flam, Margalit or Alexander. I'm sure you will be very pleasantly surprised. Just give the Israeli wineries a fair chance. Israeli wines will break into the US wine market, just as wineries in many other countries have done.

Sidney Retsky will answer any questions or comments: sretsky@finewinesofisrael.com. For information about visiting the new Israeli wineries see this website

Ever since I became aware that the wonderful wines being produced in Israel today are beginning to enter the US market, I have been attempting to get wine lovers to try them. Nevertheless, I am not having much success. As soon as people hear the words 'kosher wines' or 'Israeli wines' they say 'ugh' and tune me out. Why is this?

After asking a lot of questions and considering the answers, I think I know why.  It's not, as commonly believed, because 'kosher wines' connote an image of 'cloyingly sweet.'  We've gotten past that canard.  I believe it is the result of people being exposed only to kosher wines that have a 'cooked' taste. Why do they have a cooked taste? It's because they have been heated nearly to the boiling point, or pasteurized. It's called being mevushal, which means 'cooked' in Hebrew.

Why, you may ask would anyone want to pasteurize wine? Well, it's because of a Rabbinic ruling made over 2000 years ago. You see, in those days many idol worshipers lived in the Land of Israel. If a Jew wanted to have a banquet he had to hire some waiters. Chances are that some of them would be idol worshipers. Or, he could order wine at an inn and the waiter could be an idol worshiper. The Rabbis were concerned that an idol worshipping waiter, while he was holding an open container of wine, could pour a libation and consecrate the wine to his god. The Jew would be unaware of what the waiter had done but by drinking this wine he would be participating in idolatry, which is a grave sin.

In order to prevent this the Rabbis ruled that wine, which may be under the control of a non—Jew at any time, must be mevushal in order for a Jew to drink it. They reasoned that the mevushal process would make the wine unsuitable for an idol worshiper to use for consecration to his god. They were probably not very concerned about affecting the taste of the wine. On the contrary, they felt there would be an additional benefit from damaging the taste of the wine. It would discourage Jews and non—Jews from drinking together. This was important, as they believed drinking together could result in intermarriage.

Very likely this law was effective, as it has remained on the books for so long. However, the problems which underlie this ruling do not seem very important today. There aren't many idolatrous waiters in the USA now. And if an observant Jew wishes to drink with a non—Jew, he doesn't have to drink wine. He can drink hard liquor, which doesn't have to be kosher. So what is the status of the law today?

Rulings based on this law have been made in recent years by two of the most authoritative rabbis of our time. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the great American halachic authority (1895—1986), ruled that non—Jews may be employed in kosher wineries under rabbinic supervision, but all kosher wines must be mevushal. Rabbi Feinstein also ruled that the required temperature for the mevushal process should be 'Too hot to touch', which is understood to mean as low as 180 degrees, and that it could be done by flash pasteurization. This lessened the damage to the wine, but it did not eliminate it. This law is now observed by most of the kosher wineries in the US and the rest of the Diaspora.

However, in Israel the law is different. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1900—1995), the great Israeli halachic authority, said that all workers in the Israeli kosher wineries must be Shabbat observant Jews and that Israeli kosher wines do not have to be mevushal. Mevushal wines are only required if the wines are going to be handled and poured by non—Jews. As a result, Israeli mevushal wines you will see in the USA are usually meant for banquet use. Most Israeli kosher wines are not mevushal because Israelis do not have to buy mevushal wine for personal use. Neither do you, if you buy Israeli wines.

But you may say that you have heard or read comments from time to time by wine experts who say that pasteurizing the wine does not hurt it, in fact it may help the wine. But I would question whether or not these experts are biased. Do they make their living by producing, selling or writing about mevushal wines?

For example: Most of the wineries that make mevushal wines cite an unpublished 1993 study which was financed by some of these very same wineries. It was conducted by a graduate student  at the University of California, Davis, who concluded that there is no taste difference between mevushal and nonmevushal wines. However, the conclusion reached by this study is suspect because of the funding source and the fact that if this study were clearly definitive, it would have been published.

Also, writing about kosher wines in the April 2004 Wine Enthusiast magazine, Jeff Morgan says,

'However, if there is any discernible problem with mevushal wines, it's that heating a wine to a high temperature does not usually improve its sensory qualities.  Under the wrong conditions, heated wines can take on a sweet, cooked, possibly stale Madiera—like taste, or even a burned, rubbery edge.  That said, mevushal wines are not necessarily bad.'  

Better yet, I would read the comments of an authoritative wine critic who concentrates on evaluating kosher and non— kosher Israeli wines on a daily basis. Such a person is Daniel Rogov, wine critic for the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, two of the foremost Israeli newspapers. Daniel Rogov says the following in his book titled 'Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines,' (Toby Press, 2005).

'With very few exceptions, wines that have been pasteurized lose many of their essential essences, often being incapable of developing in the bottle and quite often imparting a 'cooked' sensation to the nose and palate.

Probably the best way for anyone to appreciate the difference is to take two wines of the same variety of grapes and of comparable value, one mevushal and the other not, and drink them side by side. Then decide for yourself. Or serve them to your guests at home. Then tell them what they are drinking and ask which one they prefer. When buying the wines, look for the word 'Mevushal' at the bottom of the label on the back of the bottle. It may be abbreviated as 'Mev.' or written in Hebrew.

Many of these Israeli wines are not yet available in the US. However, most of the ones that are available here are very good. Try to find some of the new kosher wines from wineries like Dalton, Galil Mountain, Segal, Recanati, Castel or others. If you don't require kosher wines, you may be lucky enough to find a bottle of Amphorae, Flam, Margalit or Alexander. I'm sure you will be very pleasantly surprised. Just give the Israeli wineries a fair chance. Israeli wines will break into the US wine market, just as wineries in many other countries have done.

Sidney Retsky will answer any questions or comments: sretsky@finewinesofisrael.com. For information about visiting the new Israeli wineries see this website