Regulars attending Ashland Food Co-op's monthly First Friday wine tastings are accustomed to sampling a dozen different reds, whites and sparkling wines, all tied to a theme, such as a particular wine region, grape or special occasion.
The March 1 wines were chosen to complement dishes celebrating Passover, Easter or the equinox. Wines for Passover received the most attention from the 50 tasters. Most wanted to know: What makes a wine kosher?
Kelly McNamara, the Co-op's specialties manager, explained that just as in kosher foods, there are strict rules and regulations for making wines "kosher," which means "fit."
Kosher wines must be created, bottled, opened, handled and poured only by Jews, except if they are heated and then labeled "mevushal." Kosher wines also cannot be in contact with grain, bread and dough, and the glue used to hold the ends of the barrels cannot contain gluten.
The kosher wines poured at the Co-op's public tasting event were Barkan 2010 Merlot from the Northern Galil region of Israel ($13), Domaine Bunan 2006 Red Blend from the Bandol region of France ($19) and Baron Herzog 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi, Calif. ($13).
All are sold in the Ashland store, but many more are available through special order, says McNamara.
In fact, the number of wineries making kosher wines has grown over the decade, say market experts, as consumers look for alternatives to bottles of mainstays Kedem and Manischewitz, which are made from sweet Malaga or Concord table grapes.
Many fine wines are kosher.
One of McNamara's favorite sparking wines is Drappier d'Or Brut Champagne ($54) from France. She points to the Orthodox Union symbol on the back label that certifies it is kosher.
AlexEli Vineyard and Winery in Molalla was the first in Oregon to produce kosher pinot noir three years ago. Although kosher wine represents only 10 percent of his annual production, AlexEli owner Phil Kramer says, "It takes a lot of concentration. It isn't easy."
Kramer, 29, is Jewish, and his mother, Anita Katz, keeps kosher. But since he is not "shomer Shabbat" (Sabbath observant), he hired two rabbis to act as winemakers for the 180 cases of AlexEli Pinot Noir Kosher wine made in 2010 and 2011.
Only the rabbis can work on the wine from the time the grapes are harvested until the wine is bottled.
"I can't even open the barrel to smell that it's OK," says Kramer, a self-taught grape grower and winemaker with a background in sustainable farming, science and engineering.
Kramer moved to the property in 2007 to take over about 5 acres of pinot noir and other vines planted in 1980 by Dundee winemaker Joe Dobbes, a Southern Oregon University graduate.
Kramer says it is costly to manage a small winery and vineyard that adhere to organic principles, but he does a lot of the work himself to make the wine affordable for people who want to support local producers.
His nonkosher white wines made from chardonnay, riesling and gewurztraminer grapes are priced from $12 to $14.
He sells the Burgundy-style kosher wine for $24, mostly through his online store, www.alexeli.com.
"There's a lot more competition now," he says. "That makes it even harder to produce kosher wine, but I still do."
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