Like many of her generation, my mother, Ethel, never outgrew Manischewitz. That liquefied grape jelly was our house wine, and she served it every week on the Sabbath and on every holiday.
Even after I stopped observing Sabbath rules myself, and made my professional life in wine, my mother could never quite grasp my desperation to find something palatable for Passover. Each year, I’d plunk down way too much money, hopes high, expectations low, ferrying the rabbi-approved bottles over to Mom’s apartment in Long Beach. Somewhere around the second cup, Ethel would ask, “You know what this needs?” and mix some of her sweet Concord with the $35 kosher Burgundy I’d brought.
I was brought up in a kosher and fairly observant household, and attended 12 years of religious school. I was raised to go to the women’s college at Yeshiva University, not Stony Brook, and I certainly wasn’t supposed become a wine writer. But I did both of those things. And almost 20 years ago, I dedicated myself to the cause of natural wine: organic viticulture with none of the more than 70 legal additives — things like yeast, bacteria, tannin, acid, anti-foaming agents and wood chips — that may be present in most wines, kosher or otherwise. The secular bottles I drink are mostly made from one ingredient: grapes.
Natural wine is unpredictable. It boasts a huge variation in flavors. The winemaker’s goal is to translate the place the grapes come from into the glass, and each bottle carries an imprint of what happened the year it was made. These wines bear no resemblance to conventional or kosher wines that often follow a cookie-cutter path, full of additives to get them there. Those wines are not ones I want to sip at the holiday or any table.
Not long ago, Pope Francis declared that only my kind of wine is fit for the Eucharist. Which leads to the fifth question of my Passover celebration: Why, on this night, am I unable to find any kosher natural wines?
Well, I should say that there are two worthy options, both made in minute amounts: Harkham from Australia and Camuna in Berkeley, Calif. There should be more. Before World War II, before the boom in the use of additives, most wines were natural or natural enough. Jewish winemakers and vineyard owners produced kosher wine, most famously in Hungary, where winemaking families like the Zimmermanns flourished. The Holocaust destroyed that heritage.You have 1 free article remaining.
My Yiddish-speaking grandfather, who was born in Ukraine in the 19th century, did remember this natural wine tradition. He made wine in our basement. One of my earliest memories of Pop, who taught me to smell everything before I drank it, was his despairing over a batch of his wine that had turned to vinegar. When it worked though, it was delicious.
Kosher isn’t about being blessed; it’s about being watched and being handled only by Sabbath observers from ferment to corkscrew — a rule that was an attempt to protect against wine being used for idolatry.
There is one workaround: boiling. Such wines are labeled “mevushal” and a pagan (or even a lapsed yeshiva girl like me) can serve any kosher wine that has been boiled, flash-pasteurized or made from heated grapes, to anyone, even the very religious. While modern methods for this technique are far kinder, hot grapes do not make the best wine and prevent natural ferments. That means adding yeasts and nutrients. Anyone who cares about wine will opt for a cocktail instead at religious weddings.
But at Passover, it’s wine you need, and at my mother’s table it needs to be kosher. That’s why last year I tried to make my own: traditional, authentic, kosher and natural.
This was a deeply personal project. That is, I understood that not that many other people are in the market for natural kosher wine, yet. After all, how can you know what you’re missing if it doesn’t exist? “No one cares and no one knows what they want because they don’t have the exposure,” David Raccah, who writes the blog Kosher Wine Musings and drinks only kosher, told me.
It was also an expensive and logistically difficult endeavor. Kosher certification can cost up to $10,000 a year.
I set out to make my wine in the country of Georgia, since I have written about winemaking there and I knew I could get affordable grapes and work space. I had a religious friend of a friend lined up to handle the wine for me and take my instruction. All I had to do was figure out how to pay for the kosher certification and deal with the bureaucracy.
It wasn’t easy to reach the rabbi in Tbilisi. He was in constant demand, always rushing out to Kutaisi for a bris or to Bagdati for a wedding.
Finally, I got him over Skype. After a long treatise on the religious laws and why I, a now-secular Jewish natural wine lover, would never be able to make my wine, we were disconnected. I called back. Friends in Tbilisi tried to reach him. The harvest of 2018 came and went. His dismissiveness just made me want to do it even more.
Making wine is risky. You need the right soil blessed with the right climate. You need talent. And without additives, you need knowledge and a little luck. I have a plan in place and another rabbi lined up for this year. I’m determined to make something that Ethel and her friends can enjoy.
Do we ever outgrow our desire for a parent’s understanding? Even if there was another decade left, my mother will never quite understand or accept my rejection of religious life. But if she understands why I devoted decades of my life to writing about this magical, enduring symbol of life, culture and humanity, that would suit me even better. But to do that, she needs to be able to drink it.
Alice Feiring is the author of “The Dirty Guide to Wine: Following Flavor From Ground to Glass” and the forthcoming “Natural Wine for the People: What It Is, Where to Find It, How to Love It.”