Famed Abarbanel family making top-notch kosher wines

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Mix together a 2,000-year-old tradition, a royal invitation to the palace and gold-medal winning wines produced from premier estates around the world. Add strict kosher supervision and what you get is the Abarbanel wine collection.

As the descendants of Don Isaac Abarbanel, the leader of Spanish Jewry prior to the expulsion of 1492, Howard Abarbanel leads the kosher consumer to a new era where “world-class wine” and “kosher” are no longer contradictory.

“Eleven years ago, there was a very big vacuum in terms of the quality and selection of kosher wine that was available to the average kosher consumer,” explains Abarbanel, founder and president of the wine company bearing his family name. “I felt that there was an opportunity to greatly enhance the caliber of what was available.”

Abarbanel has his own recipe for producing premium wines. “Everything in our portfolio is estate-grown, estate-bottled, hand-harvested and in limited production. When harvesting by hand, all the grapes are whole before being crushed into wine. We put them in small baskets, which means that they do not get crushed in a truck. And, because we grow the grapes, we pick them at the optimum moment of ripeness. In addition, in our vineyard, we prune back the vines [to restrict the yield] so that the grape vine itself puts all of its effort into the remaining cluster of grapes, which results in a very fruity taste thanks to the dense fruit concentration in our wine,” explains Abarbanel.

The twist is meeting the most rigorous criteria for kashrut as well. Abarbanel isn’t just producing a beverage: “I am in this business because of a concept called hidur mitzvah, which is the magnification and enhancement of a mitzvah. The essence of hidur mitzvah is that people are making Kiddush on my wine,” he says.

Abarbanel firmly believes that kosher wine ought to be on par with one’s cuisine and overall lifestyle. He explains: “When you prepare a holiday meal, you don’t go to the butcher and ask for the most anorexic turkey or the scrawniest piece of brisket. Rather, you do your best to serve the best food, on a nice table cloth and on nice dishes in honor of the Sabbath and the holidays.

“The whole idea here is that the wine should match, enhance and inspire.”

Abarbanel recently introduced a line of luxurious kosher wines from France’s Burgundy region including Meursault (white) and Pinot Noir-based reds such as Gevrey Chambertin, Pommard and Vosnes Romanee. Clos de Vougeot, the world’s most expensive bottle of kosher wine, hit stores this past August with a price tag of $400 a bottle, breaking the glass ceiling for kosher wine.

“I will only take on a wine if it’s excellent. There is no mid-range. Everything needs to meet my stringent criteria, quality control and taste,” says the 44-year-old New York native who spends a third of the year traveling the globe to sample prospective wine.

And besides that, his name is on it.

The Abarbanels can trace their lineage back centuries upon centuries, to King David in ancient Israel, but its eminence began in the idyllic age of Spanish Jewry. Before the exile of 1492, Don Isaac Abarbanel was a leader in both religious and secular life. Don Isaac went into government service in the footsteps of his father, Don Samuel Abarbanel, who was a minister of the Portuguese national treasury.

As a royal minister, Don Isaac championed the Jews — among his efforts was a campaign to raise enough money to free 250 Jews taken captive by Arabs in Morocco and sold into slavery. Don Isaac freed them and settled them in Portugal, donating generously from his own pockets.

Accused of involvement in a plot against King John II of Portugal, Don Isaac fled to Spain in 1483, took up residence in Castile and again became a treasury official. It was during his Castilian exile that he began his monumental commentary on the Bible.

As Jews were being expelled from Spain in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella pleaded with Don Isaac to stay and continue to serve as their chief minister, grateful for his role in financing Columbus’s voyage of discovery. But Don Isaac refused to stay behind as his fellow Jews went into exile. In his remaining years, he focused on study and writing, and completed his commentary on the Passover Haggadah.

Fast-forward to 2001. The current heir to the Portuguese throne, Don Duarte, the Duke of Braganza, extended the Abarbanel family of New York an invitation to the royal palace. The duke’s ancestor, Spanish King John II, and Don Isaac were very close friends.

“I’ve been waiting 500 years to have lunch with you,” the duke told the Abarbanels as they approached the reception.

This encounter, initiated by the Portuguese government, symbolized a coming together after so many centuries and signaled that the Portuguese government and people are looking for better relations with Jews. The initiative came from their side, according to Abarbanel, to close a sad chapter in their history.

Each bottle of Abarbanel wine bears a distinct mark of its European heritage: the family crest, given to Don Isaac by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for his service to the Spanish crown.

Abarbanel wines have been the recipients of numerous gold medals in competitions against the entire world of wine, with professional wine connoisseurs sampling the wines blindfolded. “Their sole basis is ‘Is this a gold-winning wine or not?'” Abarbanel says.

And, he proudly points out, his wines have been favorably reviewed in major publications such as Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, and Wine&Spirits. “The fact that they are kosher says a lot for where kashrut has gone today.”