Never add Manischewitz to sangria and other words of wine wisdom

I recently boarded one of three charter buses en route to Napa for a day of wine tasting with the Bay Area chapter of Taglit–Birthright Israel Next, which strives to keep post-Birthright participants connected to the Jewish community.   

Dubbed as “the event of the year” by local organizers, the wine tour featured three stops: Hagafen Cellars, Alpha Omega and V. Sattui. Each bus toured and tasted at two of the wineries.   

On the way to Napa, the 50 riders on my bus were peppered with questions about what makes wine kosher. One brave soul ventured a guess: “How the grape is slaughtered?” Nope, wrong. Funny, but wrong.

In addition to a rousing game of kosher wine trivia, we also received some wine-related advice:

“Never add Manischewitz to sangria,” someone suggested.

“If you don’t show your bottle of ‘Two Buck Chuck’ to guests, they won’t know the difference,” added another.    

Sorry, Dad.

See, my mother usually reserves the term “wino” for my father, and more recently, for me. That’s slang for a person who is addicted to wine.

While neither of us is even close to being addicted, my dad and I share an appreciation for the swirling, sniffing and sipping of wine flights. After all, nothing says “I love you, Dad” like arguing over whose palate is more refined.

Yet, as a kid, I would get dragged to wineries where I watched my dad do the “swirl, sniff and sip” while I munched on stale crackers and sulked in the corner.

But that all changed once I turned 21. Since then, I’ve sipped straight from the barrel, experienced a private tasting at Ledson Winery and discovered my likes (a full-bodied Pinot Noir) and dislikes (I’ll admit it … almost all kosher and dessert wines I’ve tried) along the way.   

Needless to say, I am certain that my interest in wine, both how it tastes and how it’s made, stems from my father. He’s no sommelier, but the guy knows his stuff.      

He keeps his bottles — mostly reds — in a wine refrigerator designed to chill wine to the ideal temperature for serving and drinking, though his proposed wine cellar didn’t make the cut during my parents’ remodel.    

He orders shipments from wineries where you have to know someone, and even then he’s limited to certain bottles and quantities.

He even swiped a bottle of 1999 Silver Oak from his brother-in-law because he was — gasp! — storing it upright. It’s been more than a year, and it’s still in safekeeping. Good luck, Uncle Mike.

Back in Napa, we got off the bus and stepped into Hagafen’s vineyards, where our  tour guide explained what makes wine kosher.

While none of the ingredients — alcohol, sugars, acidity and phenols (several hundred chemical compounds that affect the taste, color and sensation in the mouth) — are considered nonkosher, the laws of kashrut are more concerned with who handles the wine and what they use to make it.

To be considered kosher, a rabbi or mashgiach has to be involved in the entire winemaking process, from the harvesting of the grapes to fermentation to bottling. Any ingredients used, including finings to sift out impurities, need to be kosher. This requirement excludes products like gelatin, which is derived from nonkosher animals.

Hagafen uses flash pasteurization, overseen by a mashgiach to ensure the kosher status of the wine. Once the wine emerges from the process, it can be handled and aged like nonkosher wine.

We stepped into the tasting room, an expansive area lined with stacked barrels of aging wine. Each barrel can make 25 cases of wine, with 12 bottles to a case. That’s a lot of kosher Cabernet! All the bottling is done off-site.

In addition to being the only kosher winery in Northern California, Hagafen has been served in the White House for nearly 30 years. And if it’s good enough for President Obama, it’s certainly good enough for me. 

Glasses were filled, and the “swirl, sniff and sip” commenced. L’chaim!