Looking at my opening statement from last year’s guide, I am reminded how truly awful things looked at that point, while also being encouraged by the good I was able to discern even then; feelings that helped uplift my spirits through the entire chag. Also helping was something the memories of which were recently triggered as I read through some divrei torah from Rabbi Sacks zt”l and Rabbi Weinreb, both relating one of the most difficult Pesach preparations, and I don’t mean wine (while the difficulty in choosing proper wines for your seder can be tough, this newsletter solves all those problems, and I am referring to a slightly different type of preparation.
The Haggada teaches us that “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he personally left Egypt” (חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא עצמו יצא ממצרים״”). We are supposed to personally visualize ourselves as having experienced the Exodus in all of its detail. How many of us are capable of picturing ourselves as helpless slaves and then undergoing to phases of redemption including witnessing wondrous miracles and casting aside bonds chains and marching as a free man into an unknown wilderness. Can there be more powerful emotions experienced by man? Living in our 21st-century comfort, how can we possibly be expected to “see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt”? The commentaries provide a number of explanations including the Rambam’s beautiful directive relating to a slave’s lack of freedom to act in a moral and ethical manner and our obligation to assume the moral and ethical responsibilities to others of free men. Given the unique times we are living through, I wanted to share a quick personal thought I had in this regard (if not of interest, feel free to skip to the meat of the newsletter at the bottom – my Pesach recommendations).
When shul was abruptly shut down last year, the elimination of communal gatherings (social and spiritual alike), together with the loss of a regular and easy access point to Hashem I don’t believe I was alone in experiencing dark clouds looming over my psyche and soul. However, due to the unique makeup of my apartment building within a short period of time we were able to have daily minyan in a completely halachik, safe and legal manner (each person remained in their own apartment). After being locked out of communal prayer for a while, the spiritual uplifting achieved by simply participating in regular minyan again was remarkable. Initially limited to the afternoon (mincha) and evening (maariv) prayers for logistical reasons, in honor of Pesach we were able to experience complete prayer sessions, including joyful renditions of communal hallel. While obviously not the same, the feeling of going from darkness to light (me’afeila l’ora) helps to imagine what it must have felt like for the slaves, as they broke free from such an imaginable depth of darkness and working their way towards the light of freedom, recollecting the feelings of those times. As we enter another Covid-era Pesach, thinking about the down-trending numbers and mass vaccinations gaining steam, I believe we can start focusing on a hope-filled future, with light at the end of this tunnel, a feeling that may be helpful when trying to put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors’ experience so many years ago. Anyway, just a thought I wanted to share.
With that in mind, I find choosing wine for our sedarim a worthy endeavor to apply some effort too, especially given the teaching by our sages that wine gladdens the heart and there is no joy without wine (and meat). And while joy may be harder to come by this year, I hope it’s easier than last year and given that Pesach is a celebration of the Jewish people coming together a nation for the first time, an idea we get behind with everything we have got. With wine such an integral part of the Pesach holiday, physical and spiritual aspects combined, my hope is that this annual guide makes the task easier and hopefully helps in enhancing the strangely unique seder we are each about to undergo, regardless of our personal circumstances. Whether you are spending it alone, with your spouse, sibling, nuclear family or are lucky enough to be able to safely enjoy the company of a few other people, the smaller nature of this year’s celebrations is an opportunity to slow things down, contemplate the nature of the holiday while enjoying the quiet break from the noise and commotion raging outside our windows.
Typically, the weeks leading up to Pesach are the US kosher wine industry’s busiest, with more kosher wine purchased during this period than the rest of the year combined (in Israel, Rosh Hashanah is nearly as busy a buying season as Pesach and wine buying is also more liberally spread out through the year). While this past year has been far from typical, wine and Pesach were still destined to be together by Hashem and buying wine for Pesach remains one of the best parts of Pesach prep for every committed wine lover. However, even though the more than 4,500 different kosher wines being produced annually includes almost 100 disparate varieties of “Fake Wines” like wines with Cream in their name, Manischewitz, variations of Yayin Patishim and of course the Blue Bottle Abomination, there remain far too many labels for any sane human being to wade through.
Elevated Stress Levels
Every year we talk about the elevated stress levels brought on by cooking commercial grade levels of brisket and matzah balls while attempting to eradicate every speck of dirt from the inside of your oven with a toothbrush and how wine selection shouldn’t be an added source of stress. While each and every one of us is already dealing with unimaginable stress levels brought on by the pandemic, I feel more strongly than ever before that wine selection should be as easy, simple and enjoyable as possible. However, as this guide is used by most readers throughout the year as a benchmark for which wines to acquire and all the potential pitfalls remain (and then some), we are going to remain focused on the usual matters the guide is mean to help alleviate.
With wine such an integral part of the Pesach experience, the massive number of choices can create a particularly stressful shopping experience as one contemplates the near-endless number of choices on the shelves or webpage of your favorite retailer. Exacerbating the issue are several mitigating circumstances including the sheer number of mediocre-at-best available wines (along with an unacceptable amount of true drek) and the unfortunate tendency of many retailers to part you from your hard-earned shekels by selling these less than worthy wines. Typically stemming from a lack of knowledge, occasionally more sinister reasons are at play so, like in any other transaction, caveat emptor. Other aggravating obstacles include lack of vintage transparency and the oenophilic “bait and switch” – advertising great deals for allocated wines without having them in stock and then selling you copious amounts of sub-par wines. Adding to the fun is the terrible fact that many stores and online purveyors continue to sell wines that are so far past their optimum drinking windows that it’s practically criminal.
Help is Here
The Guide covers my top recommendations for wines in the following five price tiers: (1) Under $18, (2) between $18-29.99, (3) between $30-49.99, (4) Over $50 and (5) Moshiach Wines. As most of my readers know, Moshiach Wines are wines that I would proudly serve the Moshiach, were I ever sufficiently deserving for him to grace my Seder table.
Many of the wines on this list will not come as a surprise to my regular readers given their perennial appearance over the years resulting from the consistent excellence of their producers and the talent of the applicable winemaker. As years go by and the quality and quantity of top-notch kosher wines grows, the potential wines for this list gets longer, increasing the difficulty in providing this highly curated list (listing every good wine would defeat the entire purpose of the list). Representing less than 3% of all commercially available kosher wines, the list should go a long way in easing the pain of sifting through all your options. With the quality of white wines increasing year over year, there are more white wines on the list than in prior years, especially on in the lower price ranges. If you are one of those unfortunate and self-proclaimed “I don’t drink white wine” people, please take this as an opportunity to try something new – I promise you won’t be disappointed.
The Fine Print
1. The Guide isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list of every wine I believe worthy of your consideration. It represents a selection of the better wines available across different pricing tiers; each of which I recommend and believe worthy of your Pesach table. As previously noted, Covid-driven logistical challenges resulted in my tasting a smaller percentage of wines this year than ever before, so more than in prior years, not being on this list isn’t a reflecting on its eligibility hereof. As you all know, I only write about wines I like and you can therefore safely purchase any wines previously recommended, even if they aren’t on this list, including last year’s guide (as I tried not to repeat wines). Of course, all wines remain subject to their recommended drinking window.
2. Many of last year’s wines are still available on the shelves and remain in top drinking condition so check out last year’s list for additional suggestions and/or vintages (I tried not to repeat wines from last year’s list, even if they were still available and good).
3. Some wines may only be available either in Israel or the US and are marked as such. While there remain a number of wines that remain available only in their country of production (e.g. Four Gates, Hajdu and Shirah in the US, Mia Luce in Israel and a number of French options in Europe), the vast majority of recommendable Israeli wines are imported to the US these days (shmita excepting) and most of the Herzog/Royal wines that were formerly “US Only” wines, are exported to Israel, making this list more useful across the broadly disparate geographic location of my 11,000 subscribers.
4. Due to the disparate geographical disbursement of my reader base, the listed vintages may be different depending on which part of the world your shopping cart is located in (although vintages tend to also shift from local retailer to retailer and distributor to distributor, depending on how much of the prior vintage they have left in stock). Especially for Israeli wines, different vintages are available in Israel and outside of Israel.
5. It is always best practice to consult me before buying a recommended wine from a different vintage but in this case, given the fluctuation in quality of recent vintages and potential shipping/storage issues, I’d be even more careful than usual when utilizing this list to purchase non-listed vintages.
6. Prices fluctuate wildly from location to location, so when determining the price tier for each wine I typically average among a number of US online and brick and mortar options to achieve what is hopefully an average price for the various wines. However, listed wines in your local market may not always fall exactly within the listed price points (online price-checking is always a good idea, as is asking retailers to match listed prices).
7. To ensure the practical functionality of this list, I have not included wines only available to wine club members (e.g. Covenant’s Landsman, Hajdu’s Guild, Herzog Tasting Room or Hagafen’s Prix) and have significantly reduced the number of listed wines that aren’t generally available (Mia Luce from the 2016 vintage onwards) or have sold out (e.g. the lovely Condrieu from Le Vins de Vienne).
Seder Drinking Conundrum
Despite occupying a top spot on any oenophile’s list of favorite customs, the tradition to consume four full cups of wine at the seder brings a host of potential issues, whose solutions can require a bit of advance thought and planning.
First and foremost is that four cups of is a lot of wine to consume at one sitting, especially given the fact that the first two cups are typically imbibed on an empty stomach. Another issue stems from the tradition of using a silver goblet for kiddush (and the rest of the cups). While the easy solution of pouring the wine into a proper wine glass immediately following the recital of kiddush works beautifully on a regular shabbat or holiday, the lengthy Haggada ensures far more contact with the silver during the Seder. Other issues are caused by the common traditions of using only red wine and avoiding mevushal wines during the seder.
With the seder representing one of the most important meals on the Jewish calendar, people try to have the nicest (and typically the most expensive) wines possible, creating yet another potential conundrum. Despite being among the kosher wine world’s best, the currently available high-end wines from Bordeaux, Israel and California are unlikely to be properly appreciated giving the hurried manner in which most of the Seder’s four cups are mandated to be consumed. Many of the better wines are full-bodied, oak aged and boldly flavored, attributes not very conducive to seder drinking. Between the empty stomach with which most people approach the first two cups, the halachik requirement to consume nearly an entire cup of wine rather rapidly and the added stress under which your seder participants are likely to be operating this year; most sedarim are unlikely to offer ideal conditions for enjoying such magnificent wines. That said, with current circumstances causing unprecedented change to our lives, including religious customs, if your current circumstances allow for a leisurely seder enhanced by the finest wines in your cellar (including if you are spending seder physically alone this year) – go for it. The spiritual aspects of wine sanctifying our table and experience would make using your best bottles to elevate the exalted experience the seder is meant to be as good a use of it as one could imagine.
The Perfect Solution
Otherwise, I suggest saving the more expensive wines for leisurely drinking during Shulchan Aruch and the plethora of subsequent holiday meals, while finding other worthy options for the four cups. Being a traditionalist, my personal custom is sticking with red wines for all four cups, while using a few basic principles to choose the proper wines. Many folks like to use rosé as a good compromise and with the genre’s popularity souring, many options are already available. I have yet to taste all of the 60 samples or so waiting for me, but in anticipation of the guide tasted through a dozen or so to choose a few recommendable options for the guide (even with quality continuing to dip over the years, there are some worthy choices).
Despite the less than adequate conditions mandated by our traditions and extra important given the circumstances we all find ourselves in, Seder night is one of the most exalted evenings we get to spend in G-d’s company, while celebrating our freedom from oppressive slavery and the coalescing of the Jewish People into a nation with collective responsibility for one another. As such top-quality wine is still a pre-requisite. Unlike most years where the large family gathering mandated a wide selection giving the likely disparate range of palate preferences, spending time with your nuclear family only allows one to be slightly more particular while choosing the wine. However, regardless of the number of participants (and even if you are on your own), you are going to want a range of wines. Therefore, I focus on affordable medium bodied quality wines that are highly approachable and enjoyable even without any oenophilic sophistication. Over the years, my “go-to” seder wines have included Israeli Petite Sirah from Dalton and Recanati, entry-level Spanish wines from Capçanes and ElviWines and some of the well-priced newer options from Bordeaux (e.g. Larcis Jaumat, Les Riganes and Fourcas Dupree) in addition to the welcome addition of multiple lovely Pinot Noir wines from around the world at a wide-variety of prices. To the extent you are looking for well-priced and versatile white (or Rosé); good bets will be Rosé Dalton, Recanati or Matar; Sauvignon Blanc from Yarden, Covenant and Goose Bay, Pinot Grigio from Dalton or Yarden and Riesling from Carmel or Kishor.
During this busy buying season, retailers pull out all the stops to bring in your dollars with big sales everywhere. Between the increasing competition and online availability of most top-notch kosher wines, most wine merchants will match any published price, so always ask your favorite retailer to match the prices you have seen elsewhere and, if you aren’t happy with the price – ask for a discount.
Pesach Wine Buying Guide
While a number of wines from this tier have moved up one level due to increased prices, this range includes many good, enjoyable wines. With few exceptions, these wines aren’t complex or cellar worthy. With oak barrels representing a significant percentage of a wine’s cost (actual cost and the time-value of aging), many of these wines have spent little to no time in oak (although oak chips can provide certain benefits without the heavy costs) contributing to their lower prices. Along with focusing on “Safe Bet” wineries, varieties less popular than Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay tend to be cheaper given their relative lack of familiarity. As such, Petite Sirah, Carignan, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Grenache, Roussanne and Gewürztraminer will usually provide better bang for your buck and are good places to look for bargains.
Most of the wines on these lists qualify as YH Best Buys (wines especially worthy of your hard-earned cash).
1. Barkan, Classic, Malbec, 2019 [mevushal]
As the average price of a quality bottle of kosher wine continues to surge, it’s refreshing to find a number of wineries valiantly trying to hold their ground at affordable. While most great wines remain over $30, there are plenty of great ones here. In general, I find Carmel, Dalton, ElviWines, the Golan Heights Winery, Recanati and the wines under Herzog’s Special Reserve label to be consistent players in price range.
1. Borgo Reale, Chianti, 2018 [mevushal]
While a lot of good options sit in this category, many of them really should be priced in the lower range but have crept up in price for no justifiable reason. It’s harder to sell wines in this price range than the one above or below it. It’s nearly impossible to find a YH Best Buy on this list. As with most higher-end wines, especially those with a year or more of barrel aging, these need time to open up (often the current vintage should be regulated to a few years of aging since it simply isn’t ready for primetime). In any event, do yourself a favor and get a decanter to ensure that you are obtaining maximum benefit from these wines in the event that you don’t or cannot cellar them before enjoying.
1. Bat Shlomo, Ice Wine, 2018
Over the decade of producing the Guide, many deserving wines were repeatedly excluded because they were priced over $50 and didn’t quite make the exalted “Moshiach Wine” club. Whether any particular wine is “worth it” is a subjective matter with a newsletter all to itself, these are great wines that will bring great pleasure while properly honoring your Pesach experience. Even more than the prior tier, proper aeration and cellaring will have a huge impact of extracting maximum pleasure from these wines.
1. Aura di Valerie, Amarone Della Valpolicella, DOCG, 2017
Moshiach wines are the really special wines that represent top-notch winemaking and plenty of patience on the consumer’s part to allow the wines the additional aging time in the bottle before the wine showcases all it can be (and the perfection intended by the winemaker). Unfortunately, as our world continues to devolve into the pursuit for instant gratification, the terrible crime of consuming high-end wines shortly after they are purchased is a crying shame. While certain top tier wines are structured for immediate consumption and long-term aging, a few years of aging nearly always does good things for these wines and is worth the extra time, effort and patience. With the continued global expansion of my Rosh Chodesh Club concept (over 30 regular monthly meetings worldwide), more and more folks and getting to experience the immense pleasure derived from properly aged mature wines and with the recognition that a few years of storage can yield a stratospheric ROI, many more wines are finding their way to the cellar instead of the table upon purchase – which is a great thing!
Please note that some of the Moshiach wines are very limited-edition wines that may not be easily available at your local retailer. While they may be a tad difficult to lay your hands on, I promise they are all worth the extra effort and additional expense. Additionally, and as is the case with many of the best wines, many become Moshiach wines only after a few years of aging. As older vintages (that have been stored properly) are somewhat difficult to come by, the list includes the current vintage for many of the wines and, for a number of the wines I have included (at least one of) the vintages that makes the wine fit for the Moshiach (buy the current vintages, store them properly for a few years and voila – homemade Moshiach wines).
1. Capçanes, Peraj Ha’Abib, 2009