Monday, March 27, 2023

Last November, during the darkness of the pandemic, some light broke through. Old and new friends, all wine enthusiasts, gathered around a complex, multilayered project that, despite all the regulations and distancing guidelines that have characterized this year and made our lives virtually unrecognizable, took hold. In some ways, the idea took on an enthusiastic life of its own and carried us with it.

When The Jewish Week discontinued its print edition this past summer—including the pre-Pesach kosher wine guide it had produced for 11 years—we realized that if we didn’t support kosher wine by publishing our own guide, the kosher wine industry might not be here for us when our smachot returned in full force, which b’ezrat Hashem, they will this summer.

Quite simply, we wanted to support kosher wine and laud its considerable successes in the face of worldwide industrial stress in all sectors. COVID lockdowns, repeated winery shutdowns, California’s summer wildfires and the resulting damage to grapes had just about brought the kosher wine industry to its knees in multiple regions.

A too-steep dropoff in consumer purchasing this Pesach could finish some kosher wineries off entirely. We knew we had the ability and the skills to help out, and hoped our advocacy could stave off some of the pressure.

My longtime friends Gamliel Kronemer (who brought the idea to The Jewish Link) and Joshua London immediately got on board with me editing a new magazine called The Jewish Link Wine Guide. These two experienced writers, impartial yet passionate advocates for kosher wine, had previously written many of the feature articles for The Jewish Week’s Wine Guide. My Jewish Link colleague Michal Rosenberg agreed to serve as managing editor.

All we needed was a wine judging team. For that we asked Yossie Horwitz, a founding judge for The Jewish Week’s wine guide, and a COVID-era new Northern New Jersey transplant, who runs the popular “Yossie’s Corkboard” site and email list. I found willing volunteers to round out the judging panel in my wine tasting group based right here in Teaneck: Jeff Katz, Greg Raykher, Daphna Roth and Yeruchum Rosenberg.

Over a three-month process beginning in January, this unique COVID-era judging panel tasted wine in what we might call “less than ideal” conditions. Initially, we thought we would conduct all our tastings outdoors, but that idea went by the wayside when 20-degree weather took hold. I regretted that some of the wines we tried in an early tasting didn’t show as well, likely because of too-cold serving temperatures. But we did our last two tastings in The Avenue on Queen Anne Road in Teaneck, which was wonderful and a great facility to conduct socially distanced events.

I should note, however, that while we successfully conducted four tastings, the judges—all volunteers—were working in difficult conditions the entire time. A lot was asked of them. With more than 60 wines in each tastings, and some tastings expanded to as many as 110 bottles, the judges could not at any moment “sit back and enjoy a glass of wine.” This was real work.

The judges would spend a couple of minutes per bottle, swirling each wine a bit in the glass, noting its scents, and finally tasting it and spitting it out. Then they would write down a number based on the system they developed with Yossie, who helped guide them in creating their own 100-point scale for tasting wine “blind”—basically bottles with their labels covered to ensure impartial treatment.

The entire endeavor, Yossie warned, would come crashing down (and yes, he does speak that dramatically) if the same five judges did not taste every wine in every tasting and judge each wine according to each person’s internally consistent criteria. Every wine had to be tasted on the same evening by the same people, in the same manner, in order for the rankings to be meaningful.

Michal and I, in large part, as well as Eva Katz, an essential member of our team who helped us with logistics, were grateful that we had not been tasked with judging wines, and each of our judges could not have been more supportive to the overall goal or more obliging to our process. Michal also did an excellent job tabulating the results and finalizing our Top 25 lists, and using all wines entered in our tasting that might not have ranked in the Top 25 but still did well, to determine five top wineries to honor with that distinction.

At the end, our Inaugural Jewish Link Wine Guide is here, and we are proud to present it to our readers this week as an insert in every Jewish Link. If you don't read a physical copy of The Link, you can also read the articles here, and here is the flipdoc! We hope and plan to do it again next year. The incisive features about this most challenging year in the wine industry will assuredly lead you to understand more of the stories behind the bottles, and it is our hope that they will lead you to further appreciate the work that our dedicated Jewish brothers and sisters are doing, worldwide, to continually improve the variety and quality of kosher wines.

I have known for some time that the kosher wine industry is a partnership of trust between winemakers, salespeople and consumers. Without the others, each cannot succeed. The Jewish Link Wine Guide team is proud to celebrate this partnership, and we hope that you will pick up our magazine, take a look at the kinds of wines you’d like to have on your seder table, and go out and buy one or two. Chag Kasher V’Samayach!

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