Kosher wine: If it’s good enough for winos and the prophet Elijah, it’s good enough for you

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Reflections on Mad Dog, Mogen David and mevushai

Are there any winos any more? There must be, as most American big cities have one section of town that still serves as a skid row. Even if you were to miss the gangs of drunks, often seen shirtless and sipping from brown paper bags, it would be impossible to miss the broken glass. The sidewalks and gutters are filled with shattered bottles. Among the empty vodka and malt liquor bottle shards, the careful observer will notice a distinctive label: that of MD 20/20, commonly referred to as Mad Dog, a sickly sweet wine fortified with various fruit flavors, including “Pink Grapefruit” and “Hawaiian Blue.” Alcoholics still take to Mad Dog for the same reason they have for decades, and for the same reason they favor other sweet wines. It is inexpensive and it kills your appetite, which is an important consideration when choosing between a meal and a drink.

What most winos don’t realize is that while they’re working on enlarging their livers, they are also obeying strict Jewish dietary law. Mad Dog, you see, is produced by Mogen David, and is manufactured under careful rabbinic supervision. Winos, it seems, have a taste for kosher drinks.

In general, most Americans don’t have a very clear understanding of Jewish dietary laws. A Jewish Studies professor at the University of Minnesota used to tell a story about his frequent experiences aboard airplanes, as the flight attendants would inevitably discover that they had neglected to pack a kosher meal for him. According to the professor, who, as a graduate of Yeshiva University, also held the title of rabbi, could always look forward to the flustered flight attendants bringing a regular meal and offering to find a rabbi to bless it.

He would patiently attempt to explain that the Jewish laws regarding foods do not involve a rabbinic blessing. According to the Five Books of Moses, there are simply some foods Jews can’t eat, such as pork, and no amount of blessings by nearby rabbis will make them acceptable. Even those foods that are allowed in the Pentateuch, such as chicken, must be slaughtered in a particular way, called shechita, by a trained butcher; failing this, the animal is inedible. In order to insure that food is produced in a manner that is consistent with Jewish law, a supervisory committee examines the manner in which the food is produced. Once they are satisfied, they authorize the food to be marketed with a hescher, a trademarked logo that identifies the food as kosher. Some of the more common symbols are that of The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, which is a circle with a U in its center, and that of The Organized Kashrus Laboratories, which is also an encircled letter, in this case a K. Although rabbis participate in this supervisory process, they do not bless the food to make it kosher. Jews do bless their food, but it serves pretty much the same function as the Christian practice of grace before meals.

In theory, all wine is kosher. After all, there are no prohibitions against fruits or vegetables in the Jewish dietary law. If you’re walking along and you see a grape hanging from a vine, no matter how strictly observant you might be, there’s nothing preventing you from popping those grapes into your mouth, unless, of course, you happen to be stealing them, in which case you might want to revisit the Ten Commandments. But the grapes require no rabbinic supervision and no trademarked logo to be kosher. And, yet, were you to ferment those grapes and throw them in a bottle, there is not an Orthodox Jew on earth who would drink it without an okay from the rabbis. (There are other Jews who might guzzle away without question, as different branches of Judaism have different levels of observance; many members of the Reform movement, as an example, would have no compunctions about drinking your wine, even if you were to serve it with a side of bacon, which they would probably also enjoy.)

So what’s the deal? Well, firstly, we should explain that the Five Books of Moses were occasionally vague about dietary laws. For example, Deuteronomy 14:21 advises against boiling a lamb in its mother’s milk, and what does that mean? The rabbis interpreted it as meaning that Jews simply should not mix milk and meat in general, but even that raises a thicket of tricky questions. A puzzled Jew, faced with this restriction, would naturally wonder how long they would have to wait between eating a hamburger and enjoying a chocolate shake. And what about birds and fish? They don’t produce milk, so is it allowable to have a turkey and cheese sandwich?

The answers were left in the hands of the rabbis, who themselves could sometimes be a little quarrelsome. Some rabbis argue that you must wait three hours between eating meat and drinking milk. For others, you must wait six. Most agree that milk can be drunk with fish, and most agree that milk should not be drunk with fowl, but you’ll find some rabbis who take the opposite viewpoint on both. Most observant Jews just go with whatever tradition they grew up in, although we presume that some simply skip the issue altogether by becoming vegetarian.

On the subject of wine, the rabbis have a general consensus. The beverage is just too important to Judaism to be left unsupervised. Jews have been making wine since Biblical days, and wine plays an important part in many Jewish rituals — let us look at the feast of Passover as an example. Not only are four cups of wine drunk by each of the participants (and, at many Seders, these are enormous cups of wine), but a special cup is set aside for the prophet Elijah. He is supposed to go from door to door on some Passover evening, giving word of the coming of the Jewish messiah; seeing as there are about 14 million Jews in the world, one presumes that the prophet will be quite snookered at the end of the evening.

As wine is of great ritual importance to Jews, they take great pains to make certain that kosher wine is not tainted. During the production of the wine, it may not be mixed with any additional chemicals, coloring agents, gelatins, or any of the many other additives often found in wine. Additionally, the tools used to make the wines — the presses, tanks, and crushers — must all be cleaned with scalding water, to insure that they are free of contaminants.

As cautious as Jews are about making certain their wine is not adulterated with strange ingredients, they are even more concerned with making certain that the wine is not tainted by something far worse: idolatry. Many European vineyards were owned and operated by monasteries, and the wines they produced had certainly been earmarked for Jesus. Such wine simply wouldn’t do for a Jewish ceremony. And if the winemakers were not Christian, well, who knows what strange gods they dedicated their wines to? For this reason, kosher wine can only be handled, from the vine to the glass, by Jews. Sabbath-observant Jews, mind you. A Jew who flips on his television on Saturday, or spends money, or engages in any of the hundreds of prohibited behaviors on the Jewish day of rest, could spoil a perfectly good bottle of wine simply by pouring it.

That is, unless the wine is mevushal. This type of wine is created by taking normal kosher wine and heating it to 186 degrees Fahrenheit. Boiled wine was forbidden for ritual purposes at the Temple in Israel, and so contemporary rabbis treat it as though it were a different substance altogether. Therefore, wine that has been heated is subject to fewer rules than its unheated version, and can be handled by non-Jews without losing its kosher status. This type of wine wasn’t especially popular until recently, though, as boiled wine can lose much of its flavor. Techniques for flash-boiling the wine are now common, which keeps the wine’s flavor, and mevushal wines have started to develop quite a following.

By the way, there are considerable more restrictions regarding kosher wine. Grapes cannot be used to make wine until the vines that produce them are four years old. Vegetables or other fruits may not be grown between these vines. When the wine is completed, one percent of it must be dumped out, to represent the ten percent tithing that once went to the Temple in Israel. It is no surprise that the production of kosher food, especially wine, requires rabbinic supervision. There are so many rules, it would be easy to accidentally miss a few, and it doesn’t matter if you get a rabbi to bless it — the resulting wine is never going to be kosher.

All of these rules can get to be a bit frustrating, especially when dealing with people who are ignorant of them — such as flight attendants. Take our Jewish Studies professor as an example. After an endless number of hungry flights and an endless number of helpful stewardesses offering to have a regular meal blessed by a rabbi, he finally gave in to his hunger. “I’m a rabbi,” he told them. “I’ll bless the food.”