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Hobby blends technology, wine, Judaism
September 28, 2005
BY LEAH A. ZELDES
Moshe Yudkowsky seems an unlikely person to be a wine connoisseur.
To begin with, the 49-year-old West Rogers Parker is a techie, a type known more for massive consumption of caffeinated beverages than for having a discerning palate. A doctorate in physics and a consultant in computerized speech technology who has just completed his first book (The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions, due out in November from Berrett-Koehler), Yudkowsky by rights ought to be chugging Jolt Cola rather than sipping fine Bordeaux.
Secondly, he's an Orthodox Jew who keeps strictly kosher.
While wine holds a special place in Judaism -- so special, in fact, that it merits its own prayer of thanksgiving, as well rules of manufacture much stricter than those for any other kosher product -- Jews tend to be notably moderate drinkers, reserving alcohol mainly for holidays. This historic abstemiousness might arise, in part, from the nature of kosher wine in America. The making of fine kosher wines goes back to at least the 11th century, when the great medieval Jewish scholar Rashi was a vintner in the Champagne region of France, but in the United States, kosher wines were once made almost entirely from native grape varieties that had to be heavily sweetened to be potable.
The syrupy Concords and Niagaras produced by makers such as Manischewitz and Mogen David, the first wines sampled by most American Jews, were unlikely to foster enthusiastic oenophiles.
"The Jewish community in Europe used to drink wines like those I'm drinking today," Yudkowsky says, "but when Jews came to America, the Old World grapes weren't available."
Until 20 or 30 years ago, "everybody was drinking sweet malagas," Yudkowsky says. (These sticky, purple wines are made from American "Red Malaga" grapes, not to be confused with the white Malaga grapes from Spain.) Even today, most Jews have scarcely ventured beyond those types.
Yudkowsky remembers the first time he tasted a wine that was different, in the late 1970s. "It was a Hagafen Riesling," he says, still a fairly sweet wine. "I bought a whole case of it. It was the first time I ever bought a case of wine."
That wine led to what Yudkowsky calls "a hobby that's out of control." He's been sampling and collecting kosher wines ever since.
Two years ago, he combined his worlds of technology, Judaism and wine to create the online Kosher Wine Review (www.kosherwinereview.com), a Web site detailing his rankings of strictly kosher wines. The site can sort the reviewed wines by criteria ranging from color to value, and also offers the ability to download the information to a Palm Pilot organizer.
The site also explains briefly what goes into making a wine kosher, and discusses which types of wine Jews and non-Jews may appropriately share.
It covers a variety of wine from around the world, showcasing the expansion of kosher wines in both style and breadth. "Over the past five years" Yudkowsky says, "I've tried wines from South Africa, Australia, Austria, the Republic of Georgia, Chile, Argentina and Spain. The geographic diversity of kosher wines is just great."
While he reviews wines that cost up to $325 a bottle (Roberto Cohen Clos de Vougeot 2000, a French Grand Cru), most are under $25. "In all seriousness, there's an upper limit," he says. "Some people can't tell the difference. Unless you're really into wine and know what you're tasting, I don't recommend spending that much."
But consumption of kosher wine is on the rise, says Charles Stanfield, head of the kosher wine experts at Sam's Wines & Spirits in Lincoln Park. "The demographics are changing," says Stanfield, who says he's regularly selling $90 and $100 bottles of kosher Bordeaux to younger Jewish patrons looking for exemplary kosher wines, as well as to people who don't care whether the wine is kosher at all.
He laughs when he recalls that eight years ago he took several cases of wine to a tasting event for the Jewish United Fund and only opened three bottles all night. Last year, he poured three cases of wine at a similar event.
"There are so many good wines now," Stanfield says.
Yudkowsky tells his readers to develop their palates on less-expensive vintages. "I don't recommend spending more than $20 a bottle if you've never had those higher-end wines," he says.
Yudkowsky's tasting notes aren't as flowery as some. "The wine tasted like blueberry juice with a little kick," he writes of a disappointing Beaujolais Nouveau. Of a highly rated Cabernet Sauvignon, he writes, "The wine was very flavorful; I noted the dark berry flavors, and even some hints of the 'leather' that the winemaker noted on the bottle."
"Wine is wine -- good or bad," he says, revealing a techie's impatience with the poetic. He points that most of his readers aren't wine buffs. "I'm writing for myself, and for people who are interested in a very straightforward description. I don't come up with new adjectives every time I sit down to write."
"I found it to be informative," says site user David Porush of Skokie. "It is easy to use and understand.
"I have looked at the site a few times before making a purchase to see what he had to say."
Others in Yudkowsky's world are less influenced by his tastes. "Most of the time my wife's opinion of the wine I like is 'needs more sugar,' " he says.
Leah Zeldes is a suburban-based free-lance writer.
Here are Moshe Yudkowky's Rosh Hashana wine recommendations:
Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins Monday, ushering in a solemn 10-day period of repentance and introspection known as the Days of Awe. Before the sun goes down Monday, and again the next day, most Jews will eat a festive menu of symbolic foods.
Unlike some other holidays, however, there isn't a tradition about the kind of wine to drink at Rosh Hashana, says wine aficionado Moshe Yudkowsky of the Kosher Wine Review (www.kosherwinereview.com).
Sweet dishes represent hopes for a sweet new year, however, so Yudkowsky recommends "first, a few sweet wines, in recognition of the tradition of having sweets on the New Year."
"Rosh Hashana isn't a time for a party," Yudkowsky says. There's none of the whoopla surrounding the secular New Year's Eve. Nevertheless, it's a special occasion, so Yudkowsky recommends three wines for those who like to mark special holidays with a sparkling wine. "For a nice treat," he says, "put a good strawberry into the Champagne glass."
Fish is commonly served because of its ancient association with fertility and abundance, but most families will have meat or poultry as the centerpiece of their new year's dinner, so Yudkowsky also offers "a few recommendations if you'd just like a nice red wine for your meat, or a nice white wine to go with the traditional new year's fish course."
Wine tends not to play a big role in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which closes the Days of Awe, because it is a fast day. Some families serve wine before or after the fast, but others do not.
Following closely after these high holidays, beginning Oct. 17, however, is Sukkot, a joyous harvest festival in which Jews customarily set up an outdoor shelter, a sukkah, in which to eat their meals, which are often festive occasions, and where these wines would also fit in well.
Hacormim Conditon, Israel, nonvintage. "A heavy, syrupy, sweet red wine. People who were raised on that kind of wine love it, and for some reason the wine is very drinkable even for those who prefer dry wines. 'Conditon' is Aramaic for 'spiced wine.' This wine has fig honey to make it heavier and sweeter. The honey in 'the land of milk and honey' [a description of Israel] was date or fig honey, not bee's honey. This makes the wine quite appropriate for the New Year."
Villa Santero Moscato d'Asti, Italy, nonvintage. "This is a good moscato, sparkling, light in alcohol, and not very serious, and I recommend it over the popular kosher brand of moscato d'Asti, which tastes like Sprite with rubbing alcohol."
Weinstock White Zinfandel, California, 2003. "Actually pink, this is quite a bargain, an inexpensive wine that's semi-dry to semi-sweet."
Hagafen Cellars Johannisberg Riesling, California, 2002. "This winery's Riesling has been a favorite of mine for 25 years. Sparkle, citrus, and just on the dry side of semi-dry."
Bartenura Prosecco, Italy, nonvintage. "A nice value for the money. Dry. This isn't Champagne, but it does not pretend to be one."
Roberto Cohen Pommery, France, nonvintage. "A very lively, very bubbly dry Champagne.
Laurent Perrier Brut Sparkling Wine, France, nonvintage. "A dry Champagne. This is the one that seems to work best with sweet foods."
Segal's Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve, Israel, 2000. "An excellent wine. The wine has a pleasant nose of grape, and after little air, some vanilla as well."
Galil Yiron, Israel, 2000. "A traditional Bordeaux-style wine, absolutely outstanding, something to linger over as the wine breathes and develops more flavors and more complexity. Very bold, lots of tannins."
Abarbanel Beaujolais Villages, France, 2002. "A lighter wine whose intense fruitiness makes it palatable to people who prefer sweeter wines. This is the wine I usually bring with me when I don't know about the tastes of the person with whom I will share the wine; and I try to keep at least one of these on my wine rack."
Valero Malbec, Argentina, 2002. "A very soft red wine, not 'full bodied' as it says on the label."
Barkan Classic Sauvignon Blanc, Israel, 2002. "A very nice balance of flavors, and perhaps a real bargain."
Weinstock Cellar Select Chardonnay, California, 2001. "A very decent Chardonnay."
Check the Web site for other wines, including a listing of wines by value for dollar.
Leah A. Zeldes
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