OCCIDENTAL, Calif., June 19 (JTA) — Grapes are the only fruit from which sacramental wine can be derived, so Judaism treats the fruit of the vine with special reverence.
Whenever wine is on the table, a prayer is offered. The codification of kosher wine, which began in the days of Maimonides, girded it with strict production requirements to guard its purity:
• In the first three years after a vine is planted, its fruit is orla — forbidden — and can not be consumed, according to the Torah. Only grapes from the fourth year onward may be used for wine making.
• From the moment grapes arrive at the winery, only Sabbath-observant Jews are allowed to work on wine production. Some kosher wineries do not allow nonreligious people even to enter the production area or press a button. Paradoxically, while workers must be observant, wine makers and tasters often are gentiles or non-religious Jews because many observant Jews lack the experience of tasting nonkosher wines from around the world.
• All substances used in the production or clarification of wines must be certified as kosher for Passover. Kosher wine makers clarify wine by using bentonite — a type of clay — as opposed to gelatin or egg whites, which are commonly used elsewhere in the industry. No animal products must taint wine; animal bladders are never used for filters.
• A symbolic tithe — ma’aser — of 1 percent of the wine produced every year is poured away in the presence of a rabbi, representing the tithe offered to the priests in the biblical Temple. A mural in the Carmel Winery’s reception room depicts the wine barrels spilling the ma’aser wine onto the ground.
• Before crushing the grapes, all equipment — crusher, press, hoses, tanks, barrels, etc. — must be cleaned three times. Modern steam cleaning and chemical preparations would seem to make this rule obsolete, but makers of kosher wine strictly adhere to it. The Abarbanel Winery in France, for example, flushes its hoses three times with scalding hot water above 190 degrees.
• For wine to retain its religious purity when handled by non-Jews, the wine must be pasteurized; it is then known as yayin mevushal, or cooked wine. The barely fermenting “must” — a slurry of crushed grapes and liquid — is quickly run over steel plates heated to about 185 degrees until bubbles appear, satisfying the kashrut laws.
A recent study at the University of California at Davis, one of the top wine making schools in the United States, showed that it is almost impossible to taste the difference between mevushal and nonmevushal wine.