From Tuscany With Body

An interview with Italy’s sole boutique kosher winemaker.

03/16/14
Special To The Jewish Week
Terra di Seta’s kosher supervisor at work. Courtesy of Terra di Seta
Terra di Seta’s kosher supervisor at work. Courtesy of Terra di Seta

Since the 1980s, when the first wines from Bartenura found their way to the shelves of American wine shops, Italian kosher wines have been a staple for kosher oenophiles. Italian kosher wines tend to be both affordable and approachable, making them particular good choices for the wine novice.

However, with a few notable (and often short-lived) exceptions, such wines have been made at large commercial wineries, at the behest of American or French importers, and almost solely for the export market. And while such wines can be very good, they almost always lack a certain je ne sais quoi that can be found in the wines of small, independent producers, such as Terra di Seta, Italy’s sole boutique kosher winery.

Terra di Seta is a picturesque winery, with 37 acres of organically farmed vineyards located in the heart of Tuscany’s Chianti region (a few miles outside of Siena). The winery was founded in 2001 by Daniele Della Seta — a scion of an ancient Roman-Jewish family who can trace his Roman roots back at least half of a millennium—and his wife Maria Pellegrini. In 2008 the winery became kosher, and all of its wine is currently produced under the supervision of OK Kosher. The winery currently produces three wines, two of which—Chianti Classico and Riserva Chianti Classico—are available in the U.S.

The Jewish Week recently reached out to Daniele Della Seta to learn more about him and his winery. (Being that his English is somewhat limited, we conversed through a series of emails. What follows is an edited transcript.)

Jewish Week: Tell me about your background, your training as a winemaker, and why you decided to start producing wine?

Della Seta: My wife and I are the owners of Terra di Seta winery. I’m also a biologist, preforming research at the Medicine, Surgery and Neuroscience Department of the University of Siena. Our winery has a consulting professional oenologist, Enrico Paternoster. Enrico, a personal friend, is in charge of wine cellars at the Agricultural Institute of San Michele all’Adige (IASMA, Trento), the most important Italian wine school and research center.

I have played an active role in winemaking since I bought the company, and being a professional biologist certainly helps. Since building our new winery in 2007, I’ve followed actively the whole winemaking process, which is carried out by Shomer Shabbat workers. Also, my wife’s family has been producing wine in Tuscany for three generations. Currently, she is responsible for the cultivation of vineyards and maintenance of the vines. All decision regarding the winemaking, such as the fermentation, the aging, the blending and overall style are made by my wife and I, with the help of our oenologist.

Even though I’ve lived much of my life in the city, my wife and I have always wanted to live in the country. The area where we are now living is part of one of the most important wine regions in Italy. The first few years after we bought the property we sold our grapes to other wineries. So our growth as wine producers has been gradual, but now has become a passion, and a way of life for both of us. We could not do without it.

Why make kosher wine?

Over the years, during Jewish holidays, I’ve had the opportunity to taste many kosher wines, some imported and a few made in Italy. Italy is known worldwide for both the quality and variety of its wines. Each wine region in Italy, from north to south, has its own diverse style. I believe that both the number and quality of Italian kosher wines are not comparable with non-kosher Italian wines.

I’m lucky to be in a place history of producing excellent wines.  It’s also an area located between Florence and Siena, two cities where there are very ancient Jewish communities. So, I decided to represent my Jewish community through the production of a quintessentially Italian product, that’s unique to this area, Chianti Classico. This is the reason why our winery is exclusively kosher. In fact, our aim is to produce kosher wines that are, in terms of quality, exactly at the same level of non-kosher Chiantis.  All of our wines are kosher certified, so we don’t need to make a special kosher production run. I do not deny that I also decided to produce kosher wine in order to increase sales by including a new market niche.

Could you tell me a bit about your religious and family background?

I’m come from a Roman Jewish family with a very long history. My family name (Della Seta) shows that our ancestors were workers or merchants of silk (seta in Italian). We are not sure if the family was already present in Rome before the destruction of the Second Temple, or later came to Rome after the expulsion from Sicily during the Inquisition at the end of the 15th century. The latter hypothesis make sense because starting in the 11th century, when Sicily was under the control of the Normans, many Jews were tailors, who specialized in manufacturing silk for the King of Sicily, Frederick II of Swabia.

Actually, part of my family is still in Rome, which is where I was born and raised. For me it’s very important go back every year, and get together with the whole family, many who now live in Israel and Milan, and celebrate together Rosh HaShanah or Passover. Usually I spend the other holidays with my wife and children in Siena, a beautiful medieval city which has an old synagogue and a very small but active Jewish community (50 people) with its own rabbi.

At the moment I’m the official representative of this community, which is part of the larger Jewish Community of Florence. Every year we organize many events in Siena, some religious and other cultural, for which we are able to attract more Jews from outside.  It makes our community feel bigger than it is.

What have you found most challenging in making kosher wine?

From a practical point of view, the main difficulty concerns the harvest season, which in this area that often coincides with the Jewish holidays. It’s very difficult to find Shomer Shabbat workers that are willing to stay here during whole harvest. The winery is, of course, closed on the holidays.

Another difficulty relates to the cost of the wine. It is very important to us that the retail prices of our wines are in the same range as the prices of similar wines without kosher certification. Although the costs of kosher certification is very high, so far we’ve managed to keep our prices in this range.

For me, personally, the main difficulty is that I am not allowed to touch the wine during production. However, the OK Kosher certification office always sends me a Shomer Shabbat person who trained in winemaking. So I feel more comfortable with the situation.

What sort of response do you generally receive when people learn that your wines are kosher?

Curiosity. During the year we receive many winery tours, and often people already know that the winery is kosher certified. However, the non-Jewish visitors are intrigued to learn the main rules of kashrut, while the Jewish visitors are intrigued and thrilled to find a kosher winery in such an unlikely place, the middle of Tuscany.

How well received have your wines been locally?

In Italy, our wine is mainly distributed in the cities where there are Jewish communities and it sells well, especially in kosher restaurants. It also has good demand from individual consumers, despite the fact that many Jews in Italy only buy kosher wine for the holidays.

Our wine is also sold to non-kosher restaurants and wine stores of the Chianti area, who ask for the wine just because they like it.

Do you have any interesting anecdotes related to the winery?

Last year in London, during an important exhibition of Tuscan wines, a wine journalist began to taste our wines, and only after he tasted them did he realize that they were kosher. At that point, surprised and excited about our wines, he told me that he was a Jew, though not a very religious one. Now we stayed in touch, have become friends, and he is going to visit my cellar. A similar thing also happened a few days ago, when a Russian journalist, having tasted our wine, told me that “secretly” she is the daughter of a Jewish mother. ✦

Tasting Notes

The Jewish Week had the opportunity to taste two of Terra di Seta’s 2009 releases, both of which were very good.

Terra di Seta, Chianti Classico, 2009: Made from a blend of 95 percent Sangiovese, an Italian red grape, and 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 12 months in French oak, this medium- to full-bodied garnet-colored wine has a bouquet of cherries, plums and pipe tobacco, with a hint of Mediterranean herbs. Look for flavors of cherries, blackberries, and plums with a light herbal overlay, and smooth, satiny tannins. Simple, but well made, this wine should cellar well until 2015.

Score B+. Price $22-$24.

Terra di Seta, Riserva, Chianti Classico, 2009: This full-bodied, garnet-colored wine is made from Sangiovese that has been aged in French oak barrels for 18 months. Look for an herbal nose of cherries, thyme, tarragon, lavender and smoke. The flavor is dominated by cherries, with notes of herbs, smoke and oak. Also look for an abundance of powdery tannins. This wine has both a bit more edge and a bit more depth than their regular Chianti Classico. Drink within the next year.

Score B+. Price $30-$34.

Neither of these wines is available yet in U.S. stores, but will be within the next few weeks.