Grape Expectations
Tue, 03/02/2010
Staff Writer

Swirl. Sniff. Swish. Spit.

Repeat 170 times. In four hours and change.

Welcome to the life of a time-stressed kosher wine taster.

In the basement of City Winery on a recent Thursday afternoon, five young wine connoisseurs made their way through 170 bottles of kosher wine — first aerating the wine with a gentle swirl, then swishing it around the palate, and ultimately spitting the liquid into silver wine-chilling buckets scattered across a table where they were seated.

The five men had gathered for an expedited wine tasting, where in 4 ½ hours, they’d plow through the daunting number of bottles and give each a ranking between 1 and 100. The point of the blind tasting — the labels were wrapped in white paper to conceal their provenance — was to determine which wines were the top 18 for The Jewish Week’s Kosher Wine Guide. Companies that planned to showcase their wines at an upcoming March 14 Grand Wine Tasting had sent over complimentary bottles to the group of judges.

“We’re going to try to do it fairly, quickly and give each wine a number — we’ll arrive at the top 18,” said Michael Dorf, owner of City Winery, who chaired the tasting group. “All we’re doing is getting a taste and spitting it out.”

Dorf instructed the others to refrain from jotting down notes and to try their best to stay within 50 and 100 points in their ratings, unless the wine was completely undrinkable. And then they embarked on a turbo-speed process essentially “emulating what the biggies do,” according to Dorf, a reference to high-toned wine tasters.

First up were the white wines, then the rosés, followed by the reds and finally, the sweet dessert wines. The reds claimed the majority of the table space, as reds are much more popular among consumers and get a much higher profit margin for producers, the tasters told The Jewish Week.

“Well, l’chaim, everyone,” Dorf said, officially kicking off the tasting, and sampling his first white wine.
“It’s not too bad,” Dorf said, gargling the wine and quickly spitting it into one of the silver buckets.
Dorf and the others clamored around the bottles, trying to work out the best system possible to get through all of the wines as quickly as possible, one taster grabbing a bottle, quickly sipping and spitting and sending it to the next.

“I’m taking a section [of bottles] and moving them over. Then I’ll hit your section,” strategized Aron Ritter, president of the Kosher Wine Society.

In a more thorough wine tasting, which would likely involve only  20 or 30 wines at most, participants would rinse out the glass with water before sipping a new wine and perhaps eat a cracker in between tastings, explained Yossie Horwitz, who publishes a weekly kosher wine e-newsletter.

“We’re just ranking the wines — we’re not reviewing them or describing them,” Horwitz said, noting that some of the wines are certainly recognizable because of the relatively limited selection of kosher wines available around the world. “I would guess that I’ve had 90 percent of them.”

Rather than jot down a comprehensive review of each wine, the tasters were essentially narrowing down their choices in what Dorf called “a process of elimination.”

“It’s just to give us a taste,” added Ilan Tokayer, a winemaker and mashgiach for the Orthodox Union. “We’re mostly looking for flaws.”

“You’re not looking for those overtones of blackberry,” added Seth Warshaw, wine buyer and owner of ETC Steakhouse in Teaneck, N.J.

That being said, the tasters did slip in the occasional detailed comment about a wine or two. Dorf detected a “dash of pomegranate” in one; Tokayer less favorably found “something chemical about” another.

The tasters nearly unanimously enjoyed the rosés. Warshaw called the category a “forgotten wine” that is often neglected by consumers. Unlike the rosés, however, the men found a few reds and whites that were particularly unpleasant, not at the fault of their respective wineries but because they were “corked” — they simply had gone bad.

“Sometimes you get a bottle that’s off and people will say it’s ‘corked.’ A lot of winemakers use synthetic corks for this reason,” Horwitz said, shoving a pile of corks and their synthetic look-alikes into the middle of the table.

After nearly two hours of gargling and spitting, the tasters were still chugging along, starting on the reds and relieved that there was a limit to how many kosher wines are available in New York.

“The best are from Israel — hands down,” Tokayer said. “In America, you have three or four wineries making kosher wine, and in France a couple wineries also make kosher wine on the side. In Israel, if you want to get into a supermarket, you pretty much need to be kosher. The best kosher wines are in Israel.” ?