I've been to a number of Passover Seders over the years, many in New York state, some in New Jersey, and one in California. As part of the ceremony at each, I've sipped wine that either was kosher, or fine wine. But not both.
The which will hold has been trying to change all that for local Jews who are preparing their own Seder tables.
Last Thursday night, for the fourth year, Chabad hosted another kosher Passover wine tasting in its bright atrium at the Jewish Center off Valley Road.
This is a great get-together for wine tasting as well as a way to stock up for Passover. Three bars were set up — one for red wine, one for white and another with bottles of temptingly delicious spirits and liquers (all kosher, of course!) — but more on that later. All were provided by Royal Wine Corp., which has been working on building a reputation as a purveyor of wines that taste good, as well as being kosher.
All that — as well as some munchies — for an incredibly reasonable price of $5 per person!
This was the second time I'd attended one of Chabad's wine tastings in a semi-professional capacity. Both times, I'd been accompanied by Patrick, of the Boylan tribe. Patrick may not be Jewish, but he's an avid wine taster and collector. He also bottles some of own reds and whites at various New Jersey winemaking facilities, such as A Little Taste of Purple in Fairfield.
While I hadn't celebrated Passover growing up, I wasn't a total stranger to kosher wines. As we all feasted at my Italian grandmother's table, my Italian grandfather occasionally poured himself a glass of grape Manischewitz mixed with 7 Up. He pretty much drank alone.
It always seemed like the correct thing to do to have a kosher wine at a Passover Seder. But hey, considering the guest list, you also want to serve something really good. In Northern California, we drank California wine produced nearby.
One year, I decided to go fancy and accompany the meal with something French and traditional. But that didn't really sit right — where in the Passover story does it mention the parting of the Red Seine?
Most of the wines poured at this latest tasting were from Israel. But a few other bottles among the dozens put out, more often the whites, were from other wine regions, including California and New Zealand.
And, although there wasn't one uncorked last week, French wine that's suitable for Passover also is available from Royal Wine's list. What more could anyone ask?
The wines offered for tastings at Chabad also came in multiple price ranges, from about $9.99 to $43.99 for Domaine du Castel's Petite Castel from the Judean Hills of Israel.
With Patrick having the more evolved palate, I left it up to him to review the wines. I also posed the theoretical question of what he would select as the main wine if he had been hosting a Seder.
While sipping and swirling wine, Patrick also got to ask a little bit about Passover customs from Royal Wine's congenial and knowledgeable Jason Sklar. Jason advised that anyone planning a Seder should first and foremost seek a "happy" wine — with the reasoning that you could have a broad mix of people not only drinking as part of the ceremony, but also throughout dinner. Under those circumstances, happy is the mood to set, he counseled.
Price is another factor, especially if you're having a large group for the meal, he said. That $44 bottle might be impressive, but "unless you're loaded," Jason said, the cost might really add up if you were purchasing multiple bottles needed for say, 20 or so people who would be sipping wine on cue four times through the ceremony.
Patrick has an admitted prediliction towards reds, but he especially liked one white, a reserve Chardonnay from Binyamina that he pronounced had a nice long finish.
While made his way through the lineup of reds, I asked Chabad's Program Director, Rabbi Yitchok Moully, what he had liked. He named a Cabernet Franc as one choice.
Patrick eventually settled on his Passover wine of choice as Segal's Cabernet/Merlot, selling for $19.99 a bottle. "It's a nice balance between the Cabernet and Merlot," he observed. He also favored a Cabernet Jeunesse, a $12.99 California wine from Baron Herzog Winery in Oxnard, Ca.
But, he admitted that his favorite wine had indeed been the $43.99 Petite Castel. "As always, I have expensive taste." However, at more than twice the price, "It wasn't twice as good" as the $19.99 Cabernet/Melot, he concluded.
I don't always have expensive tastes, and the first time I was here I ended up ordering a bottle of white for about $12, although I don't remember what it was.
Although I didn't order anything this time — and some of the proceeds from the wines ordered at Chabad's tasting go to the Jewish Center in Basking Ridge — I did think the tasting experience was as pleasing as at other wineries I've visited in either Napa or Long Island's North Fork.
But...I did find something that really did hit the spot. I ambled over to Yoni Joszef's display of spirits and liqueurs, and saw something I hadn't before — a sweet potato vodka from Zachlawi. Intrigued, I asked for a sample.
Wham! It was really strong. But it did taste like sweet potato, and I love sweet potatoes.
Gary Binstock of Millington, standing next to me, described the concoction as "scarily smooth."
I checked with Yoni whether sweet potato vodka could fulfill the role of a Passover wine. No, he admitted, "But you might want it as an interlude between the wines." Now, that could be a night to remember, or not.
I left wondering if I could justify ordering a bottle for $28.99 — maybe as a side for turkey and stuffing next Thanksgiving?
Because Royal Wines is a wholesaler, Chabad had to make an arrangement for delivery through off Allen Road in The Hills in Basking Ridge. Although the retail wine shop still can obtain Royal Wines for shoppers, no further wines could be placed through the Chabad order as of Tuesday, owner Mike DiFabrizio confirmed on Thursday.
Except, he said, somehow he had been sent an unclaimed bottle of that sweet potato vodka — and it just might have my name on it.