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Hanukkah Wine, California Style
By Tina Caputo
Nov 23, 2010
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While many of us are contemplating which wines to serve with our Christmas turkey or ham, Jewish wine-lovers are thinking about Hanukkah, which begins this year on December 1st.  The wines you’d normally serve with a Butterball just wouldn’t cut it with a hearty brisket or a crisp batch of latkes. 

So which wines pair best with Hanukkah fare?  With the variety of foods served at most holiday feasts, it’s best to take this one dish at a time.

As our Jewish readers already know, fried fare constitutes Hanukkah’s most important “food group.”  The frying oil represents the one-day supply of oil that miraculously burned for eight days during ancient times, when the Maccabees reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from the Greco-Syrians. 

Latkes -- thin potato pancakes, often garnished with applesauce and sour cream -- are particularly beloved among traditional fried Hanukkah dishes.  My hands-down favorite wine for savory fried foods is dry sparkling wine or Champagne, because it cuts through the oiliness of the food and refreshes your palate for the next bite (and there’s always a next one). 

Fried Hanukkah treats also take the form of jelly doughnuts, known in Israel as sufganiot.  An off-dry Prosecco would be a good choice with doughnuts -- even better if you can get your hands on a slightly sweet sparkling Shiraz from Australia.  

In addition to these symbolic staples, there’s often some kind of roasted meat -- brisket, pot roast, lamb -- which calls for a hearty red wine. 

Whatever’s on the menu, there are lots of great wine options -- kosher and otherwise -- to complement the celebration.  

What’s Kosher?

There’s a lot of confusion as to what constitutes a kosher wine.  Modern kosher wines are not boiled, although some are flash-pasteurized (these wines are called “mevushal.”  To be kosher, a wine must only be handled by Sabbath-observant Jews.  Blessing by a rabbi isn’t mandatory, but rabbis are often employed by organizations that provide kosher certifications to make sure the requirements are being met. 

Unfortunately, wine-boiling practices of decades past resulted in some pretty awful “cooked” wines, and it’s been a long, slow process for kosher wines to shake off the stigma.  But today there are terrific kosher wines being made all over the world -- including in California.  Hagafen Cellars in Napa Valley produces some knock-out kosher wines, as does Covenant, which is owned by Leslie Rudd of Rudd Vineyards & Winery and wine-critic-turned-vintner Jeff Morgan.

Jewish Vintners in California

Beyond the realm of kosher wines, there are dozens of Jewish vintners in Northern California, producing delicious, Hanukkah-worthy wines.  In Sonoma Valley, for example, there’s B.R. Cohn Winery, which just released its first kosher Cabernet, and Landmark Vineyards.  In Napa Valley, you’ll find Spring Mountain Vineyard, Hall Wines, Alpha Omega Winery, and Judd’s Hill.

Since 2006, the Finkelstein family, which owns Judd’s Hill Winery in Napa, has hosted a party/fundraiser called the Hanukkah Hootenanny.  The winery’s fifth annual event will be held on December 5, and will feature a latke bar, barbecued brisket and music by Meshugga Beach Party, a band that reinterprets traditional Jewish folk music in an instrumental “surf music” style. 

“I like to always have something fun to do at the winery, and there’s not a whole lot going on, Hanukkah-wise, in Napa Valley,” explained Judd Finkelstein of Judd’s Hill, “so we decided to so something.”

The event has become so popular that attendees aren’t limited to those who traditionally celebrate Hanukkah.  “I think a lot of the people that come to the party aren’t even Jewish,” Finkelstein said, laughing.  At one event, revelers spontaneously raised people up on chairs to replicate the “Chair Dance” performed at Jewish weddings. 

A typical Hanukkah dinner for the Finkelsteins is a bit more subdued.  Finkelstein gathers with his wife, Holly, young daughters Talulah and Ruby, mother Bunnie and assorted other relatives for a simple-but-satisfying feast.  Latkes are always on the menu, but the other dishes can vary.  They usually have a brisket, and for dessert, jelly donuts.  “My mom loves a good doughnut,” Finkelstein said.  “She’s kind of a doughnut freak.”

This will be the first Hanukkah that Finkelstein’s father, Art -- a legendary Napa Valley vintner who passed away earlier this year -- will not be there to make his famous latkes.  He prepared them from scratch each year, using pan that Judd’s grandfather made, so large that it covered all four stove burners.  “It was like latke-mania,” Judd said.  “We’d all line up at the stove and eat them hot from the pan, with applesauce and sour cream.”  This year, Judd will take a shot at making the latkes himself. 

Rather than pairing wines with each course, the family sets a variety of wines on the table so everyone can help themselves.  “Hanukkah is our family’s most casual holiday festivity,” Finkelstein said.  “It’s sort of like a free-for-all.”

That said, Finkelstein said he likes to drink Judd’s Hill Cabernet Sauvignon or Petite Sirah with his mother-in-law’s traditional slow-braised brisket.  “It’s great with a robust red wine,” he said.

Although he doesn’t keep kosher or make kosher wines, he knows a good one when he tastes it. 

“Ernie Weir of Hagafen Cellars gave me a bottle of his ‘Prix’ Syrah -- he called it his ‘Obama wine’ because it was served at a state dinner at the White House.  It was a phenomenal bottle of Syrah -- deep and dark, and peppery.  And it just happened to be kosher” 

As Finkelstein demonstrates, you don’t have to keep kosher to appreciate kosher wine.  Nor do you have to be Jewish to enjoy traditional Hanukkah fare.  Now if you’ll excuse me, this gentile is heading for the Hanukkah Hootenanny for some latkes and brisket.