Every year, just about now, the public is dutifully informed that Passover is around the corner. Advertisements tout the virtues of this or that brand of gefilte fish, while supermarket shelves fill up with boxes of matzo, Pesachdik cookies and foodstuffs from Israel, all of which is destined straight for the Seder table.
Wine merchants, too, get into the spirit of things by rhapsodizing about their large stock of kosher wines. In what has become a ritual all its own, they’re sure to point out that kosher wines, these days, are eminently drinkable, even award winning. A far cry from the stock-in-trade of Seders past — sweet red wine in heavy, twin-eared glass jugs — kosher Gewurztraminers, Rieslings, Shirazs and Cabernets in sleek and stylish bottles now take pride of place. “Extra heavy” concord grape and malaga wines, in turn, have been virtually banished from the table, their consumption reserved for those elderly relatives (or quirky friends) who insist that Passover is simply not Passover without a bottle of Manischewitz, Kedem or Schapiro’s at hand.
In our oenophilial zeal to embrace the hottest (and latest) grape on the vine — it’s a measure of our sophistication, after all — we’ve actually lost sight of the fact that, once upon a time, wine from the Holy Land also represented the last word in modernity, especially when made under the tutelage of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, whose exquisite taste (and deep pockets) was renowned the world over. In an attempt to revitalize the yishuv, the French philanthropist encouraged Jewish settlers of the 1880s and 1890s to abandon their usual mercantile pursuits and to take to the soil, cultivating the vine, along with apricots, almonds, olives and scent. As much about reclaiming souls as it was about reclaiming the land, agricultural settlements such as Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya’akov were “fabulous in their experimental optimism,” Simon Schama explained in his 1978 biography of Rothschild, noting that they bore an uncanny resemblance to the economy of southern France, if only on paper.
Against great odds, these settlements struggled mightily to develop fine wines of which any de Rothschild might be proud. In fact, Baron de Rothschild insisted on it. “We, for our part, must make good wine,” he declared, encouraging settlers to grow Cabernet-Franc, Cabernet-Sauvignon and Semillon cuttings, as well as some Pinot grapes for a Palestinian champagne, rather than produce inexpensive sweet red wines like those made in Bessarabia and Georgia for the so-called “kiddush market.” For a time, the Holy Land’s vintners succeeded: At the Paris Exposition of 1900, wine produced by the Rishon Le Zion cellars was awarded a gold medal, vindicating the “Baron’s efforts to make a Judean wine hors de la ligne,” an outstanding wine, Schama wrote.
But in the years that followed, rising costs, looming debt and a limited export market doomed the enterprise, forcing the country’s wine growers, organized in a collective since 1906, to shift from the production of fine wine to that of table wine apt to appeal to Egyptian and Turkish tastes, and ceremonial sweet wine apt to appeal to Polish and Russian palates.
Back in the United States, meanwhile, the burgeoning immigrant Jewish population at the turn of the century accounted for a scant 5% of the market for Palestinian wine exports. America’s Jews either opted to produce their own wines (how many of us grew up on stories of our grandparents or great-grandparents pressing grapes in the bathtub?) or, increasingly, favored the sweet stuff mass produced by Manischewitz, Schapiro’s, Kedem and a host of small companies such as Ganeles-Lenger, Gan-Eden (Gan Eden?!) and Buchman’s Yomtov American Concord Grape.
It wasn’t just that these domestic wineries, taking their cue from matzo manufacturers, made much of their modern methods of production where both kashrut and cleanliness prevailed; they also came up with snappy, resolutely contemporary, advertising campaigns that proved simply irresistible. In characteristically American fashion, these manufacturers took what had been a long-standing Eastern European cultural preference for sweet wine — who knew anything else? — and transformed it into a marker of American Jewish identity, an integral part of the Passover celebration. Under these circumstances, it is any wonder that few families could resist “Man, oh Manischewitz, what a wine!” or Schapiro’s claim that its product was “the wine you can almost cut with a knife.” Mine didn’t resist; did yours?
Today, though, we’ve set our sights even higher and, when it comes to Seder wine, we comfortably — and knowledgeably — choose among the slate finish of a Sancerre from France, the oaky sensibility of a Chardonnay from the Golan Heights and the hint of blueberry in a California Pinot. Surely Baron de Roths- child would be proud. L’chaim!