Growing Kosher

Wandering through the back roads off the I-5 corridor, Oregon’s Willamette Valley offers a jewel that has been gaining international recognition – its wine country.

Vintner Phil Kramer of AlexEli Vineyard in Molalla has produced Oregon’s first kosher pinot noir. Phil and his mother, Anita, purchased the 18-acre estate four years ago. He has been producing wine ever since.

Standing next to a large building with large solar panels on the roof, the 28-year-old vintner explains that he decided to produce a kosher variety in part because of extended family members who keep kosher. Originally from Wisconsin, Phil says he began thinking about producing a kosher variety a couple of years ago, but wanted to get a good bearing on wine production first.

Drawn to the idea of sustainable farming, Phil says he believes strongly in minimalist input and practices what he calls a “beyond organic” approach at his vineyard. While AlexEli is not certified organic, he makes sure that he uses the most natural products on his vineyard.

Because differences in weather change the characteristics of wine, each vintage has a different flavor. Phil explains that because 2010 had a limited number of hot days and a prolonged rainy season, AlexEli did not harvest until October. He expects the 182 cases of kosher pinot they bottled early this year to be more on the floral side.

Known for its internationally recognized pinot noir, pinot gris and riesling varietals, Oregon’s wine country is sometimes called the up-and-coming Napa Valley. Phil says he hopes to expand his selection of kosher varieties in the near future.

AlexEli started production of its first kosher wine in October 2010 in cooperation with the Orthodox Union. Rabbi Reuven Nathanson of the Orthodox Union in Los Angeles is the supervising rabbi for kosher wine production on the West Coast and the overseeing rabbi for AlexEli. He is in charge of nine locations in the western United States.

Rabbi Avrohom Perlstein in Salem is the local rabbi who works directly with the AlexEli vineyard. While Perlstein has overseen kosher food production in the past, he was surprised to learn about the level of involvement required to produce kosher wine. All work must be done by workers who are shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant) from the grape crush until bottling.

“There’s no stomping, but you get your hands dirty,” he said while bottling the first batch of kosher pinot noir in early October 2011 at the winery in Molalla.

He says he quickly learned to dress in appropriate work attire at the vineyard. Instead of supervising the winemaking process, the rabbi says, “You show up to the winery and realize you need to do all the work.”

Phil explains that during production of the kosher wine, he was limited to directing the work since he is not shomer Shabbat.

With the satisfaction of a nouveau winemaker, Perlstein says learning the process has been a rewarding experience. “When I open a bottle now, it brings me back to making wine.”

Aside from rabbinic supervision and Shabbat observant labor, to be labeled a certified kosher wine, the barrels and storage tanks must be kashered, and everything that goes into the vintage must be kosher.

Because of the special labor involved in producing a kosher wine, it can be price prohibitive to some smaller vineyards. Phil says his kosher pinot noir will sell for about $32 a bottle. He also makes a popular $15-a-bottle, non-kosher blend called “Bubelah’s Blend.”

He says many people have a romanticized view of producing wine. The reality is that it is an immense amount of work for small vineyards and entails a lot of time being “cold, wet and sticky.” Despite the hard work, he says, “The passion is there because the people who choose to do this put everything into it.”

Raised in the Pacific Northwest, Abra Cohen recently moved to Israel and is based in the port city of Haifa. Writing for publications both in the states and abroad, she is in ulpan when she’s not trying to find the city’s best hummus.

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