I make it, but I can't touch it

Award-winning kosher wines from New Zealand and Oregon come from an unexpected source

By Victoria Prever, August 11, 2014

Phil Jones is the largest producer of kosher wine in New Zealand and owns the only kosher winery in America's Pacific North West. He is not permitted to handle his wine as he is not Jewish.

Although he had been making Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc at his New Zealand winery, Spencer Hill, since 1989, Jones only started producing kosher wine in 2002. The decision was commercially led.

"In 1998, our 1996 Chardonnay won top Chardonnay in the world at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London - the top competition in the world. The whole New Zealand thing was starting to explode," explains the tall, silver-haired, bearded American.

However, as the popularity of New Zealand wines soared so the competition increased.

"By then, I was smart enough to know it was one thing making wine, and another thing selling it," he laughs.

JC wine critic, Richard Ehrlich, on Goose Bay and Mevushal

These wines overwhelmed me with what they showed about the quality to be found nowadays in mevushal wine.
In the bad old days, you could spot mevushal a mile away by its "cooked", jammy fruit. The heat is now applied so lightly and deftly that you'd barely know it had been there. Jones said that mevushal is now merely the equivalent of a year's ageing.
And other mevushal wines at the tasting bore him out: they were simply a little more mature than you'd expect them to be. This is the most exciting development in kosher wine that I'm aware of.

Jones, whose Minnesota-born wife, Sheryl is Jewish, remembered a conversation with a wine maker in his native California a few years earlier.

"They had a contract winemaking facility producing wines for the Herzog family - owners of (kosher wine distributors) Royal Wines Corp. The winemaker told me they were making 50,000 cases a year for them."

Jones contacted Nathan Herzog, who with no New Zealand wine maker - was keen.

Other winemakers may have been put off by the lengthy rules they would need to follow.

Jones, who studied viticulture and winemaking in California, and had also run a business doing agricultural research, was unperturbed.

"I was trained as a researcher; and when I did research in the US, I followed rules. You don't ask why, you just do it."

One of the hardest tasks was to find observant Jews to come to the winery - situated in a remote corner of New Zealand's South Island near Nelson.

"The Herzogs said 'Phil, you make the wine and we'll provide the supervision' and they did. They arranged for a Melbourne rabbi to help us."

Rabbi Mendel Serebryanski - who was then certifying Royal's wines in Australia - came over, and with his help and plenty of internet research, Jones launched Goose Bay kosher wine.

"We learned a lot about kosher rules in our first year. We went from producing 1,500 cases in the first year to now, 8,000 cases a year."

In 2006 Sheryl suggested they needed a presence in the US.

"We had originally gone to New Zealand as a great place to bring up our children. Now we were ready to spend more time back home. We didn't want to return to California - it was too crowded. We bought land in Portland, near Oregon and in 2008 planted vineyards.

"I had no plans to do kosher wine there, but Nathan (Herzog) heard about my vines and asked if I would make Oregon Pinot Noir for him as there were no kosher vineyards in the North West."

Jones initially refused, but with the financial crash, decided it prudent to again pair up with Royal. He built a tiny winery which would be exclusively kosher.

Now in his mid 60s, Jones spends May to October at his Pacifica vineyard near Oregon, and the rest of the year at Spencer Hill, where Goose Bay forms 25 per cent of the wine he produces.

All the Goose Bay wines are mevushal - a process which involves flash pasteurising the grape juice, which then allows them to be served by anyone, and not just observant Jews, as is the case with non-mevushal wines.

"At the start, we decided to make all our wine mevushal. I thought it was how it was done, and it was also a good marketing decision."

Jones is adamant it does not damage his wines and has checked both versions of the same wines for differences.

"There was no effect at all in the reds. For the whites, it actually helped release aromatics, which gives more aroma and bouquet. The process instantly ages the wines a year or two. We now flash pasteurise our non-kosher Sauvignon Blancs, and are aware that some non-kosher wine makers also pasteurise for these benefits."

Irrespective of the financial benefits, Jones has found kosher winemaking rewarding.

"I've learned a lot about the Jewish culture working within the Jewish community and met a lot of lovely people. If I had to choose any sort of winemaking in the future, it would be kosher."

www.spencerhillwine.com, www.pacificawine.com

Last updated: 3:45pm, August 11 2014