What is “Mevushal” anyway? Also a review of Dalton Safsufa Merlot 2009 and Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week November 7, 2012
One of the most confusing aspects of kosher wine is the concept of yayin mevushal or “cooked” wine. The following discussion might seem academic, but we are continuously asked about this, so we thought a brief treatment is warranted.
For a wine to be made kosher (according to Orthodox standards, and presuming here that all the ingredients, as well as the vineyard practices, already conform to Jewish legal requirements), it must be produced exclusively by Sabbath observant Jews. This means that only Sabbath observant Jewish hands may manipulate the grape juice at any and every single stage of the production process, from the moment the juice has been separated from the grapes until the wine has been double sealed for retail sale – corked and covered with either wax or foil, or the screw cap has been fully affixed and made tamper proof. If anyone else, and especially non-Jews, should manipulate the juice or wine, their very handling automatically renders the product not kosher. For the wine to be certified kosher, everything must be done under the supervision of a kashrus certification agency (i.e., under Rabbinic supervision).
Why the special status for Sabbath observance? The Sabbath is testimony to God’s creation of the universe, so observance of the Sabbath is active affirmation of belief in God as creator of the universe (willful public Sabbath desecration is traditionally regarded as tantamount to denial of God as Creator, though whether this is rabbinic or biblical is debated, and whether this applies in the modern context, and to what extent, is debated).
Why does the non-Jewish handling of wine create such problems?
There is a biblical prohibition against benefiting from wine that has been poured as a libation in the religious worship of foreign deities (known as “yayin nesech” or libation wine; see Deuteronomy 32:38). There is also an early Talmud-era, rabbinic prohibition (Talmud Shabbos 17b and Avodah Zarah 36b), against drinking any wine that has been handled by a non-Jew (known as “stam yaynam” or their wine, meaning the general purpose wine of a non-Jew). There are two distinct reasons behind this rabbinic prohibition. The first reason is, in furtherance of the spirit of the biblical prohibition, because of the concern that non-Jews may have used their wine for idolatrous purposes. The second reason is that wine-loosened fraternization may lead to close relationships that may lead to licentiousness or even intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews.
The only exception to this basic kosher protocol – that every stage of the process must be carried out by a Sabbath-observant Jew – is when the kosher wine or kosher grape juice has been made mevushal, or cooked, by a Sabbath observant Jew (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 123:3). Mevushal wine may be handled by others without being thereby rendered non-kosher. This is why mevushal wines are the preferred wines for kosher restaurants and kosher catering.
There are several reasons advanced by the rabbis for this mevushal exception. Mevushal wine is considered no longer fit for libation purposes; mevushal wine is an uncommon product, and therefore was not considered part of the rabbinic prohibition; and mevushal wine is inferior to non-mevushal wine, and so is not considered “real” wine in a sacramental context.
Rav Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Aruch, reflecting one prominent line of reasoning, simply states that wine is considered cooked “when it gets hot on the fire” (Yoreh Deah 123:3), implying that it must be at least hot enough that one would pull their hand away from touching it for fear of getting burned. Another prominent line of reasoning argues that the heat must be at least sufficient to cause some of the wine to evaporate through cooking. This is the opinion, for example, of Rav Shabtai HaKohen (1622-1663), known as the Shach (the abbreviation of the name of his famous scholarly work, Sifsei Cohen or lips of the Cohen). In embracing this view, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe YD, 2:52 and 3:1) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yabia Omer, Yoreh Deah, 8:15) rule that the wine may be considered mevushal once it has been heated to 175 degrees Fahrenheit (or 80 degrees Celsius). This contemporary ruling thus permits the use of flash pasteurization to render a wine mevushal.
A more stringent opinion rules that wine is only rendered mevushal once it has actually reached its boiling point, approximately 190°F-195°F. Rav Feinstein maintains that this more stringent opinion need not be followed, since it was not recorded in the Shulchan Aruch or its primary commentaries – though obviously there are prominent (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis who embrace this more stringent view anyway. This opinion does not allow flash pasteurization to render a wine mevushal.
At one time, there were many mevushal wines that were, in fact, boiled in accordance with the strict view, which is partly why mevushal wines have such a bad name. The flash pasteurization process is now norm, however, and is much less harmful, and much easier to control. Thus, a UC Davis study famously reported that differences between flash-pasteurized wine and non-flash-pasteurized wines were too minute for the average person to even detect. By contrast, the late Israeli wine critic Daniel Rogov wrote often that mevushal wines “lose many of their essential essences.”
Consider trying the mevushal Dalton Safsufa Merlot 2009, a medium-bodied soft wine with dark fruit aromas and flavors of plum, raspberry and cherry with no obvious ill-effects from being heated.
Spirits-wise, you can stop your head from spinning over reading the above by quenching your thirst with one of our favorite cheap, blended Scotch whiskies: The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky ($20). This is a lovely whisky, delicate and floral on the nose with just a slight hint of smoke and honey, delivering a rich and full array of flavors, despite being relatively light-bodied, including cream, toffee, apple, vanilla, mocha, spices, and something vaguely citrusy, along with a hint of grain in the medium-long finish. Delicious straight, on the rocks, with soda, or however you wish. L’Chaim!