Winery With Ancient Roots
A review of the Distillery No. 209 Kosher for Passover Gin and Vodka along with a look at the Shiloh Secret Reserve Shiraz 2009.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week April 4, 2012
Before the Temple was built, before Jerusalem became the center of Jewish national and religious life, Shiloh was Israel’s capital. It was the place where the “whole congregation of Israel assembled” to set up the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Today, Shiloh is also the name of one of Israel’s most well-regarded boutique wineries. The winery is situated in the modern – and Modern Orthodox-community of Shiloh, which is just a few dozen meters from Tel Shiloh, the archaeological site that is widely thought to be all that remains of the pre-Davidic capital of the Jewish nation where the Talmud tells us the Mishkan stood for 369 years. Established in 2005, the winery’s roots actually go back thousands of years as evidenced by the ancient winepresses found in the nearby Samarian (Shomron) hills.
“A quality wine,” notes Amichai Luria, winemaker at Shiloh Winery, “must have ancient roots; the roots of our winemaking tradition stretch back 3,000 years.” One need not buy into this precise formulation to recognize the clear quality of his wines
The modern Shiloh Winery was developed by Mayer Chomer, a Mexican-born-and-raised Jewish entrepreneur, with Syrian Jewish roots. Chomer dreamt of starting a winery in Israel and was fortunate enough to find and hire the American-born and Israeli-raised Luria as his winemaker. Chomer tasted some of Luria’s homemade hobby wines, recognized talent and a kindred spirit, and gave Luria the opportunity to turn his avocation into a vocation.
Chomer also likes to point out that the quality of Shiloh wines is in part attributable to the biblical promise to Joseph and his sons that their portion of the Land of Israel would bring forth great quality wines. Not that Chomer was content to invest entirely based on his reading of the Torah. “I am an idealist,” he notes, “but a very pragmatic idealist.” So when Chomer wanted to open the winery and make his dream come true, he did his homework first.
“After doing some research, I was convinced that the Shomron is by far the best terrain in Israel for wine,” he says, and his sights zeroed in on Shiloh. Consultations with agronomists and other experts confirmed his conclusions and helped guide his eventual vineyard plantings.
As Luria proudly notes, “I am growing grapes in these mountains. Not in the Golan Heights, not in Tel Aviv. But here. It’s the most natural thing in the world.”
Shiloh makes wines at several levels including their flagship “Mosaic” red blend, the “Legend,” a blend of Shiraz, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot and Merlot, and their Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Barbera “mor” blend along with their single varietal and occasionally blended “Shor” series. Shiloh’s wines have won numerous awards and their Reserve wines recently swept the Gold Medals for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz at Israel’s most important wine-judging event, Eshkol HaZahav.
Their wines are certified kosher for Passover by three different rabbinic authorities including the OK.
The Shiloh “Secret Reserve” Shiraz 2009 ($ 33) is newest vintage of their award-winner and another example of the winery’s superior quality. Aged for 20 months in French oak barrels, it opens with aromas of coffee, cedar and red berries that are integrated into spicy plum, vanilla, tobacco and dark fruit flavors. This full-bodied wine has great depth, balance and structure along with a lingering finish with hints of smoke at the end.
Spirits-wise, there are various enjoyable kosher-for-Passover-certified varieties these days. Please note, however, and we made a point of this last year as well, nongrain-based alcoholic products require certification and cannot be presumed to be acceptable as kosher for Passover. For example, it is often thought that any 100-percent potato vodka should automatically be acceptable for Passover, since potato is not a grain. While potato vodka is a good candidate for being made kosher for Passover, for this to actually happen, the distiller may only use a kosher-for-Passover source for amylase, the enzyme that catalyses the breakdown of starch into sugar so that fermentation can take place. This is most typically done with malted barley, which is most definitely chametz, so before buying such nongrain based alcoholic products, we highly recommend that you either buy a certified kosher-for-Passover product or, at the very least, check with your preferred kashrut authority.
There are fine certified kosher for Passover spirits available, though there are plenty of awful options, too. The traditional nasty, cheap Slivovitz or rotgut Carmel 777 brandy is easy to find, but why bother? Two newer products worthy of consideration, both from San Francisco’s artisanal Distillery No. 209, is the No. 209 Kosher for Passover Gin (40% abv; $40) which was launched in 2010 and the No. 209 Kosher for Passover Vodka ($30) which was launched last month. Be sure to look for the OU-P certification as the distillery’s regular run is not kosher for Passover.
The No. 209 Kosher for Passover vodka is basically the gin without the herbs, spices and botanicals for added flavor. It is a clean, burn-free, neutral spirit. It is great vodka, and like all quality vodka is notable mostly for the subtleties of its otherwise tasteless and odorless delivery.
The gin is something special, and was developed by Distillery No. 209’s gin-maker Arne Hillesland and Jonathon Hadju, associate winemaker from the excellent kosher Covenant Wines. Beyond the change of base spirit from grain to sugar cane for this run of their gin, several key botanicals used in the regular product (like cardamom) were also not suitable for Passover. The exact formulation is obviously a trade secret, but they came up with OU-P acceptable substitutes. Along with their juniper berry from Tuscany, we know it also includes bergamot orange from Calabria, Italy, California bay leaf from Mt. Veeder in the Napa Valley, lemon peel from Spain, cassia bark from Indonesia, angelica root from Britain and coriander seeds from Romania.
We actually like their Pesach version slightly more than their regular gin. The No. 209 Kosher for Passover Gin is smooth, fragrant and tasty with traditional notes of juniper berry and citrus fruit, an herbal element lurks in the depths, and with a pleasing dollop of spice (like coriander and allspice), and a subtle undercurrent of sweetness. L’Chaim!