Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
Winemaker Matt Schrader, left, and Rabbi Alan Rosenzweig.

It’s harvest time in New York state and that means it’s a busy time for the winemakers and rabbonim at the Manischewitz winery in Canandaigua and the Mogen David winery in Westfield – both in New York and 150 miles apart.

Since January 5, 2021 Manischewitz wines has been under the auspices of Modesto, Calif.-based E&J Gallo. The takeover from Constellation Brands was part of a $1.7 billion deal that included several non-kosher wineries. Manischewitz was the only kosher wine listed as part of the deal. The company also moved 21 miles north from Naples, N.Y. to Canandaigua, N.Y., both in Ontario County, the heart of the Finger Lakes region. The Manischewitz company has been around since right after prohibition, 1933. It was purchased in 1980 by Constellation Brands.

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Earlier this summer The Jewish Press was afforded the courtesy of an exclusive, behind-the-scenes tour of the Manischewitz winery. From the outside, however, you would never know kosher wines for the entire globe were being produced in the facility. A colorful sign in front of a ranch home saying Canandaigua Wine Company is all that appears to signify there is a winery somewhere on the grounds. The entrance to the Manischewitz winery is along railroad tracks and disguised to look like a train depot.

Once inside the facility you get the feeling of an industrial complex with a complicated maze of hallways to get from one area to another. A person new to the facility might need a GPS system to get around the plant.

“We have two dedicated kosher cellar workers and a couple of other cellar workers who are trained should the two dedicated staff take the day off,” said Winemaker Matt Schrader. “It was easier to switch to sucrose so we can be an all-Passover production. It opened up a lot more markets for us. And then there is no confusion by the sales team as to what is in season and what is not. It makes it a lot easier to be 100 percent kosher for Passover. We’re worldwide now – South America, Europe, Australia.”

“Israel – we don’t sell too much to. Israel makes their own wine,” said mashgiach Rabbi Alan Rosenzweig. “They’re about the only place we don’t sell to. Now we’re making wine totally for Pesach except for a couple of varieties. We only have two wines now that are not kosher for Passover. Cream Peach and Elderberry. Those flavors are harder to get for Passover. We only run those once or twice a year and we do enough to hold us for a while so that way we don’t have to go back and re-kosher stuff. We decided for inventory purposes it was just a better deal to be all kosher for Passover.”

There are challenges with making the wines in a timely fashion.

“There are definitely supply chain issues for some of the kosher for Passover enzymes but luckily, we were thinking ahead seeing delays we were seeing in non-kosher sellers so when placing our orders, we doubled our average lead-time,” Schrader said. “We were able to get everything in house before harvest. It’s taken us longer to get most of our raw materials. Trucking is an issue for everybody. I’m assuming if they’re having trouble getting trucking to get stuff to us we’re also having issues with trucking getting our products to the retailer. We use multiple trucking companies and our corporate logistics team is exhausting every avenue they can to get the product to where it needs to go.”

The growth of kosher for Passover wines at the facility is creeping into the non-kosher section and there is a plan in place to make sure what’s kosher stays kosher.

“The non-kosher tanks are the largest tanks we have on site. They are about 314,000 gallons. That’s mostly the non-kosher production,” Schrader explained. “As we get closer to the kosher processing area the bulk of Manischewitz is made in 150,000 gallons stainless steel wine tanks. Everything we do is Manischewitz, and it is one of the top kosher brands in the world. There is a lot of name recognition. On the label it will have the traditional OU (Orthodox Union) with a P that’s very recognizable.”

There is even a prison of sorts to protect the kashrut at the facility.

“Everything behind the cage is for security. Behind the cage we have three 150,000 gallon tanks for kosher wines. Manischewitz has grown so much that we have expanded into the non-kosher cellar,” Schrader said. “The tanks in the non-kosher cellar go through the koshering process with very hot water under rabbinic supervision to turn the tanks into kosher tanks and therefore be acceptable to store kosher wines and maintain the kosher certification. The rabbis have kashered these tanks and have sealed them with Hebrew writing across the seal. You can see the seals are intact and that’s how we maintain our kosher wines outside of our designated locked rooms. All of Manischewitz is kosher. When I said we expanded into the non-kosher cellar, we did that kashering stuff to turn these tanks into suitable tanks for kosher production.”

“If it’s Manischewitz it’s kosher. There’s no Manischewitz that’s not kosher,” Rosenzweig clarified. “There would be no advantage to having a non-kosher Manischewitz wine. He (Schrader) is just talking about the physical tanks. My role here is to make sure the wine is kosher through the production process. We have about 10 wines right now. I’ve been doing this for 26 years.

“In order to kasher a tank it has to be cleaned really well, mostly with boiling hot water. You can’t fill it with boiling water. You have to use different spraying and different methods of washing. It has to be down for a while. It has to be cleaned with chemicals. It’s a whole process. We have special equipment we use for cleaning and koshering and stuff like that,” Rosenzweig concluded.

Rosenzweig is affiliated with Beis HaKnesset HaChadash (BHH), an Orthodox synagogue located in Rochester, N.Y. Sharing the kosher supervising duties with Rosenzweig is Rabbi Sam Schlagman who attends the same kehillah as Rosenzweig.

“The toughest part of the kosher supervision process is the crushing of the grapes,” Rosenzweig told The Jewish Press. “There’s a lot involved with the crushing of the grapes. That takes time to get everything ready and make sure everything is being done right. I don’t go out into the fields. The grapes get crushed in the facility in Canandaigua. The grapes come from western New York and a little bit in Pennsylvania. It doesn’t matter where the grapes come from. We only worry once the grapes get here. We bring up a crew of about eight or nine people for the crush and they have to operate all the machines until it’s all mevushal. (When kosher wine is mevushal (Hebrew: “cooked” or “boiled”), it thereby becomes unfit for idolatrous use and will keep the status of kosher wine even if subsequently touched by an idolater.)

“The grapes come in totes, known as wooden bins. From there it goes into various augers and pressers and filtration right there at crush and then it goes through a pasteurizer. I basically have to make sure that nobody is touching the equipment or the wine or anything until it goes through the mevushal process. Anything we’re adding, like clearing agents, is all acceptable. The wine is in square bottles because that is what they made years ago and everybody knows that bottle,” Rosenzweig concluded.

Not all Manischewitz wines are suitable for kiddush. For example, the Blackberry wine says “Shehakol” on the label.

“This sweet and fruity wine is bursting with the essence of freshly harvested dark Blackberries,” cited on the Manischewitz website in a public relations style of writing. “The crisp acidity balances the sweetness and upfront fruit aromas. Fermentation at 65 degrees in stainless steel tanks allows the wine to maintain the refreshing aroma and spiciness of fresh Blackberries. The natural fruitiness of fresh Blackberries allows this wine to be served chilled as an aperitif. The wine goes wonderfully with roasted meats with fruit sauces or paired with berry-based desserts.”

In western New York, Chautauqua County, another haven for wine country in the state, the Mogen David winery was not accommodating in-house tours but the head mashgiach was kind enough to provide a rare interview to The Jewish Press, even with battling a cold and fever. The Mogen David wines have a triangle-K hecksher, which some Orthodox rabbonim do not acknowledge and advise against to those seeking kosher.

“People talk. It’s all mainly jealousy,” said Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, supervising rabbi for Mogen David wines. “I never talk about another supervision. Every Orthodox rabbi possesses integrity and he’s honest. The Talmud says one person, one rabbi is believed when it comes to kashrus. Everyone has different interpretations but nevertheless it’s acceptable. I attribute not holding by my hashgacha as jealousy. We look at this as a service we provide for the kosher consumer. They transgress the aveirah of slandering and lashon hara speaks badly on other people. People who don’t know me or my children would say that.”

Mogen David wines are not as widely distributed in the United States as Manischewitz is, but where Manischewitz is not doing much business in Israel, Mogen David is doing well.

“My hechsher goes along with the seal of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. We employ extreme Orthodox rabbis following the halacha. All my children who are in the business went to the greatest yeshivas in Israel and all are rabbonim,” Ralberg told The Jewish Press with the pride of a father. “Triangle-K makes a drier wine for Israel and countries in Europe, mainly Germany, Italy and France. To make very high-class kosher wine sold in Israel under the supervision of the Triangle-K and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. We do produce in the United States a lot of kosher grape juice, produced in California, the San Joaquin Valley. The juice goes for concentrate. Minute Maid drinks, which has concentrated grape juice. Some of Welch’s grape juice we certify.”

Cream Peach and Cream Red Concrod wine – not in a square bottle.

Where the Manischewitz blackberry wine is not for kiddushim, Mogen David produces a flavored wine that is suitable for kiddush.

“The flavoring is a miniscule amount based on the halacha. When it’s such a miniscule amount it doesn’t change the status of the grape, of the status of HaGafen. All the Mogen David wines can be used for kiddush,” said Rabbi Eliezar Ralberg, 49, from Lakewood N.J.

“The Pomegranate wine tastes like grape wine with a little bit of Pomegranate flavoring,” said Ralberg, 75, a former chief rabbi of Amsterdam, Holland who is currently the head of the Beis Din of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States of America and Canada. The on-site supervising rabbi at Mogen David is Rabbi Meir Benshushan, “a talmid chacham and not just some rabbi off the street,” Ralberg said.

Ralberg employs his sons to make the eight-hour long trek from Lakewood to Westfield, N.Y. It’s a trip the Ralbergs are embarking on during this harvest season, during a brief period for bottling and fermenting.

A few hundred thousand gallons of wine are made, said the elder Ralberg. “The toughest part is to ensure that every time the wine is moved, even in the middle of the night, the process is a continuous process, that there is a mashgiach on hand to make sure we move it from one tank to the other. Until the wine is heated to more than 170 degrees it has to be handled only by the rabbi who is present. Once it’s heated and stored in the vats for the bottling, one rabbi is sufficient to be there. He just has to unseal the vat to be there for the bottling and we seal the vat. It could be a day or two or three days, but he’s there for the whole time. They’re only working during the day hours.

“During the crushing season the trucks come in during the day hours but then you have to have a few rabbis on call at all times when the trucks come in during the day. As the grapes are crushed, I call it the must, before it’s fully filtered, moves along from one process to the other. The filtration and the pressing that a mashgiach be there. Especially when it comes to the pressing, the mashgiach makes sure he’s the one who operates the press under the auspices of the manager there. He’s the one who presses the button,” Ralberg concluded.

These harvest days are the most complicated for the processing of kosher wines.

“Something the company knows that they can never do any moving of new material without the rabbi present,” the younger Ralberg said. “We are very confident and we know based on our being there that nothing is ever done. The company knows this. That’s why the rabbi needs to be on call. That’s the hard part. The rabbi has to be aware and he is.”

As the High Holiday season approaches kosher wines will be plentiful, according to industry analysts, but prices will likely be higher, as is with everything these days.

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Marc Gronich is the owner and news director of Statewide News Service. He has been covering government and politics for 44 years, since the administration of Hugh Carey. He is an award-winning journalist. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press and his coverage about how Jewish life intersects with the happenings at the state Capitol appear weekly in the newspaper. You can reach Mr. Gronich at swnsonline@gmail.com.