Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl
From the Marx Brothers to Jon Stewart, for years Jewish humor has helped define American culture. Historians have often speculated that this rich vein of comedy stems from young Jewish children watching their parents try to pair wine with the Passover Seder meal. Ba dum sha!
But really: you start with pickled horseradish and gefilte fish, move on to chopped chicken liver, perhaps a sweet-and-sour-stuffed cabbage, or beef borscht, then there's a baked chicken stuffed with matzo or a ketchup-topped brisket, and somewhere in there come hard boiled eggs and charoset, that mixture of cinnamon, nuts, and fruit. This is supposed to pair with wine? Let me tell you about the best wine pairing for pickled horseradish. It's beer. So, does that mean you should give up and have beer this Passover? No! There's a solution to this problem--but it's drastic. It's really drastic.
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It involves admitting that your grandparents were on to something when they drank Manischewitz. Now, it's not that you need to drink Manischewitz, which isn't made from typical wine grapes (vitis vinifera) but from grape-jelly-perfect Concord grapes (vitis labrusca), giving it that certain "this ain't wine!" flavor. Concord grapes notwithstanding, there is a certain wisdom in the choice for a seder: The sweetness, the full body, the allover oomph of that wine allows it to go head to head with these truly ridiculous pairings, like borscht and chicken liver. This is wine pairing by the logic of boxing: You can't put a welterweight and a heavyweight in the ring together, because the little guy will just get flattened. In this case the heavyweight in the blue shorts is chicken liver and charoset, and the guy in the red shorts is... well, one of my suggestions below.
But first a word about Kosher wine. What is Kosher wine? It's that wine which has had official religious supervision at every step of production.
The standard line today on Kosher wine is that it's much better than it was 20 years ago, which is true. What no one mentions is that Kosher wine is as hard to find as it was 20 years ago. If you live near one of the United States' Kosher wine specialists, such as Gotham Wines and Liquors in New York City or Vendome Wine & Spirits in Beverly Hills, good for you, they will set you up. In the rest of the world though, you either order from kosherwine.com way in advance, or you deal with one of the two or three selections available at your liquor store.
In the time of the pharaohs, some wine was "fined"--that is, had any remaining grape solids removed--with animal blood. This was phased out a long, long, long time ago; using animal blood in wine production is unheard of in the modern world, and flat out against the law in the United States and France. In the big picture, the Kosher question is really one about whether you prioritize religious certification. If you don't worry about whether a wine is Kosher in the same way that they don't worry about whether their grass-fed organic brisket is Kosher, read on.
So let's say you want to eat a Passover Seder meal, but are dealing with the general world of wine: What to drink? I think the answer is clear: You want big, you want red, and you want not sweet per se, but something with enough sugar that its got body for days. Like one of these:
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California Petite Sirah
Splurge: Frank Family Vineyards 2009 Petite Sirah, $65
Deep and large and profoundly yummy, this is a truly delicious drink. Silk, tobacco, and blackberries, a symphony of richly textured joy.
Save: Bogle Petite Sirah 2009, $10
If black licorice and blackberries made a wine baby it would be Bogle's Petite Sirah; jammy, deep, dark, dense, and also perky, it's the ultimate borscht or brisket wine, improving those intensely earthy flavors, and resetting the palate so you can enjoy every bite anew.
Splurge: Reininger Merlot Walla Walla Valley, 2007, $38
Velvet chocolate cherries with a little bit of violet in the nose, this wine is intense and concentrated, like a perfect espresso, and somehow just very romantic, as if when you sip it, somewhere harps play.
Save: Snoqualmie Naked 2008 Columbia Valley Merlot, $13
This organically grown wine has a really nice yin and yang to it, as it's simultaneously both very fresh and very dark, making it the rare mocha-cherry easy-drinker.
Splurge: Mollydooker "The Boxer" Shiraz South Australia, 2010, $25
Mollydooker wines are just funny, with names like Gigglepot, Two Left Feet, and Carnival of Love. They're also critical darlings and widely available, which makes them fun to take to your Aunt Rose's house. "The Boxer" is plummy and spicy, with all the cinnamon and nut accents you'd need to stand up to charoset, but all the thrumming depth you'd want to be entertained through a four hour meal.
Save: D'Arenberg Stump Jump Shiraz, 2010, $10
A lively fruit-bomb, a genuine crowd-pleaser, a velvety pleasure--the 2010 Stump Jump Shiraz is one to buy by the case, because it will get you through the complexities of your Seder, and then if you have any left it goes great with burgers on the grill, too.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl has won 5 James Beard awards for food and wine writing, her latest book is Drink This: Wine Made Simple
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Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl