When invited by Philip Herzog to travel up to Marlborough country to witness the harvest, I could scarcely have known what to expect.
I knew there were eight generations of winemaking invested in the Herzog family, and prior to the opening of their new state-of-the-art facility in Oxnard, Calif., some three years ago, Kedem had been the flagship of the kosher wine and grape-juice industry, spanning several decades.
It was then, with a sense of discovery and history, that I met Mr. Herzog upstate as we proceeded to drive to the winery.
As we traversed the lush hills and green valleys of the Hudson countryside, I prepared for an encounter with nature and her bountiful blessings from the vine — the grape.
Along the way, I heard of how Emperor Franz Josef had originally commissioned the Herzog family to produce wine for the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire. This they did with great aplomb, earning the emperor's praise. He rewarded the Herzogs by conferring a title, "Baron."
This knowledge accompanied the family to America when they fled their native Czechoslovakia after World War ll.
In 1948, Royal Wine was acquired, and Kedem winery began operations on New York City's Lower East Side. They would move several times over the years — from the Lower East Side to Long Island City, from the Bronx to Brooklyn, and finally settling in Bayonne, N.J. (funny, it doesn't sound Jewish).
At that time, there was competition to produce sacramental wine for the Jewish community. Wines were medicinal syrups that had to be imbibed for sacramental purposes. The Herzogs set out to change all that.
Kedem became the grape juice of choice, with its natural flavors absent the added sugar found in other juices. Wines became more sophisticated, and the groundwork was being established to create a far more discerning clientele when it came to drinking wine.
Unquestionably, Kedem pioneered the first steps of a process that has created the dynasty run by CEO David Herzog, and his brothers Phillip and Herman (affectionately called Shmuly, Faish and Sheya, respectively).
A fourth brother, Yankel, passed on several years ago, but his legacy of making quality, sophisticated wine continues in today's thriving marketplace.
Arriving at Marlborough, we went to see the final shipments of harvested grapes being emptied into the vats that would carry them on their complex journey toward becoming wine. The machinery and tanks involved with the process are huge and impressive, and the intense aroma is unmistakable.
Though there is a minimum of human contact, the kosher supervisors (mashgichim) are always present with a watchful eye. They have accommodations at the plant. The crushing of the grapes, as well as the filtering, cooling, storing and finessing, is worth the tour in and of itself.
At long last came the wine-tasting room, with its diverse array of premium wines and home to the predominantly Concord grape.
It was with mixed emotions that I departed for the trek home. Looking back at the Kedem sign, it was a reminder that Jewish vibrancy lived here and had done so for many years. Kedem was a symbol that sparked warm feelings and a kindred spirit among Jews as they charged their glasses and drank a l'chaim.
To visit Kedem Winery and its tasting room, call 845-236-3651.
Marking the Jewish New Year, Israeli wines have come of age. For the first time ever, two Israeli wineries — Domaine du Castel and Yarden (Golan Heights Winery) — have been awarded the coveted four stars, awarded for a wine or winery that is "grand, prestigious and expensive."
Apart from Chateau Musar from Lebanon, no other Eastern Mediterranean winery has received four stars.