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Goodbye, Manischewitz; Hello, Cabernet?

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On Friday, many Jewish families will mark the first night of Passover with a special Seder dinner. During this ceremonial meal, family members retell the story of Exodus.

"Passover is the night when we celebrate our redemption from Egypt many years ago," Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue, tells NPR's Michel Martin.

Herzfeld says wine plays a large role in the Seder dinner because Passover is meant to be a joyful time when Jews celebrate their freedom from bondage. For each of the four major rituals, participants drink one glass of wine.

In the past, the options for kosher wine were limited and didn't exactly thrill wine lovers. But kosher wine enthusiasts say all of that has changed, and now there are hundreds of options from around the world.

What Makes Wine Kosher?

Kosher wine aficionado Yossie Horwitz gives a general idea of what many observant Jews look for in this wine.

He says there are two basic requirements: From the time the grapes arrive at the winery to the time the wine is bottled, everything must be handled by Sabbath-observing Jews. Also, every ingredient in the wine needs to be kosher.

Observant Jews also believe that if a non-Jew opens and serves a bottle of wine, it's no longer kosher. To get around that rule, Horwitz says, there's a concept called mevushal, which in Hebrew literally means "cooked."

"If the wine has been boiled, then any person can handle the wine without rendering it unkosher," says Horwitz.

He adds that, over the years, winemakers have developed flash pasteurization techniques that have very little effect on the taste of the wine.

Why The Bad Reputation?

The "kosher wine revolution," as Horwitz calls it, has been a long time coming. He says options for kosher wine have been increasing for the past 30 years mainly because of growing demand by more sophisticated kosher wine consumers.

Horwitz says that for most people who do not drink kosher wine on a regular basis, their idea of kosher wine is Manischewitz. And that wine can be sweet, thick and "not exactly what you would serve with a fine meal."

Horwitz says he maintains a high bar when it comes to kosher wine. He is a regular judge for Jewish Week's annual Kosher Wine Guide, and in the past year he sampled more than 700 kosher wines, he says.

Adds Herzfeld, "Yossie told me that he only serves wine at the Seder that he would serve to the Messiah when he comes."

But for those sitting at the Seder table who would rather pass on wine altogether, the rabbi has an alternative: grape juice.

"If you can't drink wine, then you can drink grape juice and you can fulfill your commandment and the ritual requirement to drink wine," Herzfeld says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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