By Jay Buchsbaum
The Maharal compares wine to music. Just as a songwriter’s soul, his shoresh ha’neshamah, goes into his nigun, a winemaker puts his shoresh ha’neshamah into his wine.
Yossi Zakon is the prime example of a winemaker whose whole soul is put into his wines. He is one of the oldest Orthodox winemakers of today’s modern winemaking world, yet his enthusiasm and youthful focus are glowing as brightly today as they were when he made his first homemade wines in 1978.
Yossi was taught that wine is a drink of prestige and aristocracy, so important that it is given its own berachah. This thought weighed on him, as he often wondered how something as noble as wine could be relegated to the syrupy sweet offerings the kosher wine world was associated with. This was Zakon’s “aha” moment, when he realized it didn’t have to be. “I began researching the history of kosher wine and found that there wasn’t much interest in winemaking amongst Jews. Not many people were aware of what it takes to produce traditional wine.” Zakon paused and clarified, “And by traditional, I mean traditional in the greater wine world, not in the kosher wine world.” Zakon added, “I was determined to produce a kosher wine that met the standards and quality of wine the way it was meant to be and described in the holy Torah.”
In 1981, Yossi Zakon opened his winery, Joseph Zakon Winery, becoming the youngest person to own a winery bonded and licensed by both New York and by the federal government. “It wasn’t an easy start,” noted Zakon. “Our first wine was an award-winning dry Chardonnay; however, at that time the kosher consumer’s palate wasn’t accustomed to drinking dry wines, so I sold to mostly non-kosher consumers and restaurants.” While Zakon was pleased with his wine, he felt as if he had let down his community, and he dug deeper into what the kosher consumer wanted.
Zakon talked with anyone who would listen about what they were looking for in a wine, and soon came up with the idea for a lighter, easy-to-drink wine. He started working on the wine featuring concord grapes grown in the Finger Lakes region of New York State and developed a delicious, naturally sweet low-alcohol wine. By using grapes from designated vineyards from the Finger Lakes region, Zakon was able to ensure that sugar and water would not need to be added to the wine like other brands were doing at the time. It was a huge success, and the Kesser line of low-alcohol wines was born.
With the success of the Kesser line, Zakon focused his attention on a new project: developing a lower-alcohol dry wine for Passover, which he felt was paramount for many consumers who wanted to drink the four cups and fulfill the requirements according to all rabbinical authorities with the highest standards possible. People liked the lower-alcohol Kesser wines, and to his delight, he noticed the taste profiles in the kosher community were changing—people were becoming more familiar with and appreciating less sweet wines! Extremely enthusiastic, Zakon set out to produce a dry lower-alcohol wine with the Passover Seder in mind.
He began with a blend from the finest French hybrid grapes available, grown exclusively for him in the Finger Lakes region. After crushing, the grapes are put through a unique cold fermentation process which helps retain the distinct nuances and fruity characteristics of the French hybrid grapes, and the fermentation is halted at exactly 7%. Less than 7% alcohol is not considered wine by the federal government. The new wine was a hit and “Kesser Eminent Passover wine” has been available ever since.
At that point, Zakon had a successful and flourishing brand, but he yearned for more. He saw there was a revival in the Jewish community for European-style wines and returned to his original inspiration, a premium kosher wine on par with any wine available, kosher or not. His travels brought him to California, where he created three new wines under the brand Joseph Zakon. The first, a white Muscatini with no carbonation that tastes as if the Muscat grapes were just picked off the vine. The second, the first ever Red Muscatini, which he developed by blending the Muscat grape with the unique flavors of the Black Muscat grape to create a delicious wine bursting with the flavors of berries and fruity aromas. The third wine in the portfolio is a Petit Syrah, a crisp, semi-dry red wine with a spicy, floral aroma that wine connoisseurs are appreciating.
Rounding out Zakon’s wines is a line of wines made with value in mind while not compromising on the high standards of kashrus Zakon’s wines are synonymous with. With this customer in mind, he created the “Farbrengen” label, which translates to “joyous gathering.” Zakon says with a big smile, “At the end of the day, that is what wine is meant to do: bring people together to enjoy good wine and each other’s company.”
It’s been a long road traveled, but Zakon wouldn’t have it any other way, noting, “Zakon wines are a true extension of nature, and they should taste as nature intended. Wine barrels and other types of vessels are a place to store the wonderful wines. Aging is a continuous natural process that allows the wines to develop the fruity flavors into a complex integral delight one can enjoy with many foods.”
“I have always preferred a non-interventionist approach to winemaking. The style that is more common among European and smaller lot producers domestically and abroad focuses on letting the wines become what they are meant to become while at the same time recognizing that changes in approach are necessary, vintage to vintage and varietal to varietal.” Zakon added, “I get to do what I love every day. I’m truly blessed to be a part of countless Shabbat dinners around the world through my wines.” v