By: Bill St. John
For his preschool and kindergarten years, we enrolled our son, Colin, in the Jewish community center near where we lived. At Purim, he dressed as Mordechai; at Chanukah, he got his dreidel. At home, though, we played out as Roman Catholics—lapsed, yes, nonetheless “cultural.”
Colin loved his dual religionship. “I get presents at Christmas and Chanukah,” he gleefully said. “I get to hunt for Easter eggs and afikomen.”
I envied the blessings that he received from both religions. And for my part, I always was envious of my Jewish friends who could openly confess their faults, wrongdoings or sins but once a year, in synagogue at Yom Kippur. In order to seek our forgiveness, we Romans had to kneel before a priest every Friday or Saturday afternoon for the sacrament of Confession.
I especially envied my Jewish friends at Purim. Their religion encouraged them—as they related to me the Purim story from the Megillah of Esther—to consume wine (or perhaps other alcoholic beverages) to a level where they could not distinguish the difference in meaning between knowing “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed be Haman.”
First of all, I had thought that recognizing that distinction was the point of Purim. But anyhow, the idea that your religion approved of you getting wasted was way cool in my own megillah.
The reasoning for the extra drinking that I received from my Jewish friends was, first, that Esther’s winning over King Ahasuerus was totally unexpected and miraculous. Second, her winning pleas to the King took place at a wine banquet. Hence, on Purim, Esther’s feast, we are allowed to re-create this same unexpected state, to drink, to party, even to masquerade in costume, to completely let go. See?
Makes sense. Understood. I get it.
That was a very different relationship to wine—here let us allow wine to be a placeholder for alcohol in general—within a religious context than I experienced growing up Roman Catholic. One of the seven so-called “deadly” or “capital” sins that we were warned against was “gluttony,” considered to comprise drunkenness. We didn’t have anything like Purim on our late winter calendars.
What we Romans (and many other Christian sects) do share with Jews and Judaism about wine and religion is wine’s symbolic presence in our central religious rituals.
For Christians, it takes place at what’s called “Mass” or the “Eucharist” when some Christians believe that the wine in the priest’s chalice is transubstantiated into the blood of Jesus. Christians partake of that wine as a sacrament, understood as a nexus between the finite and the transcendent.
For Jews, wine’s most significant symbolism takes its cue from Psalm 104 wherein “God causes . . . plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart.” We humans play a role alongside the divine in crafting wine, one of the purposes of which is plainly to make us feel good.
“If you leave grapes on the vine,” points out my longtime friend Martin Sinkoff, who represents several countries’ wines in Israel and lives now in Tel Aviv, “they will rot.
“But take them into the cellar,” he adds, “and then you can make wine. Wine is a partnership between God and man. It is the essence of the relationship of God and man.”
Furthermore, for Jews, more so than for Christians, wine is not merely a symbol of the transcendent; it transcends us, sends us to another place, makes us giddy, gives us a foretaste of true, eternal gladness.
Ramping that up on Purim makes a lot of sense.
Wine to Drink with Hamantaschen
If you’re downing some hamantaschen during your Purim drinking, know that sweet foods—as hamantaschen are, by and large—are difficult to pair with most wines. Odd, but true.
Sweetness, such as the sugars fructose or sucrose, combines with the majority of wines (themselves dry) to cause sensations on the tongue of bitterness, astringency or a raw tartness. Drink a dry white Burgundy with Haagen-Daz Vanilla and experience the horrid.
But if you pair the level of sugar in the food with a corresponding (or slightly higher) level of sweetness in the wine, that works. Very sweet cake, for example? A very sweet wine such as a tawny Port. A moderately sweet pastry such as an apple tart (or hamantaschen)? Try a still or slightly sparkling moscato, for an example.
Martin Sinkoff, an American (and longtime friend of Bill St. John’s) living in Tel Aviv, suggests either the 2020 Yarden Hermon Moscato made from muscat canelli grapes grown on the Golan Heights, or the 2021 Dalton Pink Moscato from the Upper Galilee. Both can be shipped to Colorado by visiting kosherwine.com and both are under $20 a bottle.
A special note if the hamantaschen are filled with chocolate. The only wines that regularly accompany chocolate well are noticeably sweet wines, a recommendation many people refuse to hear. That’s because we don’t think of chocolate as a food; we think of it as an experience. And, consequently, the last things we want to drink with it are wines that we also consider bad experiences: sweet wines—at one end for the greenhorn wine drinker only; at the other, for little old ladies in Boca.
But chocolate is a food and nearly all chocolate is sweet, even so-called “bittersweet” chocolate. Pure, unadulterated cacao (unprocessed cocoa or chocolate) is unpalatable in quantity. To make it delicious, sugar helps much; much sugar helps more. Even that bittersweet chocolate contains around 20 percent sugar. And that makes it, as a food to pair with wine, sweet. The most bitter of chocolate nakedly tolerable to the palate actually registers at a 10-12 percent sugar range.
Chocolate truly is one of the great foods. To enjoy it with wine, though, you’ll need to seek out wines that sport from a little to a lot of sugar. If you let go and let happen—very “Purim” of you, right?—the combinations can be ambrosial. Most off-dry or sweet wines will do as a pairing partner with chocolate. But the sweeter the chocolate (or its preparation), the sweeter ought be the wine.
Sinkoff’s port wine suggestion for chocolate hamantaschen is the 2016 Adir Kerem Ben Zimra “Plot Ninety Eight” Ruby Red Port from the Upper Galilee, also available for shipping from kosherwine.com.