Interview with Howard Abarbanel by Soriya Danielsby Soriya Daniels

Mix together a 3,300 year-old tradition and gold medal-winning wines produced from premier estates around the world. Add to this strict kosher supervision and what you get is the Abarbanel wine collection.

Howard Abarbanel
Howard Abarbanel
As the descendants of Don Isaac Abarbanel, the last and greatest leader of Spanish Jewry prior to the expulsion of 1492, Howard Abarbanel leads the kosher consumer to a new era where world-class wine and "kosher' are no longer a contradiction in terms. "Twelve years ago," explains Abarbanel, "there was a very big vacuum in terms of the quality and selection of kosher wine that was available to the average kosher consumer, and I felt that there was an opportunity to greatly enhance the caliber of what was out there." With that, the Abarbanel Wine Company was born.

Abarbanel has his own recipe for producing premium wines. "Everything in our portfolio is estate-grown, estate-bottled, hand-harvested from mature vines and in limited production. No wine is mass produced. When harvesting by hand, all the grapes are whole before being crushed into wine. This allows us to make wine from first-run juice. We put the grapes in small baskets, which means that they do not get crushed by force of gravity in the back of a truck. And, because we grow the grapes, we pick them at the optimum moment of ripeness. Reserve Syrah from Noah/Hevron Heights Winery
The vines for Hevron Height's Reserve Syrah were 12 years old and hand harvested.


Hand-pruning at Australia's Beckett's Flat
Hand-pruning at
Australia's Beckett's Flat
In addition, in our vineyards, we prune back the vines (restricting the yield) so that the grape vine itself puts all of its effort into the remaining clusters of grapes, which results in a very fruity taste thanks to the dense fruit concentration in our wine, " explains Abarbanel. "It's a level of production that no one else is doing exclusively in kosher wine and if that means that we make less wine, that's all right because what we are concerned about is making that bottle the best possible. Also, mature vines (over 10 years old and up to 100 years old) produce the best grapes and great wines comes from great grapes," he confidently adds. With a chuckle, Abarbanel remarks that he has to make great wines, since he sees all his customers every week at synagogue or at kosher restaurants.

Another twist is meeting the most rigorous criteria for Kashrut as well. "We spare no expense and cut no corners in terms of adhering to the most stringent demands of Kashrut because we take it very seriously that this wine is being used for Kiddush."

Abarbanel, founder and President of the wine company bearing his family name, is not in the business just to produce a beverage. "I am in this business because of a concept called Hiddur Mitzvah, which is the magnification and enhancement of a mitzvah. The essence of Hiddur Mitzvah is that people are making Kiddush on our wine," he deliberately states. "That you can enjoy this wine on Wednesday night with grilled salmon is a benefit, but that's not why we make the wine." He continues, "We make the wine because we want to afford people within each price category an opportunity to bring the best possible offering to G-d when they are making Kiddush. Wine and challah are substitutes for sacrifices that were offered in the Temple in Jerusalem." Abarbanel stresses that whether it's a $10 or a $400 bottle of wine, it should be the best $10 bottle or the best $400 bottle available.

Given the tastes, experiences, and exposures of our affluent society, Abarbanel firmly believes that kosher wine ought to be on par with one's cuisine and overall lifestyle. He jokes, "When you prepare a holiday meal, you don't go to the butcher and ask for the most anorexic turkey or the scrawniest piece of brisket he has. Rather, you do your best to serve the best food, on a nice table cloth and on nice dishes in honor of the Sabbath and the holidays, and the whole idea here is that the wine should match, enhance and inspire that."

I will only take on a wine if it's excellent. There is no mid-range," relates the 45-year old executive who is "hands on." Abarbanel travels the world in quest of his next bottle of wine. "Everything needs to meet my stringent criteria, quality control, and taste," says the New York native who spends a third of the year traveling the globe to sample and produce prospective wines.

"What motivates that, in addition to everything else I mentioned, is that my name is on it." As stated on the back of every label, Abarbanel is the world's oldest Jewish family in continuous existence as the same family. The Abarbanels can trace their lineage back centuries upon centuries, to King David in ancient Israel and, later, to 15th century Spain and Portugal, to the brilliant financier and statesman, Don Isaac Abarbanel. Just less than two years ago, the Portuguese government approached the modern-day Abarbanels with a royal invitation to the Duke of Braganza's palace in Lisbon to offer a reconciliation between Jews and the Portuguese government following the expulsion in the 15th Century of the great Don Isaac and the Portuguese Jewish community.

Don Isaac Abarbanel
Don Isaac Abarbanel
Read about his life

The Abarbanel family traces its eminence to the idyllic age of Iberian Jewry before the exile of 1492, when Don Isaac Abarbanel was a leader in both religious and secular life. Don Isaac went into government in the footsteps of his father, Don Samuel Abarbanel, who was the Treasurer of Spain, courtier, and friend to three kings of Spain prior to relocating in Portugal where he rose to the position of Minister of the Portuguese national treasury.

As a royal minister, Don Isaac championed Jews, such as leading a campaign to raise enough money to free 250 Jews taken captive by Arabs in Morocco and sold into slavery. Don Isaac freed them and settled them into Portugal, donating generously from his own funds.

Accused of involvement in a plot against King John II of Portugal, due to his friendship with John's rival the then Duke of Braganza, Don Isaac fled to Spain in 1483, took up residence in Castile and again became a treasury official. It was during this Castilian exile that he began his monumental commentary on the Bible.

The year 1492 was a dark one for the Jews of Spain, expelled during the Inquisition. Don Isaac went into exile with his fellow Jews. In his remaining years, Don Isaac focused his personal life on study and writing, and completed his commentaries on the Torah, The Prophets and the Passover Haggadah.

Dom Duarte, the Duke of Braganza
Dom Duarte
Fast-forward to 2004. The current heir to the Portuguese throne, Dom Duarte, the Duke of Braganza, extends the Abarbanel family of New York an invitation to his royal residence since the Duke's ancestor and Abarbanel's ancestor, Don Isaac, were very close friends. As the Abarbanels, acting as ambassadors of the Jewish people and particularly, the Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent, approached the lunch reception at the Duke's home in Lisbon, the first thing the Duke said was "I've been waiting 500 years to have lunch with you." This encounter, initiated by the Portuguese government, symbolized a coming together after so many centuries and signaled that the Portuguese government and people are looking for better relations with Jews. The initiative came from their side, according to Abarbanel, to put closure on a sad chapter in their history. "They wanted to say that the descendents of the Duke of Braganza and the descendents of Don Isaac are now friends, and we will look forward instead of backwards with no ill will for the past," relates Abarbanel.

The Abarbanel family crest is Spanish in origin, having been given to Don Isaac by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for his service to the Spanish crown. This crest can be seen on every bottle of Abarbanel brand wines. Today, the Abarbanel family puts science and technology to work for Jews by providing kosher wine of the highest caliber. "One challenge is developing new wines from exotic parts of the world that really expand the repertoire of what kosher consumers may avail themselves of."

The Abarbanel family's sojourn in Portugal
About Kosher status
A common misconception is that kosher wines are "blessed" or made from "kosher grapes." In fact, kosher wine is a process, not an appellation. These are the word's oldest wine making laws ensuring that only the grapes themselves are in a bottle of kosher wine. There are no animal or food additives of any kind and no sugar or fruit juices are added to any Abarbanel wines. Special kosher yeast and enzymes are used for fermentation and when called for, wines undergo heat flash pasteurization to make them Mevushal. Kosher wines are not "blessed," explains Abarbanel, "rather, they are made kosher so that a blessing may be offered on them."

Abarbanel aims to help Israel's economy by promoting Noah/Hevron Heights Wines, produced in a boutique winery located at one of Israel's most picturesque spots in the Judean Hills. "I think the most important thing right now is for all of us to do whatever we can to help Israel in tangible and substantive ways, and one of the best things to do is to help their economy," says Abarbanel about a matter very close to his heart. "It might just a be a drop in the ocean in terms of the overall Israeli economic picture, but it gives me satisfaction that as Noah/Hevron Heights becomes more and more popular, with the sale of each bottle we're helping the Israeli economy." It is for this reason that of all Abarbanel's achievements, he is most proud of his strategic relationship with the Noah/Hevron Heights Winery.

He urges North American families to reach for Israeli products at the supermarket and elsewhere to keep Israeli exports strong and Israeli's working. Just this past summer, Abarbanel in conjunction with Ashkelon-based Israel Beer Breweries launched a new Israeli beer in the U.S., Layla Dirty Blonde Lager - also to help with Israeli exports and to enhance Israel's image abroad.

A selection of Abarbanel Wines
from Israel
According to Abarbanel, "The best bottle of Israeli wine would be the Meggido Special Reserve from the Noah/Hevron Heights Winery." His other favorites include Chateau du Quint which he describes as "a prestigious Pomerol from one of the most esteemed appellations in Bordeaux." It is very delicate and fruity, with a light berry taste. Abarbanel also enjoys Mouton Cadet from Baron Philippe de Rothschild, which he relates, "is the paradigm of what a kosher Bordeaux wine should be." He is particularly fond of the 2000 vintage, terming it, "the best in Bordeaux."

The Abarbanel Chardonnay, with hints of apple, pear and oak, is also a personal favorite of the man who had dedicated his career to broadening the types of wines available to the kosher consumer. Abarbanel is proud to be the first to create a White Shiraz, kosher or not. He likens his company to a haute couture house. While he anticipates imitations, he maintains that there is no substitute for his original wines.

Abarbanel wines have been the recipients of numerous gold medals in competitions against the entire world of wine, with professional wine connoisseurs sampling the wines blindfolded. According Abarbanel, they do not know whose wine it is, whether it is kosher, or where it came from. "Their sole basis is, 'Is this a gold-winning wine or not?'" And, Abarbanel proudly points out that his wines have been favorable reviews in major publications such as the Wine Enthusiast, the Wine Spectator and Wine and Spirits. "The fact that they are kosher and winning in major competitions says a lot for where kashrut has gone today."

In short, every bottle is a blessing. L'Chaim.


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