Saturday, July 2, 2011

Shabbat in Almaty

I celebrated Shabbat in Almaty at the city's only synagogue. The evening began with lighting the Shabbat candles and ended with a discussion of wine making. It turns out, the Rabbinical Clergy are also passionate vintners.

After services, I had dinner with the rabbi and his family. At the end of the meal, he said "You mentioned you like dry wine during the Kiddush. You do, right?"
"Yes, I do."
"One minute." The rabbi walked into the kitchen and brought out in a plastic bottle with a rich red colored wine. I tasted the wine, which was extremely dry and had a unique flavor and thick consistency. Also very potent.
"It is home made." It turns out that he and the other rabbis began producing kosher wine about ten years ago. Three years ago they got their first really good batch. They then bottle and sell the wine to the entire Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It is purely organic – grapes and sugar. And you taste that. 

I used to work for an alcohol beverage organization, so I have some knowledge of wine production. Naturally, I asked about the production techniques. It turns out they use a hydraulic filtration system to compress the grapes and filter out soot (this is a very common technique). They use huge metal bins and use grapes from a vineyard in southern Kazakhstan, not far from Almaty (Fun fact: Shymkent and Southern Kazakhstan is a "wine region." It is not the Bordeaux Valley by any stretch, but they do produce wine). The rabbis use no refining agent or any chemical additives to alter the tannin levels. The equipment is all from Israel. Durign the year, they sell the wine for around $7-$8, but reduce the price around pesach because they believe everyone should have wine on Passover. I asked when is harvest and what season they make the wine. He said in the fall, around September, October.
"Oh right before high holidays."
"Yes, it usually falls right in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur."
"Well, Sukkot is right around the corner and that is the holiday of the harvest."
"Ha, yes that is our inside joke. We make wine to celebrate the holiday of the harvest," he joked. 
"And who is our? Who is involved in this operation?" I asked.
"Really just me and the other rabbis and a few members of the community."
So my evening ended discussing wine production with the rabbi. Who would have thought.
He then showed me on the way out the kosher grocery store. They use a retailer who brings kosher products to Central Asia. It was sooo weird to see Shop Rite brand in KZ. He said the dry wine that I tasted is the most popular product. It is called "yaffa," as they named the wine after ancient cities this year, but change the name every year. We discussed the different varietals and different preferences of consumers. He proudly stated that some people love their wine so much that they consume it instead of vodka, the prevailing drink of choice in Kazakhstan. Rabbi and impassioned vintner...not someone you meet everyday.

Even though I follow a different denomination of Judaism, I had a lovely evening and thank the Rabbi and congregation for their Shabbat hospitality. Celebrating Shabbat in Almaty was definitely an experience and I had a great time. I definitely did not expect to discuss wine production, but as the saying goes, "when you travel, expect the unexpected." :)

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