For millennia, wine has been an integral part of the Jewish faith. Glasses are raised in prayer to celebrate holidays and to commemorate special occasions. "We've been drinking wine ever since the temples in Israel," says Shlomo Perelman, owner of Pinsker's in Squirrel Hill.
For most American Jews in the modern era, religious wine has meant Manischewitz, a beverage better known for sticky sweetness than for refinement. According to Perelman, it need not be this way.
"Sweet wine is an American invention," he says. Early Jewish immigrants were constrained at first by lack of a suitable native grape to produce their own wine, and later by a dearth of quality kosher-wine producers.
But Pinsker's, established in 1954 and owned by Perelman since 1983, offers better options for the observant. Tucked in the Judaica store's back corner is a small wine room that Perelman has slowly expanded over the years.
"We have wine from California, France, New Zealand, Israel, Chile and Spain," says Perelman, who notes that Israel's wine industry in particular is experiencing tremendous growth, both in terms of quantity and quality.
But there's a catch. Because Pinsker's operates under a sacramental wine license, he can't sell to the general public. State law dictates that sacramental wine can be sold only for religious purposes, Perelman says, meaning he can offer wine to only customers who are affiliated with a synagogue.
How does Perelman verify a customer's synagogue affiliation? "I ask you where you go to shul."
Despite Pinsker's offerings, changing palates accustomed to generations of sweet wine is no easy task. That's one reason why the store offers a selection of semi-sweet wine, meant to serve as a bridge to drier wines.
Even Perelman himself begins his Sabbath ritual with a nod to the American influence on Jewish tradition. "My first glass on the Sabbath is always sweet wine," he says, "though I'm not sure why."