To cantorial soloist Sandra Messinger, a fine wine can be a religious experience.
The soprano, who leads Mount Laurel’s Reform synagogue Adath Emanu-El in song both sacred and joyous, is also an expert on the grape — a happy pairing that is, in fact, a byproduct of Messinger’s vocation.
Call it bashert, the Yiddish term for “destiny”: This vocalist is as comfortable reading a wine list as she is following the musical patterns of a religious trope. In both disciplines, the notes are varied and complex — and a way for Messinger to challenge herself while doing what she loves.
“Wine is a part of many Jewish celebrations, from weddings to sanctifying the Sabbath. So if you are going to rejoice with wine, it should be something that tastes good,” Messinger said. “It’s very much a part of celebration and joyfulness — as long as it’s in moderation. If you are going to have a little bit of something, it should be wonderful.”
Messinger, 44, is a Willingboro native whose family joined Adath Emanu-El when the future chanteuse was 5. The synagogue, then known as Temple Emanu-El, was a fixture in Willingboro until it moved to Mount Laurel in 1997. Messinger’s family remained in Willingboro, but continued to attend the renamed temple.
The John F. Kennedy High School graduate majored in music performance at Rowan University, followed by a study in opera performance at the International Academy in Rome. There, she performed such classic roles as Tosca, Contessa Almaviva from “The Marriage of Figaro,” Suor (Sister) Angelica, and Magda from “The Consul.” At the same time, she began cultivating an appreciation of fine wines as she also became more attuned to her faith.
Messinger said she started developing an interest in wine while touring Europe in her 20s. “It was partly because of the culture of it, and partly because I’m a foodie — and food and wine go together,” she said.
Faith had something to do with it, too. “One of the times I really started connecting with wine was when I was singing in Italy,” Messinger said. “Wine was a part of the culture, and even the table wines were spectacular.”
At the same time, she was feeling like a fish out of water in Rome, a city without many Jews. She found the Jewish quarter and reconnected with her religion while embracing the city’s wine offerings.
“The two really overlapped in Rome, as I gained a new appreciation of Judaism and of wine. That is where they connected in my mind,” Messinger said.
After returning from Europe, Messinger got a job singing and waiting tables at La Boheme, a now-defunct Northern Italian restaurant — despite the French name — in the Chambersburg section of Trenton.
“It was a small restaurant and other than the chef, I was the one who knew about wine,” she recalled. “They didn’t have a sommelier, and they wanted someone to suggest wine pairings.”
From there, Messinger got a job at what was then The Pantheon, an Italian restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton on Broad Street in Philadelphia. “I was waitressing at the beginning, and buddied up to its sommelier. I learned everything I could from him, and I became the go-to person about wines when he was not available,” she explained. “The chef there let me taste things, and the manager was very supportive of my education in terms of wines and pairings.”
After that, Messinger further developed her wine palate by frequenting wine tastings and festivals. In 2001, she became cantorial soloist at Adath Emanu-El.
“I kept studying wine for my own enjoyment while learning how to better serve my congregation through music and developing professionally in the Jewish community,” said Messinger, who has performed in England, Spain and Israel as well as in Italy and various U.S. locales.
In addition to her cantorial role, Messinger acts as conductor for the temple’s youth, teen and adult choirs, and is also a bar/bat mitzvah tutor and Hebrew teacher. Soon, she hopes to complete her bachelor’s degree — coursework having been interrupted by her performing abroad — and earn certification as a full-fledged cantor.
Messinger has held several wine pairing events at Adath Emanu-El, aiming to help others develop their own palates. Topics have included general pairings, kosher wines and, most recently, dessert wines.
At that event, about a dozen participants indulged in everything from cheese, nuts and chocolate to carrot cake, cheesecake, brownies and fruit pies while pairing them with six wines selected by Messinger, with an emphasis on products from local vineyards.
“This is the one I’m most excited about,” said Messinger as she indicated a bottle of Valenzano’s Jersey Devil No. 1 — a honey wine, or mead, from the Shamong winery, with hints of Madagascar vanilla beans and orange zest. She remarked that the mead, aged in bourbon barrels that add depth of flavor, went really well with the brownies.
Also from Valenzano, Messinger chose a sweet-yet-tart plum wine and a full-bodied blackberry syrah. “The syrah is good with the nuts, too. They work with the spiciness in the syrah,” she said. “And dark chocolate and blackberry — that’s a gimme.”
Her other offerings included a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, a California white zinfandel, and a vidal blanc ice wine, made from partially frozen grapes, from Tomasello Winery in Hammonton.
“It’s all about what brings out the flavors you like and hides the favors you don’t,” she said, advising the group to rinse with water — and then spit it out — between wines. “It’s not a matter of right and wrong. Is anyone finding that some things taste better with the wine and some things taste awful?”
Participants at the dessert wine pairing were pleased to let their palates be their guide. “I liked the sauvignon blanc with the cheesecake, but not with the fruit,” said Sunny Butchin, of Willingboro.
Added Willingboro resident Josselyne Jackson, “I liked it better with the strawberries.”
Messinger said there remain certain chemical truths about wines and food — that a harsh-tasting red wine will cut through the fat in meats and cheeses, while the fat in the food will cut the harshness in the wine, for instance.
But, she added, the old way of looking at wine pairings — white with fish, red with beef — is not how people should approach the discipline today. “Pairings have to be user-friendly now,” Messinger said.
Maria Kelly of Edgewater Park said she was a fan of the plum wine. “It’s very good with the gouda,” Kelly said, prompting Messinger to say, “The plum wine balances it.”
Moorestown resident Judy Richter said she knows very little about wine. “I wanted to get an idea of what goes best with fruit, cake and nuts,” she said.
Eileen Chmielinski, of Evesham, said she took one of Messinger’s classes before. “It was fun then, too. I think wine is a good thing to enjoy and add to your meals.”
Messinger said white port is one of her favorite new finds. She always gets excited about amarone, a red wine from the Tuscany region of Italy that she describes as “big, rich, complex and fabulous.”
In all her travels, Messinger has continued to gravitate to wine, noting that it has given her an appreciation of cultural differences while making her more grounded in self-knowledge. Sharing her hobby of wine appreciation with those she mentors professionally as a Jewish spiritual guide is truly the best pairing for her.
“It’s a way of finding what home is, in terms of both a congregation and favorite wines,” Messinger said. “For me, home is where I started. Not everyone gets to do that.”
Cantor Teaches Wine Pairing
A sauvignon blanc from Peter Yealands was among the wines sampled at a tasting event held at Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel.
Cantor Teaches Wine Pairing
Valenzano’s Jersey Devil No. 1 — a honey wine, or mead, from the Shamong winery, with hints of Madagascar vanilla beans and orange zest, goes really well with brownies, said Messigner.