Robert Louis Stevenson brought notoriety to the now-fabled Napa Valley when he came here on his honeymoon in 1880 and wrote “The Silverado Squatters.”
Today, the Silverado name — once associated with a mine — is part of the Silverado Trail, a two-lane roadway bordered by wineries, where bicyclists can sometimes be seen pedaling past the vineyards.
Less developed than the commercial stretch of Highway 29 to the west, the trail runs parallel to the Napa River for about 35 miles between Napa and the small town of Calistoga, known for its hot springs and Saturday farmers market.
It is less developed than Highway 29 to the west — a more commercial stretch with large wineries, shopping and restaurants.
At 4160 Silverado Trail, Ernie Weir and his Israeli wife, Irit, an acupuncturist and artist, operate the kosher Hagafen Cellars, whose vintages have graced the White House table.
I chatted with them under the winery’s patio, where chimes sounded in the cool breeze and the afternoon light reflected off a mosaic-covered glass table designed by Irit.
“The whole image of kosher wines has changed,” Weir began. “Kosher wines are every bit as good as wines that are not made kosher. There’s very little distinction anymore.”
The changing image of kosher wine is something that Weir knows well — he has been producing it for more than 30 years and has witnessed the industry grow and broaden its appeal to ever-widening audiences.
Perhaps the crowning achievement in the acceptance of kosher wine in America is its presence at White House dinners, where the most recent serving and the one for which Weir is “most proud, extremely proud” was last June, when Israeli President Shimon Peres received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
For that event, the White House served Hagafen’s 2008 Pinot Noir and its 2010 Roussanne, made with a white grape variety originally from the Rhone region of France that was harvested from vineyards in Lodi, Calif., a small community near Sacramento.
There have been other noteworthy examples of Hagafen wines served at the White House.
For example, at a White House celebration last May marking Jewish-American Heritage Month, guests enjoyed the winery’s 2007 Napa Valley Brut Cuvee.
Hagafen produces 100,000 bottles of wine a year and is sold around the world and through its wine club and tasting room, which welcomes visitors. The winery also produces Cabernet Franc, Syrah and White Riesling.
In addition, it has two other labels. One is a reserve called Prix, which is a play on the Hebrew blessing over wine: “pree hagafen” — “fruit of the vine.” The other is Don Ernesto, a jovial reference to Weir himself, who is otherwise known as Ernie.
Weir’s connection to Israel goes back to 1973, when he worked on Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan near Haifa and began to re-establish his agricultural roots.
“I’ve always been associated or attached to the agricultural elements in the Bible,” he said. “I’ve always thought, well, that’s very cool, we have these holidays that are agricultural.”
When he returned to the United States, he settled in the Napa Valley and went to work for Domaine Chandon winery, eventually attending the prestigious UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, where he earned a viticulture degree.
The next step was starting a kosher winery.
“I was young,” he said, “and I thought to myself, “What type of wine can I make to contribute to the world of wine and the community of wineries in Napa Valley?
“So when I saw many of my counterparts who were of Italian origin or Swiss origin or whatever making wine and … evoking wonderful cultural pride amongst their peers, I thought, well, let us see how we can do that ourselves.”
Weir’s wife moved to Los Angeles with her family after doing her army service in the IDF.
She subsequently became “very impressed with the body-mind connection and also the idea of healing without medication” and studied acupuncture at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco.
She also went to China for a master’s degree in acupuncture, working in a hospital in Guangzhou.
The couple visits Israel every year, and Irit recently gave a workshop at an international acupuncture congress in the country, noting that Israel has “wonderful healers.”
In the spring, the couple will lead a wine tour to Israel for about 10 members of the Hagafen wine club.
Weir has also done consulting with Israeli wineries.
“Some [Israeli winemakers] come [to Napa] because of the kosher aspect,” he said, “but some come because they know that in Napa we’re on the cutting edge of New World viticulture and winemaking. And they come to see what kind of small, little piece of information they might find about a new variety, a new clone of a variety, a new technique … just sort of what’s happening.”