The Golden State Of Kosher Wine
Mon, 03/17/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
Herzog Wine Cellars’ headquarters in Oxnard. Courtesy of Herzog Wine Cellars
Herzog Wine Cellars’ headquarters in Oxnard. Courtesy of Herzog Wine Cellars

With all the focus on Israeli wines, it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that there are fantastic kosher wine wines to be found domestically, especially in California. Indeed, quality kosher wines have been produced in California for over 30 years, and continue to thrive.

There are currently just three fully kosher wineries in the state: the small family-owned and operated Hagafen Cellars, the mighty and massive Herzog Wine Cellars, and the tiny one-man operation Four Gates. There is a fourth winery currently being built in Berkeley to accommodate the premium boutique Covenant Wines. In addition to these excellent wineries, some great kosher wines are being produced by Craig Winchell, Jonathan Hadju and Gabriel and Shimon Weiss. While the wines being released by these seven producers vary in quality, it’s fair to say that each player in the kosher California wine scene is producing some gems.

The pioneer of great kosher table wine is Ernie Weir, founder and winemaker of the award-winning, Napa-Green Certified Hagafen Cellars in the Napa Valley.

Founded in 1979, by Weir and his wife Irit, Hagafen Cellars has a reputation for high-quality Napa wines that are mostly sold to and consumed by non-Jews. Weir chooses to keep his vineyards organic and sustainable, and his wines kosher. As Weir puts it, “I am making Napa Valley wine, and the wine happens to be kosher.” Located on Napa’s Silverado Trail, the winery boasts a popular tasting room. Weir produces three different wine labels: “Hagafen” (primary label), “Prix” (high-end line) and “Don Ernesto” (value priced, quaffable line). Hagafen currently produces only around 8,000 cases, or about 100,000 bottles, of some 20 different award-winning wines.

Another California kosher wine veteran whose new kosher wines are in hot demand is Craig Winchell, presently of the non-kosher Agua Dulce Winery in the Sierra Pelona Valley, in northern Los Angeles County. Winchell was the winemaker of the now-legendary Gan Eden winery in Sebastopol (Sonoma), which closed in 2005 due to dwindling observant community in the area. Similar to the wines of Hagafen, most Gan Eden wines were sold to and consumed by non-Jews; they received critical acclaim in wine competitions and within the mainstream wine market. As Winchell once put it: “The business of Gan Eden is to make a superior wine. I produce it kosher so I can drink it.”

In August 2010, five years after Gan Eden closed, the Agua Dulce Winery’s new owner, entrepreneur Barry Goldfarb, hired Winchell to make wines and produce at least some of them under kosher certification. Unfortunately, the kosher wine project was shelved after just one vintage, and only three kosher wines have been released: 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 Zinfandel and 2010 Syrah. With only word-of-mouth marketing, and some already impressive wine competition awards, the wines are being sold directly through Winchell (craig@aguadulcewinery.com or (661) 268-7402, ext. 27), as well as via kosherwine.com and liquidkosher.com. As Winchell notes, “These are extremely high quality, each presenting a very balanced, nuanced profile in an elegant package; they are full-flavored but decidedly different than typical, as each expresses the terroir of the Sierra Pelona Valley AVA” north of Los Angeles. But unless (or until) he is hired away to once again make kosher wine, or unless he finds investors to resurrect his Gan Eden wines, Winchell’s foray back into kosher wines is little more than a teasing, flirtatious reminder of what the kosher wine world has lost.

During its brief kosher period, Agua Dulce had also employed brothers Gabriel and Shimon Weiss, originally from Lakewood, N.J. The Weiss brothers are the indefatigable and passionate producers of the tiny but trendy Shirah Wine Company. They are, according to press materials, “dedicated to producing the highest quality kosher wine with a focus on varietals, blends and styles that are not yet well known to the kosher wine drinker.” After gaining experience at Herzog Wine Cellars and Covenant Wines, Gabriel teamed up with his brother Shimon; they released their first commercial vintage (2009) with the 2011 launch of the Shirah Wine Company (Shirahwine.com) to critical success.

Produced at tiny, small-lot boutique volumes (200 cases in 2009, 400 cases in 2010 and 2011, and 1,000 cases in 2012), Shirah is growing steadily. Shimon notes, “Wine is a study in patience in many ways, but we seem to be on track with where we’d like to be going. We are loving it.”

Another critically successful producer to come out of the Herzog and Covenant mix is Jonathan Hajdu with his line of Hajdu Wines (hajduwines.com). The Long Island-born Hajdu started his wine career a decade ago working in Yarra Valley vineyards outside of Melbourne, Australia, while he was studying viticulture at the Swinburne University of Technology. From there he gained experience at wineries in Israel and California, including Herzog and Covenant, where he was later hired in 2008 as associate winemaker.

Hadju’s first commercial release on his own was the 2007 vintage. Having left Herzog in 2006 to work at the Carmel Winery in Israel, Hadju returned to the U.S. the next year with several projects lined up, including one “to make a kosher wine with a fairly famous non-kosher producer in the Napa Valley. But just two weeks before the crush, the project got cancelled.” But he did not want to lose the harvest; “I wanted to make wine.” He made a few calls and secured a facility; he had already “lined up some really great vineyards, and got some really great fruit” for the aborted project. Eventually, it all came together and he started his own wine label. Today, Hajdu continues to produce his own line of small lot, boutique wines strictly as a sideline, maintaining his primary position at Covenant Wines.

Founded in 2003 by Jeff Morgan and Leslie Rudd, Covenant Wines was both a critical and commercial success with its first vintage Cabernet Sauvignon. The pre-eminent wine critic Robert Parker wrote: “Covenant may be the finest kosher wine made in the United States.” A former Wine Spectator Magazine journalist, Morgan is more adept than anyone else in the kosher wine world at promoting his wines and getting the critics to take notice.

As Morgan puts it, “it’s really all about grapes. If you have access to phenomenal vineyards, as we do, the trick is simply not to screw it up when you get it back to the winery. That’s it.” To this end, Morgan says that Covenant’s wines are made in an “artisanal” and “non-interventionist” manner “that includes native yeast fermentations and little or no filtration and fining.”

Morgan is not without considerable aspirations for Covenant as well. He says, “We have to work hard like everybody else, but it’s a slow but steady effort to create something that will hopefully make a difference in the world of kosher wine, and that will have a lasting effect on the quality of kosher food and wine for many years to come.”

Morgan’s foray into kosher wine was inspired in part by his familiarity, as a wine journalist, with the mighty Herzog Wine Cellars. When he and Rudd decided to launch their venture, they contracted with Herzog to produce their wines at the Herzog winery (initially in rented space, and later a purpose-built facility). Every harvest, through vintage 2008, was trucked down from Napa to Southern California. Once the Sabbath-observant Hadju moved to Northern California and was on board as associate winemaker, however, Covenant was able to secure a winemaking facility closer to its Napa vineyards.

Covenant currently produces five critically acclaimed general-release wines: Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, Covenant Solomon Lot 70 Cabernet, Red C Red, Red C Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay Lavan. There are three direct-to-consumer wines from the “Landsman” wine club: Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah. This year Morgan will also be introducing a new budget-friendly mevushal line called the “Tribe.” With a new winery being built in Berkeley to house Covenant Wines, Morgan plans to increase production further, from 3,000 cases last year to around 10,000 cases over the next three to five years.

By far the biggest California player by volume, market share and variety, however, is Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard. It was the Herzog family’s vision, wines, resources and distribution network that have helped propel kosher California wines to new commercial heights, educating the kosher wine consumer along the way. As the late Israeli wine critic Daniel Rogov once put it, “The true kosher wine revolution in America started … when the [Herzog] family expanded to California.”

With a winemaking history stretching back more than 250 years, the Herzog family launched its foray into California in 1985, when its Royal Wine Corp. began producing dry, kosher California table wines under the “Baron Herzog” label. It hired (non-Jewish) wine consultant Peter Stern, who had helped build up the Golan Heights Winery in Israel. It bought grapes from some top-notch regions in California and processed everything out of rented space at the former San Martin winery, 70 miles south of San Francisco. Herzog also initiated a long-term marketing campaign to educate kosher consumers about quality, dry table wines, and to educate the mainstream wine market about the fact that kosher wines are not limited to syrupy Kiddush wine. Over time, its concerted effort to produce quality wine and create an appreciative Jewish consumer base began to work to great success.

In June 1998, it became clear the Herzog winery needed a fulltime winemaker to handle daily operations. Stern hired Joe Hurliman (not Jewish). Along with longtime cellarmaster Josh Goodman (Torah observant), Stern and Hurliman moved the Herzog operations to a larger facility. In 2005, after 20 years of renting space in various wineries, the company built the Herzog Cellars Winery in Oxnard due to growth and expansion. The winery is a state-of-the-art, 77,000-square-foot facility with annual production approaching 200,000 cases.

Hurliman became head winemaker and manager of wine operations, and now he has 16 Herzog vintages under his belt; they include the Baron Herzog, Herzog Special Reserve, Herzog Late Harvest, Herzog Single Vineyard, Herzog Limited Edition, Jeunesse, Wines by W, Weinstock, Weinstock Cellar Select, Rashi, and the small, limited production “Eagles Landing” labels. The winery also releases a small number of direct-to-consumer tasting room and wine club only wines (herzogwinecellars.com).

The last of the major California players, which stands in stark contrast to Herzog, is Benyamin Cantz of the Four Gates Winery. His winemaking operation, nestled deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains, has gained something like a cult status. His is a tiny (around 400 cases annually), organically grown, estate-bottled, one-man operation, with wines that are only available directly from him (fourgateswine.com; 831-457-2673).

“As to being a cult winery,” Daniel Rogov had commented on his wine forum just a few months before his death in 2011, “I suspect a good deal of that has to do with Benyamin Cantz’s charming persona, his rather unique individualistic and almost hermit-like lifestyle, and that indeed his wines are a considerable shade different than many of the kosher wines we find on the market.” Rogov added, “I especially respect the Four Gates wines for their sense of place (call that terroir if you like).”

To Cantz, however, such talk is flattering but basically meaningless: “I don’t have any kind of cult status. I’m a tiny winery and I’ve always produced a small amount and don’t do any marketing, so I do run out quickly. ... But I have ridiculously small amounts to start with, so it’s not really fair to give me a ‘cult’ status just for running out of wine — might as well just give me a ‘Poor Businessman of the Year award.’” 

Cantz arrived on his rustic mountaintop in 1971. He found religion in the 1980s and became Torah observant, and began making wine for kiddush from some abandoned chardonnay vines that another tenant on the land had previously planted as a “cover crop” for his marijuana. Within a few years Cantz planted his own vineyards (just 3.5 acres), which are certified organic, and by 1997 he began to release his wines commercially.

Cantz has an earnest “let the land speak for itself” approach to making wine, guided by what he enjoys, trial and error, and advice from friends and friendly winery neighbors. He simply makes Santa Cruz Mountain wines — high-mountain, cool-climate, low-yield wines with naturally high acidity and pronounced tannins; he makes them kosher certified so that he can enjoy them. Part of the charm surrounding his wines is that he clearly loves making the stuff more than selling it, and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

From the tiniest producer, to the volume leader, California kosher wines offer a wide selection of varietals and styles, across the price spectrum. What’s more, California’s kosher wines are some of the very best kosher wines around, and well worth full consideration. ✦

editor@jewishweek.org