Blessed Is The Fruit Of Hagafen Cellars
Napa, Calif. — Hagafen Cellars sits at the end of a country lane bordered by vineyards and olive trees on the Silverado Trail.
There are many wineries on the trail, but what makes Hagafen Cellars different is its distinction as Napa Valley’s only full-service kosher winery. And the man behind it all is veteran winemaker Ernie Weir.
Dressed in a pair of worn jeans and a T-shirt, Weir greeted me in Hagafen’s modest tasting room for a sampling of his award-winning wines — some of which have graced the table of White House kosher state dinners and events for the past 30 years.
It’s no coincidence that Weir’s tasting room has the look and feel of the Mediterranean — his early exposure to agriculture came during a working stint on an Israeli kibbutz.
“As a small producer,” Weir said, “I looked for a niche that would make me unique, that would separate me from the 300 other wineries [in the area].”
That niche, of course, continues to be quality kosher dry wines, which appeal not only to general consumers, but especially to Jewish ones — the people Weir calls “an assimilated [and] culturally and religiously very proud group of people, who are part and parcel of the fabric and the tapestry of American life.”
For religiously observant Jews, of course, Hagafen is a real find while they’re on the road — a lucky chance to sample kosher wines in a field otherwise dominated by non-kosher varieties.
In reality, however, most of Weir’s market is non-Jewish, and there are even some visitors to his winery who ask if “Hagafen” (Hebrew for “the vine”) is his family name.
During my visit, among the wines I sampled were the Late Harvest 2008 Sonoma Coast Sauvignon Blanc, a delicious dessert wine evoking the style of French Sauterne, and the 2005 Reserve Prix Napa Valley Estate Bottled Merlot Vichy Vineya, which has a spicy and cherry-filled taste.
Wine tasting is also available at garden tables, where you can take in peaceful valley scenes near Hagafen’s vineyards.
Those “valley scenes” are everywhere to be found along Highway 29, which winds its way through memorable small towns — many settled by early Italian immigrants who left their mark with lasting traditions of wine and food.
The valley is a perfect place to stay for a while, and one of the newest places to settle into is Hotel Luca, a slice of Tuscany I discovered in the sleepy little town of Yountville, population 3,200.
Rustic Jerusalem stone decorates the hotel’s lobby, spa, bathrooms and public spaces, while reclaimed, 200-year-old roof tiles from Lucca, Italy, and 300-year old floor tiles from Florence further embellish the hotel’s design.
Hotel Luca’s piece de resistance is its Cantinetta Piero restaurant, under whose 15-foot vaulted brick ceiling and massive beams one can sample the sublime tastes of Tuscany presided over by Chef Craig DiFonzo.
Of course, as a food town, Yountville is well known for French culinary influence, including Thomas Keller’s legendary French Laundry, housed in an anonymous old stone building on Washington Street, just a short walk from Hotel Luca and near Keller’s Bouchon French bistro and bakery.
Yountville is a very walkable town, with plenty of boutique shops among the bistros and restaurants of Washington Street.
When navigating your way down Highway 29, be sure to stop at the Oakville Grocery Company, circa 1881, which is across the highway from spreading vineyards.
The outside of this establishment looks pretty ordinary, but once inside, you’ll be surprised by a food cornucopia of some of the best that Napa Valley has to offer, like artisanal deli sandwiches, grilled paninis, cheeses and charcuterie, signature salads and boxed lunches perfect for a Napa Valley picnic.
Don’t be surprised if the place is packed, so be ready to spend a little time in the store.
One of my favorite wine-associated things to do around here is the Napa Valley Wine Train, a restaurant built into an antique train. While you enjoy lunch or dinner, the train winds its way blissfully through the valley along 25-miles of track.
Closer to the San Francisco Bay Area, there are definitely things worth seeing before you reach the Napa Valley.
One of my favorites, across the Golden Gate Bridge, is Sausalito, which I have always called “California’s Portofino.” It’s a picturesque waterside community offering breathtaking views of San Francisco.
Besides the views, my favorite thing to do in Sausalito is people-watch at one of the town’s many cafés.
If you like hiking, keep going past Sausalito to Mount Tamalpais State Park in Mill Valley, which offers more than 60 miles of hiking and biking trails in a setting of stunning California redwood groves.