Jewish Journal

Organic Experience

A former Valley boy brings kosher winemaking to Santa Cruz.

by Sue Fishkoff

Posted on Oct. 31, 2002 at 7:00 pm

Benyamin Cantz walks among the grapevines of Four Gates, the country's only organic kosher winery, in Santa Cruz.

Benyamin Cantz walks among the grapevines of Four Gates, the country's only organic kosher winery, in Santa Cruz.

Bruce Cantz grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where he had a good Conservative upbringing and was bar mitzvahed at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Now a baal teshuvah (returned to Judaism) who goes by his Hebrew name of Benyamin, Cantz, 54, lives on top of a remote mountain in Santa Cruz, where he runs Four Gates, the country's only organic kosher winery and the smallest, kosher winery in California.

His three colleagues in the kosher wine business -- you can hardly call them competitors, given the size of his operation -- are the mammoth Baron Herzog winery in Santa Maria, owned, along with nearby Weinstock Cellars, by Royal Wine Corp., the world's largest distributor of kosher wines. Together, these wineries a deacde ago, produced nearly 200,000 cases of kosher wine a year. Two others, Gan Eden in Sebastopol bottles 15,000 cases a year, and Hagafen Cellars in Napa bottles 8,000 cases. (St. Supery in Rutherford puts out the kosher Mount Maroma label, but is not a kosher winery.)

Cantz's one-man operation has an annual output of just 400 cases, less than 5,000 bottles. His wine is organic because, well, this is Santa Cruz, home of New Age consciousness and stomping ground for organic activism of all kinds.

Cantz is, as far as he knows, the only person making kosher wine from certified organic grapes in the country. "I've heard of one winery that does it in Australia, and one in Israel, but I'm not sure," he said. He added that although his grapes are grown without pesticides, he cannot label the finished product "organic" because he adds a small amount of sulfur dioxide during bottling. However, even without the organic label, his wine is kosher. When Cantz took and interest in Chabad in the late '70s and slowly became observant over the next decade, he realized that he needed kosher wine for Shabbat and holiday rituals -- and he found himself in exactly the right spot to make his own.

Since 1971, the year he graduated from UC Santa Cruz, Cantz has been living in a cabin on top of this Santa Cruz mountain. At first, he worked as a handyman for his former art professor, Mary Holmes, who owned the property and rented out cabins to people like Cantz. The property included a sloped, sunny plateau that had been used as a vineyard in the 1880s. Many of the old vines had never been removed.

In 1979, another mountaintop renter planted about 100 Chardonnay vines, but abandoned the operation and left the area. Cantz took it over, and began making wine from his own grapes in 1985. In 1991, he planted his current vineyard, 3.5 acres, which is certified organic. His first year of commercial production was 1997. About half his product is Chardonnay; the rest is Merlot, Pinot Noir and a little Cabernet Franc.

Not only is Cantz's wine organic and kosher, it's not mevushal (cooked), the usual method of making wine kosher, which involves heating it almost to the boiling point and then cooling it quickly.

Boiling wine rarely adds to its palatability -- in fact, much kosher mevushal wine is barely drinkable. However, for wine to be kosher without cooking it, it must be handled only by observant Jews, from the time the grapes are crushed until the finished wine is poured from bottle to drinking glass.

That's why Four Gates is a one-man operation. Except for harvesting the grapes in the fall, when he calls in groups of friends or hires a couple of laborers, Cantz does everything himself. He tends the vines, hauls the picked grapes into his one-room winery, crushes the grapes, ages them in his oak barrels, does his own barrel tastings to decide what he'll bottle with what in any given vintage, puts the wine in the bottles and even labels and corks each bottle himself. Then he takes his own orders by phone or e-mail, packs up the wine in boxes and drives it down the mountain in his truck to ship to his clients from the local UPS branch.

It's a lot of work. Even so, Cantz can't understand why more people don't do it.

Cantz lives simply -- no television, his water drawn from a well. He cooks mostly vegetarian. He would have to go out of his way for the kind of Shabbat distractions that tempt the typical urban-dwelling baal teshuva.

Kashrut restrictions on Cantz's non-mevushal operation have led to some embarrassing situations. Non-Sabbath-observant Jews aren't even permitted to step inside his bottling room, so Cantz has to ask guests about their level of observance as he guides them around his property. "It's a fence around the Torah," Cantz explains, somewhat shamefacedly. "Looking at the wine is the same as touching it."

Not only that, but his wine is kosher for Passover, meaning the bottling room must also be kosher for Passover. Anyone walking in with a cup of coffee, or half a sandwich in his pocket, would force a top-to-bottom cleansing and rekashering. Once one of his French oak barrels needed repairs, and the company rep offered to come out and fix it. Cantz called his rabbi to see whether that was permitted. It wasn't -- how would they know if the repairman would be an observant Jew? -- so Cantz fixed the barrel himself.

Inspectors from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and from the California Certified Organic Farmers, also are not permitted to set foot in the winery. They have to peer in from the doorway, and not all of them are happy about it. "The last inspector from the ATF was a Jewish woman, so she understood," Cantz said.

It's not as if government agents are knocking on his door every day. It's awfully hard to get to Four Gates. The property is located at the top of a three-quarter-mile dirt road, loaded with potholes and hairpin turns, that shoots pretty well straight up the side of a heavily wooded mountain.

Driving up to the place, squeamish drivers might prefer to ignore the sheer drop into a deep, dark ravine that looms at every tire-squealing, gut-clenching swerve in the road. Cantz doesn't get a lot of drop-in visitors. In the mid-'90s, however, he'd throw regular Shabbatons in the ramshackle old building he calls home. "Thirty, 40 people would come up, and we'd just throw down sleeping bags," he said. "It was a loose group, lots of Chabad, some Carlebachers."

Those were the years that Chabadniks Asi Spiegel and Naftali Citron were living in Santa Cruz, teaching hassidut and setting up the Jewish Learning Center. Both men have since moved on to other Chabad operations, so the oomph has gone out of Cantz's weekend bashes. "We still have weddings and [Sukkot] parties up here, but it's better when you have a good teacher," he noted.

Holmes died in January of this year at age 91, and Cantz now lives alone on top of the mountain. He has a long-term lease on the land, he's upgrading the winery and he's renovating, with hopes of someday living in an abandoned building constructed around a 19th century water tower. "It will be my modest abode," he quipped. A phone and fax/answering machine on a stool in the building serve as his office.

It's a solitary, if not lonely life. He's now the only person living full time on the mountain, although a couple of renters tend Holmes' animals and gardens, and a local artisan maintains a studio down the road. But maybe when Cantz is finished with renovations, he'll be able to host visiting Jewish groups in a more organized fashion.

At any rate, he has no intention of leaving. "No other place calls me," he said. "And this is a nice little spot."

Benyamin Cantz's wines are available through his Web site, www.ecojew.com/fourgates or by calling (831) 457-2673. He is not permitted to ship outside California.

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