The Silverado Trail, a picturesque highway that winds its way through the Napa Valley, isn't exactly where you'd expect to find someone staking his claim to Jewish identity. But for Ernie Weir, this is home base.
Weir is owner and winemaker of Hagafen Cellars, one of California's three kosher wineries that exist in an industry dominated by hundreds of non-kosher wineries.
From all appearances, Hagafen, headquartered in a small yellow building at the end of a gravel driveway and bordered by vineyards on either side, could be any other Napa Valley winery -- except for the mezuzah on the doorpost, the first clue to the Jewish nature of the enterprise.
As Weir told me, it was a need to express his Jewishness that led him to make kosher wines. But beyond the leitmotif of Jewish identity there lies a more practical side.
"To this day," he said, "I'm respectful of the religious nature of it, but it's not my intent. My intent is to make a product which can be enjoyed by as many people as possible." Weir's approach also reflects the view of Baron Herzog and Gan Eden, California's two other kosher wineries, that if you want to make it in this business, you must reach out beyond the rather limited Jewish market.
And today, of course, there is nothing to prevent winemakers from achieving this goal -- now that kosher wine has thrown off its screw-cap identity to join the mainstream world of sophisticated varietals. Weir, who worked for Domaine Chandon after graduating from the University of California at Davis wine department, prides himself on producing what he terms "ultra-premium" Napa Valley varietals, specializing in reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.
He owns about 12 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes, buying Chardonnay, White Riesling, Syrah and Pinot Noir from vineyards where he can exercise quality control. In 2001, Hagafen will introduce its first Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.
Hagafen's total output is about 7,000 cases a year.
Since Weir is without his own production facilities, he makes use of other wineries, rendering them acceptable for kosher production by high-temperature water purification of the equipment. Soon, however, he will complete a new winery and tasting room on his own property.
During my visit, I tasted Hagafen's 1997 oak-aged Merlot, a varietal enhanced with 5 percent Cabernet Franc that was named Best of Class and Best of Region at a recent California State Fair Competition. The wine had very soft tannins with layers of cherry and plum.
Hagafen's wines have reached the White House for kosher state dinners. Its best sales, Weir noted, come from "very knowledgeable, very sophisticated" consumers on the West and East coasts.
While Hagafen's origins are Napa Valley, it's a different story for Baron Herzog and Weinstock, both made by New York-based Royal Wine Corporation, the largest producer of kosher varietals in the United States.
The Herzog family reaches back to 19th-century Czechoslovakia, when it was the exclusive wine supplier to Emperor Franz Joseph. Royal Wine purchased Weinstock Cellars in 1994.
Royal draws on long-term relationships with growers in a number of California regions, including Napa Valley, the Russian River, Sonoma, Clarksburg, Alexander Valley and Monterey County.
From its winery in Santa Maria, Calif., the company is making a concerted effort to promote new international varietals as an alternative to traditional sweet wines.
Royal's winemaker, Peter Stern, is an international wine consultant with credits at Robert Mondavi who has also advised Israel's Golan Heights Winery since its inception.
From all appearances, including his name and his pathfinding work in kosher wines, it would appear that Stern is Jewish. He is not.
"The kosher market," said Stern, "is basically going through the same kind of evolution that you saw in the 1950s, when the consumer was not familiar with varietal wines."
Baron Herzog, producing well over 100,000 cases a year, is arguably one of the few American wineries to really succeed with Chenin Blanc.
With aromas of peach and nectarine, this Baron Herzog wine -- a Double Gold Sweepstakes winner at the 1998-99 West Coast Wine Competition -- is made from prized Clarksburg-area grapes grown near the Sacramento River, where days are warm and nights can be refreshingly cool, thanks to delta breezes that blow in from San Francisco Bay.
Like Hagafen and Gan Eden, Royal targets a broad market: a quarter of Baron Herzog and Weinstock consumers are not Jewish.
Meanwhile, the story of the Gan Eden Winery, located amidst the apple orchards and small towns of Sonoma County's Green Valley, reflects the religious odyssey of owner-winemaker Craig Winchell. "So how many winery employees are there?" Winchell asked rhetorically. "Only one, myself!" When he graduated from UC Davis with a degree in fermentation science, Winchell had no plans to produce kosher wines. He would, he thought, simply go to work in the mainstream wine industry. But something else was happening in his life: he had embarked on a rediscovery of his Jewish roots and was becoming an Orthodox Jew.
What happened next was the marriage of two worlds: Winchell would make wine that was kosher and pursue a Jewish way of life. But from a distribution standpoint, he would target the broader market. "The creation of this winery," he explained, "was a direct result of my desire to live a Jewish life, rather than a desire to target the Jewish market."
I found Gan Eden's Cabernet full-flavored and delightfully robust, while its Late Harvest Monterey County Gewurtztraminer is full of luscious pineapple and grapefruit flavors.
The winery also makes a wonderful Black Muscat -- the perfect companion to bittersweet chocolate -- that has been featured at James Beard House "great chefs" dinners.
In 1999, Winchell produced 15,000 bottles of wine, which he said is pushing his limit for a one-man operation.
What makes all of these California varietals kosher is the fact that they are produced -- that is, handled during production -- by Sabbath-observant Jews. However, according to kosher winemaking standards, overall winemaking direction may come from non-Jews.
But that's not the end of the story by any means. At kosher events, non-Jews may not be involved in serving kosher wine -- a prohibition said to relate to a time when wine was used in pagan rituals. How to get around this prohibition?
Drawing on an ancient Jewish formulation of boiling wine to alter its nature, kosher wine can be flash pasteurized by a process known in Hebrew as mevushal, thus permitting non-Jews to serve it at kosher functions. Herzog, Weinstock and Hagafen are all mevushal wines.
Flash pasteurization is a complex issue.
Some winemakers hold that the process can actually enhance a wine's flavor, but others point to unpredictable changes to the wine's sensory characteristics.
Gan Eden's Winchell stays away from producing mevushal wines, although with a recent surplus of Chardonnay grapes, he introduced a new cuvee called "C'est Bouilli!" -- French for "It's Boiled!" "I normally don't make mevushal wine," said Winchell, "and the lack of predictability is the principle reason. However, if done carefully, while it will always produce changes, they need not be detrimental changes."
For example, it's quite possible by making a wine mevushal to tone down one flavor characteristic and bring out another, as with Grenache over blackberry.
And a 1993 study conducted at UC Davis on pasteurization of young red wine found no significant effect on quality.
All of these issues aside, however, one thing is abundantly clear: significant progress has taken place in the kosher wine world.
Thanks to the trio of pathfinding winemakers, kosher California wines can now illuminate the finest table -- and turn an ordinary meal into a banquet.