California's newest and largest kosher winemaking facility boasts the longest history.
Last week, the Baron Herzog Winery debuted its 77,000-square-foot winery in Oxnard. The label dates back to 1848, when the Herzog family established an operation in the small Slovakian village of Vrobove. Philip Herzog produced an off-dry Riesling favored by Franz-Josef, the Austrian emperor, who established the winery as his sole supplier and knighted the family patriarch with the title "Baron." In the 1930s, his grandson, Eugene Herzog, watched the Nazis, and, later, the communists take over the winery. When he finally sailed with his family to New York, he arrived in 1948 with more children (six) than dollars. He began working for the Royal Wine Co. as truck driver, sales manager and winemaker. To supplement his meager income, the company paid him in stock. He eventually became a majority stockholder and bought the company in 1958.
As the company expanded with the help of four sons, Herzog began a California operation in 1985, in a variety of rented wineries or "custom crush facilities" under the Baron Herzog label. The concept was to produce only wines using California fruit. Herzog's parent company, Royal Wine Corp., which describes itself as the largest producer, importer and distributor of kosher wines and spirits in the United States, recently spent an estimated $13 million to create its high-tech facility. The new winery, which opened for tours and tastings June 27, is capable of producing up to 220,000 cases annually.
The winery produces two labels, Baron Herzog, a value-brand, mevushal line, and Herzog Wine Cellars, the special reserve line with less than 10,000 cases total production. The latter carries a much higher price tag due to fruit sourced from premium vineyards, and a more labor-intensive process, including hand-harvesting and aging in high-quality French oak barrels, which are more costly than their American equivalents. Herzog winemakers believe flash pasteurization can improve quality. All the whites are mevushal, but none of the special reserve reds, most of which are not even filtered.
"The idea is to manipulate the inherent quality of the fruit as little as possible," said J.P. Webb, the winery's marketing and tasting room manager. "The role of the vintner is to assist the fruit in making itself into wine as opposed to forcing it into a direction that [it] wouldn't ordinarily go."
That responsibility goes to the company's top winemakers, Peter Stern and Joe Hurliman, who are not Jewish, which means they cannot operate any of the machinery or touch the wine until it is corked. Michael Klein, a full-time Orthodox mashgiach, is on-hand to solve that dilemma.
Baron Herzog's award-winning line includes special reserve releases: Edna Valley Syrah ($30), Russian River Chardonnay ($25) and Warnecke Vineyard, Chalk Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ($70) at the top of the price scale. Current releases include a classic merlot, Alexander Valley ($30), as well as unusual blends, the 2002 cabernet sauvignon-zinfandel-syrah ($34) and cabernet-syrah ($30).
"We noticed special qualities in certain barrel samples of these varietals," Hurliman said. "It was a gamble, but one that paid off and the results are now in the bottle."
Herzog Winery is located at 3201 Camino del Sol in Oxnard. Tasting fees of $5 to $7 are applied to wine purchase and include a self-guided tour with a birds-eye view of the cellar, barrel room and the bottling line. For more information, call (805) 983-1560 or visit www. herzogwinecellars.com.