NAPA, Calif. — The Silverado Trail is a two-lane roadway bordered by vineyards and wineries where Ernie Weir and his wife, Irit, operate Hagafen Cellars, whose kosher Napa vintages have graced the White House table.
I pulled off the road at the southern end of the trail and drove up a long, narrow driveway bordered by 12 acres of Hagafen’s cabernet sauvignon.
I came to a stop at the winery’s tasting room with its adjoining, wood-covered patio, which doubles as a sukkah.
Weir and his wife and I chatted under the patio, where chimes sounded in the cool breeze and the afternoon light reflected off mosaic-covered glass tables designed by Irit, an artist and Chinese-trained acupuncturist.
Weir was dressed in his trademark work jeans and blue T-shirt, while his wife was wearing a peach-colored dress with a contrasting purple sweater.
“The whole image of kosher wines has changed,” Weir began. “Kosher wines are every bit as good as wines that are not made kosher. There’s very little distinction anymore… .”
The changing image of kosher wine is something Weir knows well — he has been producing it for some 32 years and has witnessed the industry grow and broaden its appeal to ever-widening audiences.
He first noticed a shift in taste from sweet to dry wines in the Jewish and non-Jewish world in the late 1970s.
What’s more, a major Jewish winery had begun to put corks in all its bottles, “and that had some slight significance that they wanted to have their wines … taken more seriously, [and] that meant that eventually they would have to continue to improve the quality of the wines.”
Perhaps the crowning achievement in the acceptance of kosher wine in America is at White House dinners, where the most recent serving and the one for which Weir is “most proud, extremely proud” was last June, when Israeli President Shimon Peres received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
For that event, the White House served Hagafen’s 2008 Pinot Noir and its 2010 Roussanne, a white grape variety originally from the Rhone region of France that was harvested from vineyards in Lodi, Calif., a small community near Sacramento.
The roussanne wine, Weir said, is “straw-colored … with somewhat of an aroma of cut hay that would make it a little less vegetative than sauvignon blanc but a little bit more vegetative than chardonnay, with the body and the … weight more like chardonnay. It’s a nice intermediate wine, and it fits very well with fish.”
There have been other noteworthy examples of Hagafen wines being served at the White House.
In 1981, when President Ronald Reagan hosted Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Hagafen’s 1980 Winery Lake Vineyard Johannisberg Riesling was on the table.
And at a White House celebration last May marking Jewish-American Heritage Month, guests enjoyed the winery’s 2007 Napa Valley Brut Cuvee.
That particular event had special sports-related significance for Weir because one of his baseball heroes was in attendance.
“I was really happy,” he said, “because the event was the one that [baseball legend] Sandy Koufax got invited to, and he doesn’t come out and appear very often. … I haven’t gotten him to the winery yet, but that would be a long-term goal.”
Hagafen produces 100,000 bottles of wine a year, which it markets around the world and through its wine club and tasting room. The winery also produces cabernet franc, syrah, and white riesling.
It also has two other labels: a reserve called Prix, which is a play on the Hebrew blessing over wine, “pree hagafen” (fruit of the vine) and Don Ernesto, a jovial reference to Weir himself as Don Ernesto.
“Don Ernesto is our fun or pop-priced, consumer-oriented wine,” he said.
Weir’s connection to Israel goes back to 1973, when he worked on Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan near Haifa and began to re-establish his agricultural roots.
“I’ve always been associated or attached to the agricultural elements in the Bible,” he said. “I’ve always thought, well, that’s very cool, we have these holidays that are agricultural.”
When he returned to the United States, he settled in Napa and went to work for Domaine Chandon winery, eventually attending the prestigious UC Davis department of viticulture and enology, where he earned a viticulture degree.
The next step was starting a kosher winery.
“I was young,” he said, “and I thought to myself, ‘What type of wine can I make to contribute to the world of wine and the community of wineries in Napa Valley?’
“So when I saw many of my counterparts who were of Italian origin or Swiss origin … making wine and … evoking wonderful cultural pride amongst their peers, I thought, well, let us see how we can do that ourselves.
“There isn’t such a thing as Jewish wine, but there’s kosher wine. I really didn’t know all I was getting into, so to speak, in the world of kashrut, but I’ve learned. … Since then, many other wineries have joined … around the world.”
Around the same time, Weir met his Israeli wife, Irit, who had moved to Los Angeles with her family after doing her service in the Israel army.
On a subsequent trip to South America, she happened to meet someone who told her about a woman doing acupuncture in Berkeley, so she moved to Berkeley and took a job with her.
At the same time, Irit became “very impressed with the body-mind connection and also the idea of healing without medication” and decided to study acupuncture at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco.
From there, she went to China for a master’s degree in acupuncture and worked in a hospital in Guangzhou for four months.
In the early years of the winery, she was more involved in its operation. These days, even with her acupuncture practice, she manages to make joint decisions about Hagafen with Ernie.
The couple visits Israel every year, and Irit recently gave a workshop at an international acupuncture congress there, noting that Israel has “wonderful healers.”
In the last 10 years, she said, “it’s amazing” to see the growth and acceptance of acupuncture in Israel, where there is what she termed a “blend” of medical approaches, including acupuncture.
By contrast, she noted, “there’s more of a struggle” between doctors and acupuncturists in the United States.
As we sat around one of her mosaic tile tables, she explained that she produces her own tiles and also works with tempered glass.
For some years, Weir did consulting with Israeli wineries and there is still some interchange going on.
“Some [Israeli winemakers] come [to Napa] because of the kosher aspect,” he said, “but some come because they know that in Napa we’re on the cutting edge of New World viticulture and winemaking, and they come to see what kind of small, little piece of information they might find about a new variety, a new clone of a variety, a new technique … just sort of what’s happening.”
For Weir, this Israeli connection means that he has really come full circle — with winemakers now traveling to Hagafen Cellars from Israel, the country where he first renewed his agricultural roots.
For more information about the winery, visit www.hagafen.com. The winery is located at 4160 Silverado Trail, in Napa.
George Medovoy writes about travel at www.PostcardsForYou.com.