Elliot and Micheal’s Excellent Northern California Kosher Wine Adventure

If you look at the kosher wineries in California, the majority exist here in Northern California. Down south you have the famous Herzog Winery in Oxnard, CA, and a pair of wineries that I call ADS (Agua Dulce & Shirah), for the Agua Dulce Winery and Shirah Winery, both housed in the Agua Dolce Winery. While this is great, Northern California one-ups them with Four gates Winery, Hagafen Winery, Covenant Winery, and the Brobdingnagian Winery. Of course you can actually combine all the California kosher wineries (except for Herzog) into Herzog’s parking lot (a nod to Disneyland and Disney World).

Well the adventure started late last week, when Elliot (Eli) and Michael (Yoav) both visited Benyo and Four gates Winery without me – go figure! However, on Monday I met both Elliot and Michael at my house and we started driving our way north. For this fabulous adventure our chariot of choice was a lovely Buick La Sabre, which before you start laughing, is a crazy and sick car to drive and drive-in. This car was appointed in soft leather, all kinds of toys and warning systems and a great navigation system that got us to and from our desired destinations, in comfort and style, and on time.

The first stop was Covenant Winery where we were going to meet Jeff Morgan and Jonathan Hajdu, Winemaker and associate winemaker of Covenant Winery, respectively. When we arrived, Mr. Hajdu greeted us and we had the chance to taste a few barrel samples of some 2011 Brobdingnagian Wines. We started with some lovely black and blue 2011 Brobdingnagian Syrah, with nice spice, root beer, and good vanilla finish. From there we moved on to a taste of the 2011 Brobdingnagian Grenache, which keeps on giving – what a lovely wine indeed! With the 2011 season being so miserable, to get a wine so redolent and ripe is quite impressive! The nose was rich and ripe with more blue and black fruit, but this time more ripe and sweet and yet controlled with good extraction, sweet cherry drop, watermelon, and citrus peel. Then Jonathan let us have a taste of some wonderful 2011 Brobdingnagian Bordeaux Blend, which stood out to me so well because the fruit was as sweet as the Grenache and maybe even more than the Syrah, yet so perfectly controlled with a nice core of red and black fruit, nice graphite and minerality, and along with spice and green notes that really balance this whole wine out – Bravo!

As we tasted the blend the Gartenbergs arrived, a couple from Juneau, Alaska! As we played a game of Jewish Geology, Jeff Morgan arrived and we were off to the races! Elliot fell right into place with Mr. Morgan and started peppering him with questions while Mr. Morgan was more than happy to play orator on all subjects of wine making, but of course with a strong preference to all things Covenant, and why not! The wines are wonderful, the company continues to grow and expand their line year after year! Look for a full-blown article on all things Covenant.

As the day progressed I realized that though Elliot and Michael; may not be related by blood they are connected by something more powerful than that – friendship. Though they were away from the office they balanced their time between copious amounts of wine, family, and business. Michael would finish Eli’s questions and answer him in a tongue I understand, but in a language that might have well been Japanese. It is always fun to take in the energy of other people who I may be in close proximity to, because energy in whatever form it may be – is contagious and gives me a chance to really focus on the topic or subject matter at hand. In our case that would have been wine-talk or Japanese for the most part. Anyway, as Elliot and Michael were talking with Mr. Morgan, I thought it would be a great time to sneak away and let them have some 1-on-1 time with Mr. Morgan and it gave me time to bend the ear of Jon Hajdu which is always a ball, as Jon is an honest, fun-loving, crazy intelligent, and highly enlightened winemaker, which always makes for an entertaining time.

On another aside, I have been around and known far too many jaded people in my life, blessedly, I have never come to that, and I found real enjoyment watching people show real enjoyment. It was great watching Elliot and Michael wide-eyed as Jon climbed up the barrel tower to steal some wine from the barrels for a few more wine tastings, using the clever bent wine thief. Having been to many wine and barrel tastings, we always take for granted the effort it takes to close those barrels back up that meet the specs of the OU and OK! Each barrel bung must be sealed with an intricate bung tie down, essentially making the barrel tamper-proof, which is required when kosher wine is stored in a non-kosher winery. Covenant rents space in a winery that resides in the Industrial section of Napa Valley. In a normal kosher winery, all that is needed is a safe tamper-proof door, however, if others share the space, the tamper-proof ability must be replicated to each barrel – which is a real pain! So many thanks to Mr. Hajdu and Mr. Morgan!

We were first treated to a glass of the 2011 Lavan, Covenant’s Chardonnay wine that is now being sourced from a different vineyard than its inaugural release in 2008. Though the fruit from the 2008 vintage was highly exceptional and unique, this vintage may well be their second best vintage, better than the 2009 or 2010. The fruit is intense and the nice oak and butter notes are controlled and yield nicely to the redolent fruit. It tastes much better than when we were there earlier in the year, which is fair as the wine is progressing nicely in barrel. We then enjoyed the crazy nice 2011 Red C, a majority blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and – brace for it – Petite Sirah! YEP! It is sick, with lovely blue fruit that tempers the usually insane herbaceous notes on the Red C and the heavy tannin that follows. Really a nice wine indeed, and a pattern you can expect in future years, as Mr. Morgan said it is a blend that he really likes. The Red C, was followed by the next wine in line, the 2011 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that screams Cabernet! The wine is black and aggressive, yet supple and soft, while all the while showing lovely layers and concentration of red and black fruit. The finish has hints of sea salt, cloves, rosemary, along with nice green notes, and loving chocolate. This wine has moved since the last barrel tasting we had and one that I predicated in my earlier notes, though this current state of affairs feels like it may well be very close to the final product.

Finally, we were treated to the fruit of Mr. Morgan’s cajoling – the 2011 Covenant Solomon Cabernet Sauvignon, Lot 70! The name Solomon comes from Leslie’s Hebrew name and the number 70 is an ode to the container number in which the wine was fermented. The number 70 just happened to also be the numerical value of the wine in Hebrew (Yayin)! The 2011 edition of the Solomon tasted green and mineral based with heavy spice and herb. The mouth was full-bodied and richly extracted with concentrated fruit, cassis, and blackberry. The finish was long with a crazy good chocolate vanilla followed by a dollop of citrus zest – quite a nice wine.

We did not get a chance to taste the wines that make up the newly created Landsman Wine Club, we did taste it the last time we were there, and since the wines were just bottled, it was probably a good idea that we did not taste them on this trip. The last time we tasted them from barrel the Pinot Noir was close to Four Gates Territory, which is saying a fair amount. The Syrah was crazy nice with a BAM of blueberry, something that is impossible to miss, followed by rich blackberry, roasted meat, tar, rich espresso, chocolate, and vanilla, a unique aroma combination. The mouth is aggressive and full-bodied and one layered with black and blue fruit – Bravo! The Zinfandel was not having a great day that we were there, so I look forward to tasting it when it arrives next year to the club members.

On our way out from the winery, it was great to give my proper respect to Jeff Morgan and bid him and Jon an adieu, as we left for a short trip north into the southern edge of Napa Valley – Hagafen Winery. I had previously visited Hagafen recently in a trip up north, so I was thinking most of the wines would be repeats, but there were many new releases and some wines that I flat-out missed last time. That is not hard to believe given the vast number of labels that Hagafen releases every year! We tasted some 17 wines this time, and though the guys had been drinking all the way through both the Covenant and Hagafen wines, they were miraculously quite sprite!

As we drove up to Hagafen, through the long driveway that bisects the Weir Family Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard in half, we came to the parking lot where we chowed down on a quick-lunch and then took in the stunning beauty of fruit laden Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard! The fruit was literally pulling the shoots down – quite beautiful. According to Kit, the resident manager of the tasting room – the fruit was to be pulled in the next week or two! Wow what a difference a year makes! Last year, Napa was pulling grapes in November – playing Russian roulette with Mother Nature and their grapes! This year, the grapes are begging to be pulled earlier than most good years! In the lovely tasting room awards and wines surround you and on the tasting bar itself, there were some ripe picked berries from the very vines that surround the winery and tasting room! Having worked with Benyo and Four Gates, I have had the chance to taste all kind of berries throughout the ripening process of vines, but it was great to see Michael and Elliot enjoying them as well!

Anyway, as we entered we told Kit that we were here to see Ernie Weir, the owner and winemaker of Hagafen Winery. In case you missed my long article on all things Hagafen, I recommend you reading it, as I will only be augmenting it here, and not repeating it. As we were driving up, I commented on how much crazy respect I have for Mr. Weir, to create a kosher winery in America, making non-Manischewitz wine – without any assurance that there would be a market for such wine in the 80s. Remember this was before, Yarden Winery, Tishbi, or even Herzog, or the now defunct Gan Eden. Think about it, they created a winery before there was a market or before there was even a clear message that one was desired. Of course, to Mr. Weir, in 1979 he created Hagafen Winery, to be a top-notch winery in the Napa Valley, irrespective of its kosher status. When Mr. Weir joined us, I told this to him directly, and Elliot backed me up, to me it is a badge of honor that Mr. Weir can wear proudly, along with his many wine awards!

So, with a bar full of kosher wine, it was time to start plowing through the wines, which we were more than happy to oblige. For notes, look forward for a Hagafen article soon. As we plowed through the new and still available older white wines, Mr. Weir arrived and I was happy to introduce Michael and Elliot to him. As we were talking Mr. Weir and enjoying his wines, Mr. Weir pointed to the spittoon and told Elliot that the bucket is his friend. Without missing a beat, Elliot replied that “it was not my exactly my cup of tea” - which elicited a nice round of laughter and clearly helped break the ice in the room. The tasting room was hopping and as we came in there was a group of French-speaking folks who were making their presence felt by their actions and voices. Now, a wine tasting room is not a library, requiring indoor voices, but still, a certain level of decorum is required. Now before anyone starts spouting idioms like; “That is the pot calling the kettle black” remember that I am always on my best behavior when I am out and about in the real world! Now I am not a killjoy and if they want to get lit – that is their business, but when they literally lit up – that was more than I could take. Soon, after the Frenchies came and ordered their last round and paid for some wine, they lit up a cigar, right OUTSIDE the tasting room! That is as heinous an act as walking into a tasting with aftershave or perfume – NASTY! By the way, I was quite vocal about this, and when Kit agreed and added the perfume line, Elliot once again did not miss a beat, and stated “yeah we have not showered for days just to be safe” - I guess you had to be there!

As we finished through all the wines, the crowd grew and thinned, ebbed and flowed, with the only constant being the three of us drinking through the line of wines. Like I said before, in two hours we tasted some 20 wines and we did not even get through all of them, leaving most of the sweet wines for next time! To try to talk through all the wines here would be impossible, but look for a longer article on the Hagafen tasting, but I will try to quickly give you the clear winners and things to look. First, there is the new 2011 Hagafen Pinot Noir! Yes! Hagafen Pinot is back and it is a winner! I am not sure if it quite reaches Benyo’s Pinots or the Landsman Pinot, but it is quite respectable in its own right! There is also the 2010 Prix Chardonnay – nice with good butter, butterscotch, summer fruits, and enough acid to bring the thing together. The 2006 Prix Merlot was sick, with crazy rich and bright fruit, nice cedar, and soft tannins that make the entire mouth a true pleasure. The new 2008 Syrah reminds me of the Landsman Syrah, bright and sweet blue fruit, nice spice, earth, all wrapped in a mouth of concentrated fruit and finished with nice chocolate and tobacco. There is also a new 2009 Cabernet Franc – which while it lacks the lovely green notes, it has more red fruit, toast, coffee, and lovely baking spices on the finish – bravo! Of course there is the wonderful 2008 Prix Cabernet Franc, along with the lovely new 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon with rich, ripe, and expressive black fruit, along with the nice 2006 MJT Cabernet Sauvignon. Also, do not forget to check out the 2% residual sugar Devoto vineyard White Riesling, which is utterly divine! Bravo as usual and here is too many more return trips to this lovely winery surrounded by the rolling hills of the romantic Napa Valley!

The entire visit was crazy fun, the weather was perfect and the personnel (Kit, Mr. Weir, and the rest of the staff) were so accommodating and considerate – really quite nice. As we bid our adieu, solely because the tasting room was closing down :-), and got back to the car, Michael was still in wonder about how nice and professional the staff was – not withstanding the crazy and wasted folks that came and left the tasting room! As we were pulling out, flashbacks of third grade flew into my head, as Michael starting in on Elliot because he seemingly stole his line about the spittoon, once again, Elliot fired back with a great – “Come on the Jews left Egypt with flour and water and did they turn that into a Croissant? NO! It is all about the execution!” Loved it!

As Napa Valley passed through our rear view mirror, Michael asked if we could make a pit stop to get some cola or water. I remembered a 7-11 existed around there, but we stopped at a Raley’s and Michael asked what we wanted, I wanted a diet Coke and Elliot asked for some water. Well, Michael returned with some diet Pepsi and I looked at him in wonderment, really? Like I would not know the difference? Before, I could blurt out, Elliot – with comic-like perfect timing threw down the gauntlet – “really you think that David’s palate would not know the difference” – like I said it was a relaxed and enjoyable car ride!

As we headed south to the City’s (San Francisco to Bay Area folk) younger twin brother - Oakland, we were looker for more than a place to eat dinner. Actually, dinner had been packed into the cooler in the morning and had been prepared at the Jerusalem Grill and Bar, a wonderful restaurant and the only meat restaurant in the Bay Area that I would be found dead or alive in, enough said. We were heading to Jonathan Hajdu’s house, where we were going to enjoy dinner and a few of Jon’s wines. When you talk about the Brobdingnagian Winery – the first image that should pop into your head is what Jon put on his wine label, a giant elephant on a unicycle. What? Sure, Brobdingnagian wines are massive and complex wines that are perfectly balanced – just like an elephant on a unicycle – need I say more? Indeed the first time I ever had a Brob wine, the 2007 Brobdingnagian Grenache, it was an eye opening experience to say the least. The wine was massive yet controlled, sweet fruit yet not overripe like some Spanish and Israeli wines, balanced and beautiful, with good extraction and nice oak influences! Really quite impressive! Every Brob since than has never disappointed, but neither have they all been that massive. Truth be told, that is why Mr. Hajdu has two labels, the massive wines with the Brobdingnagian label and the more calm and elegant wines with the Besomim and Makor labels. Look soon for a complete breakdown of all the 2010 Brob wines.

We arrived to Mr. Hajdu’s house a few minutes late and we quickly laid out the food for the evening, that Jon was super kind to warm up while we did the afternoon prayer (a very late but perfectly legal version of it). We then started tasting the first of four wines, the Makom (note for that can be found here), along with the 2010 Brobdingnagian Grenache, the 2010 Petite Verdot, and a bottle of a special blend that Mr. Hajdu did for a client, a 50/50 blend of the Petite Verdot (PV) and the Petite Sirah (PS)! All of them were lovely but tasting the PV before the PV/PS blend gave me a real chance to see what the PS did to the PV wine. Where the PV was lovely and green in nature in both the nose and the mouth, the PV/PS removed the green notes from the mouth and finish all together while still keeping the perfumed green notes in the nose. It was quite a lovely wine to taste and well worth looking into finding a bottle of this custom crush for yourself. The meal, the hospitality, and the awesome wines were a fantastic way to close out this mad kosher wine and food adventure.

Like I have said a few times, look for full notes on the previously mentioned wineries. Till then, I hope you get a chance to find and enjoy the few wines I pointed out, Benyo’s Four Gates Wines (Check out the new 2008 Merlot – FILTHY), and the entire line of Brob wines! Elliot and Michael – I hope we get a chance to this again next year! Till then stay thirsty!

Posted on August 23, 2012, in Kosher Red Wine, Kosher White Wine, Kosher Wine, Wine, Winery Visit and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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