Hagafen Winery Visit

The day started out as a lovely and sunny Sunday, the last one of 2009.  We took a long and enjoyable last look at massive Clear Lake, which our hotel wrapped around, and headed south on CA-20.  As we closed into Lower Lake, we were supposed to continue south on CA-29, but plans are just that – plans!  Instead, we took the road less traveled, the Knoxville-Berryessa Road (lovely pictures of the road linked here from a motorcycle rider).  It is so called because, it is a road that runs through government-owned land, counted some 5 or so structures from Lower Lake until Berryessa Lake.  For some 30 or more miles, at a rate of maybe 35 mph, we saw no one – period.  Truly a road less traveled.  Finally, and blessedly, right before Lake Berryessa, we came upon a truck, and two folks fishing (actually, I think that was not public knowledge :-), and they told us where we were.  I guess this teaches us, that if we do not want a GPS or expensive phone contract (with GPS on it), and instead want to go retro, we should act retro, and carry around a map or two!

Well after a fair amount of driving, we came to the Hagafen Winery, a bit late, at a not so warm time of day.  It was some 40 degrees outside, and we went inside to meet Josh Stein, Hagafen Winery’s Brand Manager.  I stated the temperature, because Josh started the winery tour outside where every vintage starts – in the vineyard of course!  I asked about the way the vines are managed, and Josh quickly replied that the vines have been managed using CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) rules for many years now, but they are now in the second year of their CCOF certification, and hope to be certified within a year.  Of course, as we have spoken about this topic many times, the wine will NOT be organic, but the vineyard will be.  There are three full time employees, Ernie Weir, the owner and founder of Hagafen Winery, who is also the manager of the winery.  The other two full time employees, manage the winery’s most important other asset, the vineyards.  The winery started some 32 years ago, after Weir had made wine, at a custom crush site in Napa, CA, for a couple of years.  He decided to start making kosher wine.  He started his production with 25 cases and a single SKU.  Today, Hagafen makes some 8000 cases of wine, under three labels, and 30 or more SKU.  Hagafen started with no vineyards, and then in 1986 they bought the land that the winery sits on presently.  The vineyard in those days was planted with Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc, but it was replanted in 1997 with what stands there today, 12 acres of clone 7 and clone 337 Cabernet Sauvignon, named the Weir Family Vineyard II.  The Weir Family Vineyard III came online later with 9 acres, 3 acres of Cabernet Franc, 3 acres of Syrah, and 3 acres of White Riesling.  Many of Hagafen’s wines are labeled as Estate Bottled, though they are not actually on their estate at all, as seen here on Hagafen’s vineyard map.  They source grapes from vineyards as far south as Fagan Creek, and as far north as Soleil and Moskowite vineyards.  So, how are they allowed to use the term “Estate Bottled” on their labels?  Well, the rules are a bit more simplistic, though not well known.  As described here on the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the Estate Bottled tag line has three requirements to be added to your label.

  1. The vineyard must either be owned by the winery or under the winery’s 100% control
  2. The vineyard to be in the same viticultural area
  3. The grapes are crushed, fermented, aged, and bottled in the winery or on the winery grounds

Hagafen has continued to expand its own vineyards, while perfecting their relationship and processes with its many vineyard partners.  They have long term contracts with the vineyards, and have recently taken control of many of the coveted blocks within the upper echelon of Napa Valley vineyards.

Stein repeated often that Hagafen is not just about wine, but about making the wine that the grape is willing to give you.  Recently, there has been a push to make the grapes/vineyard bend to the needs or wants of the wine world.  For example, America’s love affair with overripe and fruity wines has pushed many a winery to bend the grape to their will.  Instead, according to Stein, the mantra at Hagafen is to create wines that show the fruit as they are, and as such, there is variation in the vintages of the same varietal, year by year.  The vines leaves are hand pruned in a two step process, and are dappled, to keep the sunshine at bay, and not create fruit bomb wines.  When we arrived at the end of the year, the vines in front of the winery were already pruned quite nicely.  The vines, as stated before, were replanted in 1997, the winery building, which is pictured above, was built in 2000, and the lovely tasting room was completed in 2002, to imitate a Mediterranean/Tuscan styled tasting room.  As we spoke about the vineyard, the winery, and its history, one could only be in awe of the persistence in living one’s dream and persevering though all of life’s obstacles.  When Weir bought the vineyard, Stein says that they were not sure that they could actually make it.  They put everything they had saved up, into the vineyard, but it was the correct thing to do.  Sure, you can hope that the vineyard managers see eye to eye with one’s vineyard canopy or maintenance beliefs, but as time has shown, there is no assurance, unless you control the land and the vines themselves.  So, it was a logical yet terrifying step to take for a man and a winery so passionate about the vine and the wine in equal proportion.

Looking around the vineyard, one sees the requisite fans (much like the one pictured here), to keep the air flowing consistently throughout the vineyard.  Frost, hot pockets or cold pockets can doom a vineyard.  The science of vineyard management has truly improved in ways beyond one’s imagination.  However, the basic rules of air movement, drip lines, and frost aversion have stayed much the same for last decade or so.  The massive fans can help warm up the vineyard when needed, or cool them down at night.  They run automatically, via temperature controls, and can be manually turned off and on as well.  What people tend to forget about these vineyards and these fans, are that people live in Napa Valley!  Actually there were for sale signs on homes less than a few hundred feet from Hagafen Winery.  It is one thing when sprinklers or drip lines go on at 3 AM, to help warm the vines up a few degrees, thereby preventing them from freezing.  However, when one of those massive fans goes on, it sounds like a B 52 bomber is in your backyard!  I can only imagine what the first timer’s think, when one of those fans go off!  Rumor has it that there was a newcomer to Napa, who heard the fans go on in the night, got up in the dark, and thought that Napa Valley was being attacked by lots of low flying planes! While it does sound like a B-52 is in the back yard, I hope that they do not actually leave the ground!

Once more, looking around, it hit me with a vengeance; this is a winery that was tiny in 1979.  It saw an opportunity in the then nascent kosher wine market.  At that time they were the ONLY kosher wine producer in all of the USA, other than Manischewitz.  Of course, there were other wineries in France and around the world (Yarden and Tishbi were not yet in existence) producing kosher wine, but not many that were obviously visible to the common wine consumer.  Further, it was not even clear that there was a market for a kosher winery that produced high end noble wines.  Gan Eden winery would start in the 80s, along with Herzog, Yarden, and Tishbi.  I believe in many ways the fact that they were out there first, was a huge win for them.  Their market was not set on the kosher wine market, but rather on the high end wine consumer, be he a kosher wine consumer, or not!  This is the going theme when you talk with Stein, when he quite correctly and proudly tells me that that their wines have been served at the White House (starting in the Reagan administration) some 40 or more times.  They took their fledgling business to the next level, when they bought vineyards and created relationships with many of the best and coveted vineyards in Napa, thereby locking them up, and assuring them of a consistent grape quality.  Finally, they added the winery property, the tasting room, and now a first and third wine line, to help round out their portfolio, and make sure that no wine consumer is left behind.  This of course means an added risk, as they need to continue to find consumers, but they temper this new found opportunity, with smaller batches, and more marketing.  This is still a family run business, even after 30 years in the business.  Many a successful Napa Valley wineries, in recent time, has been snatched up by big brother.  Stein stressed that the winery has kept to its roots, even in the face of growing costs for land, grapes and skilled laborers, because of the free money styling of large corporations.  In a way, the recession has helped Napa valley to return to its roots, and forgo the lavish and over the top life styles and impact.  All told, quite a story for a winery that started the kosher wine theme, and continues to show its prowess and market leading skill and capability.

We then moved on to the winery, but I had to ask about the question, how can Hagafen boil their wine, and still make such a great product?  What – they boil their wine?  Why would anyone boil wine?  Well, the kosher wine market boils their wine to make it mevushal.  By making the wine mevushal, they can see their wins to Jews to be used at all occasions, where Jews and Non-Jews may be found.  Hagafen has been kosher since its introduction in 1979, and continues to be so still today.  Hagafen started, and was for many years, under the supervision of the KORC, Rabbi Traub out of San Francisco, and was not boiling his wine.  In the later 80s, under pressure from Herzog, Weinstock, and Gan Eden, they moved to the Triangle K supervision, which was not a high grade supervision, even at that time, but was a nationally recognized supervision, and they too did not require them to boil their wine.   However, as the kosher wine market started to take off in the 90s, and with Hagafen on the outside looking into the Orthodox kosher wine consumer (that did not accept the Triangle K); they switched to the OU kosher supervision.  OU required that they boil their wine, as they were still at the crush facility.  Once they moved into their new home in 2000, they continued to mevushal their wines (even though they did not require to), as the wines could then be bought by Jews for ceremonies that included non-Jews in it.  Stein was more than open and explained that they do of course boil their wine, but they do so very quickly and very EARLY in the process.  Hagafen and Herzog are the two big boys in the mevushal business.  Their wines are some of the few that can handle the early boil, and yet continue to age and improve in the bottle.  Of course, the true humor is that, mevushal is a loophole created by the Rabbis during the temple times, to limit Jews from interacting with non-Jews, because the quality was so bad, and no self respecting person would drink boiled wine!  Now that technology and processes have improved mevushal wine quality, and made them almost equal to their non-boiled brethren, I wonder if those Rabbis would still allow the mevushal loophole.  Tangent aside, many wineries in France boil their grape must to remove the green notes from their wines that are so prevalent in the sun depraved Bordeaux and Burgundy regions.  Stein showed us the “mevushaler” that is capable of taking the wine from its barrel temperature to a boiling point, and then back to the barrel temperature, in less than 2 seconds.  That was one really cool piece of hardware, and clearly not what they had 20 years ago, let alone 3 thousand years ago, when mevushal was enacted.  After, showing us that, I asked where the bottling machine was.  The answer was the same one that many wineries use; they use a mobile bottling unit.  The mobile bottling unit is a great idea, it lowers the winery’s upfront cost, and it can be done in a quick and complete manner, quite a nice piece of technology.  Of course, the mobile bottler needs to be cleaned and “kashered” (made kosher), by pushing boiling water through the whole system, which Stein says they do not care.  As long as you do not break their unit, they could care less.

As we walked through the barrel room and took in the smells of fresh ripe fruit and oak, we started to discuss the business of wine, the Hagafen wine portfolio, and their wine clubs.  In 1979 Hagafen started their winery with a single label.  They added wines to the main line portfolio, but stayed true to their line and added grew the SKU, by adding grapes, vineyards, and varietals.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling may have been how Hagafen started, but they quickly added many more noble varietals, such as Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot, and Chardonnay.  In 2004, Hagafen had the chance to lock down some wonderful vineyards, and to acquire the grapes that would allow them to add a reserve level wine to their portfolio, that goes by the name Prix.  The black label has an image of the new wine tasting enter on it, along with the vineyard from where the grapes are sourced.  The Prix line started with the label seen here, and has grown to as many as 8 or more varietal.  In 2006 they added yet another label, this one being the lower level line of the portfolio, Don Ernesto.  There are three wines in the Don Ernesto line.  A Vin Gris Rosé, a white wine mélange called Collage, and a red wine mélange called Ernesto.  The line is not advertised as being kosher (though it is of course), is only available at the winery, and its two mélange’s makeup are a closely kept secret, that I could not pry from Josh, no matter how hard or persuasively I tried.  But more than anything the final line in the portfolio is more about being fun and effervescent with the wines, both from the colorful labels and website, to the styling of the wines.  Please do not take that as a slight or even think that these wines are not ready to handle your food, on the contrary, these are wines that are “entry level”, but far surpass the common level wines of most wineries today.

Hagafen may well have had the earliest kosher wine club in the entire world, but for sure in America at least.  They started their wine club in 1981, once again showing true entrepreneurship in the kosher wine business.  When they added the Prix line, they added a new wine club that would best showcase the reserve wines as well.  With the three lines securely cemented, a growing number of varietals, unique desert wines, a history that many a Napa Valley winery would be envious of, and a winemaker in Weir that is passionate about not only the wine, but the presentation as well.  With where Hagafen is today, along with its kosher supervision and their world class mevushal process, Hagafen is poised to continue to create world class kosher and mevushal wines that are enjoyed the world around by kosher and non-kosher minded people alike.  When asked why Mr. Weir decided to make his winery kosher in 1979?  Stein replied, that Ernie got into wine because he likes to grow things–that’s what’s always been a primary interest of his; he went for wine because he grew up in a household where wine was regularly served, not seen as something saved only for special occasions.  He went with kosher because at the time, Napa was making a name for itself (this was post -1976, after all), but no one was making wine with a kosher aspect to it.  Ernie felt then and still feels today that the religious aspects of wine, its relationship to the core of Judaism make it an important product to be involved with.

We would like to truly thank Josh Stein, Ernie Weir, Lola the cat, the frog, and the rest of the Hagafen staff for taking the time to show us around, explain the winery’s mantra to us, and the chance to taste many wonderful wines to boot.  Thanks so much, and best wishes for further successes in the future.  The wines notes follow below, in the order that the wines were tasted:

2007 Prix Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Moskowite Ranch: Block 53, Napa Valley – Score: A-
The nose on this light gold colored wine is popping with honeysuckle, papaya, grapefruit, and pineapple.  The mouth on this medium bodied wine has fresh papaya, pineapple, and honeysuckle.  The mid palate has bright acidity, oak, and cut grass.  The finish is long and layered with bright fruit, oak, and cut grass.

2008 Don Ernesto Vin Gris Rose, Napa Valley – Score: B+
The nose on this intense rose colored wine, is bright with raspberry, cherry, delightful fresh strawberry aromas, and a bit of floral notes to boot.  The mouth on this light to medium bodied wine is refreshing with rich cherry, strawberry, and raspberry.  The mid palate is acidic, with a touch of spice.  The finish is long and lovely with concentrated red fruit and a touch of tart cherries.

2008 Don Ernesto’s Collage White Table Wine, North Coast – Score: B+
The nose on this straw colored wine has honeysuckle, grapefruit, rich papaya, peach, and apricot.  The mouth on this medium to full bodied wine has rich peach, apricot, and grapefruit.  The mid palate is balanced with acidity and fruit.  The finish is long with peach and a touch of oak.  The wine is rich and bright, and a great wine for a hot summer day.

2006 Don Ernesto Crescendo!, Napa Valley – Score: B+ – A-
The nose on this dark garnet colored wine is hopping with rich raspberry, a hint of blackberry, kirsch cherry, and oak.  The mouth on this medium to full bodied wine is concentrated with soft tannins, rich cherry and raspberry.  The mid palate is balanced with acid and integrated tannins.  The finish is long with more cherry, chocolate and a hint of leather.  This is quite a nice bottle of wine for any wine line, let alone the lowest one.  This wine easily stands above other starting line wins of other wineries.

2008 Hagafen Pinot Noir, Napa Valley – Score: B+ – A-
The nose on this dark ruby colored wine is hopping with cherry, raspberry, kirsch, violet, oak, and smoke.  The mouth on this medium bodied wine is filled with raspberry, strawberry, and soft tannins.  The mid palate is acidic with oak and light tannins.  The finish is long with integrated tannins, acid, spice, pepper, and oak.  A nice Pinot Noir that will pair well with lamb and roasted fowl.

2007 Hagafen Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley (96% Cab Franc, 4% Merlot) – Score: A-
This is Hagafen’s second release of a single varietal Cabernet Franc, the other one being the 1996 vintage.  We really loved the 1996 vintage, but this one was even better, though it has been around 10 years since we last tasted it.  The nose on this dark garnet to black colored wine showed a bit of floral notes, along with a bunch of rich and ripe raspberry, black cherry, plum, and spicy oak.  The mouth on this full bodied wine is filled with plum, raspberry, and black cherry in a concentrated package that keeps coming at you.  The mid palate is packed with balancing acidity, tobacco, spicy oak, and nice tannins.  The finish is long with chocolate, fig, vanilla, rich ripe fruit, spicy oak, and pepper.  Quite a lovely Cabernet Franc that will age well for at least a few more years.

2005 Hagafen Prix Mélange, Napa Valley – Score: A
This is one of those classical WOW wines, a wine that keeps coming at you from the time that you smell it, through the time that you  fully consume it, quite a monster and a joy.  The nose on this black colored wine is packed with rich and ripe black fruit, blackberry, plum, cranberry, smoke, bacon, and rich chocolate, an aromatic vapor filled bottle of joy.  The mouth on this massive full bodied wine is crammed with layers upon layers of concentrated and rich blackberry, cassis, along with big tannins.  The mid palate flows off the mouth and carries the rich and concentrated black fruit, along with an acidic backbone, chocolate, more tannins, and leather.  The finish is long with rich fruit, chocolate, leather, and a shake or two of pepper and spice.

Posted on February 15, 2010, in Kosher Red Wine, Kosher Rose Wine, Kosher White Wine, Wine, Wine Tasting, Winery Visit and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

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