Four Gates Winery – a terroir driven kosher winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Four Gates Winery welcome sign and road up

I must start this posting by saying, I could not believe that I have waited this long to write an update to my previous postings on the Four Gates Winery. I did post about the time I crashed the Alice Feiring visit to Four Gates, which is almost fully documented in the last chapter of her new book: Naked Wine, more on that when I do my write up on the book. I also posted many wine notes along the way. Still the last real post I did on my friend’s winery is almost 4 years ago! Are you kidding me?

Once again, I was driving up this time to see Benyamin Cantz, the winemaker, vineyard manager, and Numero Uno of Four Gates Winery, in the rolling hills of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. It was a beautiful winter day in February that felt like a spring day in Northern California, another lovely reason to live in NorCal. The drive to the winery winds through the twisting roads that crest and wrap around the Santa Cruz Mountains. By the time you arrive at the address of the winery, you will notice a Bruchim Habaim (translated loosely to mean blessed be those who are arriving) sign to the left and a driveway in front of you. As you look at the driveway that will take you to the top of the hill upon which the winery is perched, the thoughts of stairway to heaven cannot help but play in your head! The drive up the hill to the winery used to be a dirt road long ago, and with all the switchbacks and near vertical climbs, it dumbfounds me how Binyamin (and many others who lived on the hilltop) ever drove up and down that mountainside many times a day. Since then, the road has been paved and now by comparison, it feels like a highway. Once you have circumnavigated the circuitous drive to the top, the vineyard will be visible flanking the driveway from both the right and the left. The larger block of vines is on the right, but the Pinot and part of the Chardonnay are on the left.

The Four Gates Winery is owned, operated, run, and managed by a single man – Binyamin Cantz. He is the chief, the winemaker, along with being the CEO, and sole vineyard manager. Parenthetically, he is a man I am proud to call a friend and I state it here for full disclosure. He has people help him every so often but he is really the sole proprietor of Four Gates Winery. Binyamin has been making wine for some 30 years now, more as a home winemaker to start, but that turned into a real passion for wine some 20 years ago, when he planted the vineyard. The vineyard is planted on a lovely hillside with views (far away views) of the Pacific Ocean and parts of Santa Cruz. In 1997 he released his inaugural kosher vintage, which was a success, and to this day, the 1997 Merlot is still quite lovely, but growing long on the tooth.

I met Binyamin in his house where he was writing invoices for the new wines he is shipping out to his customers. In the world of wine clubs, Twitter, and Facebook, it is so refreshing (to me) to see a human take pen to paper to write an invoice! To say Benyamin is a renaissance man would be an understatement. He is an art major, a fantastic calligrapher, a great wine maker, a man with a vast knowledge of many things art and architecture related, and a man who can handle things ranging from fences to wells to piping, and anything else that the hilltop needs mending! Though, for the longest time he shied from computers and it took me forever to get him to buy a computer. Now he replies with email and keeps the website up to date with wine notes and thoughts – very cool.

Whenever, I am on up on the hill I cannot help but think back to the many times that the winery setting turns magical, as it did when I was at the shabbaton two years ago. It is also a lovely place to spend shabbos in quiet solitude. The hilltop is where a few other families live, but it is always quiet and demur, a very different setting than the hustle and bustle of the city down below. The house is a rustic home rebuilt recently with exposed roof beams and original wood floors. This same room has held 40-50 people, and it never ceases to amaze me how he can find the time to tend to his winery and do all the other things he does for the Santa Cruz community.

On another aside, Four Gates is a kosher winery that grows its own organic grapes. He has been making kosher wine from the very start, when in 1997 there was not much kosher wine out there. Sure, there was Hagafen Winery, Herzog Winery (not yet in its cool new digs), and Gan Eden Winery (which has since gone away), but no one else was making kosher wine from organic grapes back then in California or Israel, from what I can remember.

We walked over to the winery building to take some pictures and taste through the newly available wines, along with the wines that are aging in barrels. Binyamin built his winery with his own hands and it is quite an ingenious layout. The winery is built on a hillside with no direct exposure for the sun, as large mature trees surround it. The winery building has two floors. The top floor is where the crush and press occur for the wines and where the fermentation occurs for the red wines, the Chardonnay is fermented in barrels below (sur lie). It is also used for bottle labeling after they are filled downstairs, and is a general storage for previous year vintages. The ground floor is dug into the hillside and is cool in the hot summer days. This is the perfect place to let sleeping wine lie, and as such, it is the winery’s barrel room. After crush or press, Binyamin funnels the wine to the barrel room via gravity into the stainless steel settling tank. From there it can be pumped into any of the barrels or smaller tanks, for whatever the situation calls for. Once the particular varietal is finished living in its woodsy confines, the wine is blended in the tank before bottling.

It is impossible to talk about wine without talking about the grapes and the vineyard. At the time of this post, the vineyard is still being pruned and in need of many longer wet days. If you get the chance to meet Benyamin, you will see a man who is self deprecating, humble, and yet more than capable of creating a wine that will stir you to your core. This man never started off desiring to create wine, he fell into it, or maybe he was driven to it by a higher order. When Benyamin came to the hilltop, it was a quiet location in 1971, when he came to manage the area for his professor of art history – the late Mary Holmes. When he was on the hilltop mending fences, fixing buildings and the sort, there was another tenant that was growing marijuana, who had planted Chardonnay grapes, as cover crop! Benyamin started tending to the vines, and before he knew it, he was planting 3.5 acres of Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc vines. It was a serious leap of faith that turned out to be a blessing for the many fans of his wines.

Ask a winemaker and he will tell you that his job is 70% living in the vineyards, 20% working the wines, and 10% public relations. The numbers are not hard and fast rules, but the vast majority of the time is spent in the vineyards, even if they do not own the vines. Why? Because if the vineyard produces fruit that is not inline with the winemaker’s vision, then the wine itself will not be what the winemaker was hoping for. Simply said, it all starts in the vineyard and then you pray it ends well in the winery. Four Gates Winery is one of those truly rare places where the winemaker is the vineyard manager – the visions are fused into a single minded individual, whose passion and knowledge is focused on creating the best kosher wine possible, using organic grapes. Binyamin explains that he is one of the few kosher wineries in the world that grow his grapes organically, though that has grown to many more wineries in recent time. The vineyard is CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) certified. Also, the vines are dry farmed which creates fruit flavors that are bursting in the mouth. The objective is to maximize the sunlight on his grapes, while also keeping steadfast to the grape’s true nature. The vineyard is in the Santa Cruz Mountains at an elevation of 660 feet, where temperatures do not reach high extremes like in Lodi and Napa. Further, the evenings are quite cool in the summer, and fog is a common sight in the early morning or late evenings, this temperature variation helps to increase the fruit’s flavor. The vineyard is not tilled and is dry farmed which forces the vines to dig deep for their water.

Dry farming has many added benefits, one of which is that it creates wines that are intensely acidic and low in pH. The wines are very different from other wines on the market, which lack acidity and brightness. The first time you taste a Four Gates Wine the acidity can hit you and make you take notice. It is for this reason that many of Benyamin wines need to be held back until some of the acidity has melded with the wine’s other components, that then make for intensely enjoyable and rich wines. The rich acidity allows the wine to seemingly age for a longer period of time. I have enjoyed many Chardonnays from 1996 that have been spectacular, rich with butter, round in the mouth, butterscotch, and still tart fruit that makes you wonder why others do not make wine like this?

Sunset overlooking the ocean and Four Gates Winery VineyardWith all the noise and backlash surrounding natural wines, you might think it is a complicated and difficult subject. Truly, natural or naked wine, as Alice Feiring calls it, is simply wine that has no extra additives. In comparison, Cantz uses yeast, which is clearly a no-no in the natural wine world, of course he sprays the vines to hold back mold during the summer, and he inoculates the wine for alcoholic fermentation, but that is about it. At bottling time, Benyamin will throw in a bit of sulfur to keep the wine fresh as it starts its new journey in the bottle, but if you take a quick survey of the winery, there is little else one can find that could be added to wine. The idea is truly simple; let the natural fruit talk for itself. The ultimate outcome is for the wine to present itself in the bottle in the manner that Cantz envisioned when tending to his vines. I will say that the newest releases are a bit more rich and extracted, and that will be noticeable in the notes below. Still they are well balanced and terroir driven wines, with nice mineral and earth notes.

Not all his wines are sourced or estate bottled from his vineyard, and those are clearly labeled of course. Sometimes he sources grapes from other areas within the Santa Cruz Mountains or further afar. Still, the wines are balanced with good acidity, a trademark of his wines, and a feature that is missing in many other kosher wines out there.

So there you have it!  As, I was leaving I helped Benyamin pack up some of the wine, and I took some pictures of sunset with the ocean in the background, stunning! Here is hoping that you get a chance to taste his wines created with a single vision from a true vigneron, who builds terroir driven wines for us all to enjoy.

The wine notes below are for the wines that are currently available and for some older wines that one may still have in their cellar:

2009 Four Gates Chardonnay – Score: B++ to A
The nose on this dark straw wine is unique. If I had been told it was a viognier, I would have believed them. The nose is rich with bright quince, fig, petrol, green apple, forest floor, slight honey, bright citrus, and floral aromas. The mouth on this medium to full-bodied wine is rich and mouth filling with ripe melon, fruit from the nose, and oak that melds into a lovely mouthfeel. The finish is long and spicy with nice petrol, butterscotch, balancing honey, spice, summer fruit, citrus, and toasty oak. The wine is can power through most spicy foods, and roasted fowl. It is a unique wine that I hope to try again and watch evolve. Drink by 2015.

2009 Four Gates Cabernet Sauvignon – Score: A- to A
The fruit for this lovely old-world Cabernet comes from Betchart Vineyard on Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I have been able to watch this progress from press to bottling, and it has gone from a rich red fruit wine, to a hybrid rich old-world wine with big red fruit along with some lovely black fruit. A unique Cabernet that is rich, extracted, balanced, yet oak influenced in a lovely manner, this is not a big black new-world Cabernet! The nose on this purple to black colored wine is screaming with cloves, graphite, oak, kirsch cherry, raspberry, blackberry, red fruit, tobacco, roasted herbs, and anise. The mouth on the medium to full-bodied wine is super rich, extracted, and concentrated, with nice fruit, spice, big round and mouth coating tannin, and lovely oak that makes for a rich and spicy mouthfeel. The finish is long, lovely, and spicy with more tannin, chocolate, tobacco, cinnamon, red fruit, more spice, and a nice hit of vanilla. The chocolate, oak, cloves, herbs, red fruit, and vanilla linger long. Best in a year and drink by 2016 or 2017.

2007 Four Gates Cabernet Franc – Score: A- to A
The nose on this dark purple wine is hopping with oak, cherry, raspberry, plum, blackcurrant, lovely herb, strawberry, floral notes, lovely leafy tobacco, green notes that come out after some time, and expressive baker’s chocolate. The mouth on this medium to full-bodied wine is highly structured, concentrated, and extracted with oak influence, that mingles nicely with mouth coating tannin and rich red fruit, into an expressive and surprising mouthfeel for a Cabernet Franc from Four Gates. This is highly enjoyable now and one that will become even lovelier in the future. The finish is long with nice chocolate, fruit, mounds of vanilla, oak, tobacco, spice, and light leather. This is a wine that can also use a few hours of air, but it is still lovely out of the bottle and one that should be checked every hour or so after you open it. Get some of this before it all but disappears. This may well be the best kosher Cabernet Franc I have had, once it has sufficiently opened. Drink by 2016.

2007 Four Gates Merlot – Score: A-
The nose on this massive wine is screaming with blackberry, black plum, ripe raspberry, herbaceous, bramble/minerality, toasty oak, and coffee. The mouth on this medium to full-bodied wine, is gripping with tannins, dark fruit and minerality that come together into a nice round mouth. The finish is super long with nice red and black fruit that is topped with rich coffee balancing acid and oak. This is a structured and massive wine that will also open up over time. For now, open it and taste the wine, then watch it grow before your eyes. If that is too complicated, stick with tasting it out of the bottle, and then again after a few hours of air. Drink by 2016.

2009 Four Gates Pinot Noir – Score: A-
The 2009 vintage for California Pinot Noir may well be the best vintage in many years, even topping the great 2007 vintage. Well, this vintage from Four Gates is no slouch either, with the wine showing more extraction and rich fruit than normally, but balanced nicely with core acidity, that has always been the true trademark of Benyamin’s wines. The nose on this dark ruby colored wine does change a bit in the glass, it starts with raspberry, black cherry, boysenberry, blackberry, herb, and oak. As the wine opens, the unique boysenberry and blackberry give way to Four Gates Pinot trademarks of rich kirsch cherry and chicken cherry cola. The mouth on this medium to full-bodied wine is richer than the last few Four Gates Pinot Noir. This wine is rich and round with mouth coating tannin, along with a layered attack of fruit, and rich extraction that is just now melding nicely with spicy oak. The finish is rich with ripe fruit from the nose, along with more tannin, extraction and mounds of black pepper that makes for a spicy and herbaceous finish. Drink by 2016.

2009 Four Gates Syrah – Score: A- to A
This is one of those unique Syrah wines out there, with lovely blueberry, rich oak, nice bright fruit, and nice herbaceous qualities. The nose on the vibrant dark purple colored wine is redolent with rich oak, tobacco, citrus rind, blueberry, blackberry, black plum, blackcurrant, chocolate, and herb. The mouth on this rich and full-bodied wine is concentrated, and layered and massive with mouth coating tannin, oak extraction, along with blue and black fruit, inky and mineral structure, and lovely tangy wood all coming together into a crazy big mouthfeel. The finish is long, rich, and spicy, yet perfectly balanced with big black fruit, citrus, leafy tobacco, leather, herb, and nice vanilla. Drink by 2016 or later.

2008 Four Gates Chardonnay – Score: B+ to A-
The nose on this wine is slow out of the gate. However with time it shows off three lives. Initially it is stunted with oak and heat. With a bit more air it shows off nice oak, citrus, peach, apricot, sweet grass, toasty almonds, and butterscotch. Finally, with a few hours of air the wine turns more tropical in nature with lychee, grapefruit, lemon, sweet oak, ripe peach, and sweet grass. The mouth on this medium-bodied wine has toasty oak, peach, green apple. With time it shows melon, grapefruit, lychee, and green apple. The finish is long with butterscotch, spicy oak, green apple, orange peel, and spice. This wine clearly changes over time and is at its peak about three to four hours after opening.

N.V. Four Gates Soirée – Score: A-
This is another wine from Four Gates that needs abundant amounts of air to see its true potential come out to play. This wine starts off with, a Four Gates and Santa Cruz flavor, chicken cherry cola, raspberry, sweet oak, prune/plum, herbaceous, mint, and vanilla. With time, this wine comes out to play with a more expressive nose with deep floral and mineral notes. The mouth of this medium to full-bodied wine has spicy and rich oak, playful tannins, all packaged into a layered and structured wine with red fruit dominating. The finish is super long and layered with oak, coffee, plum, and vanilla. With more time the mouth fills out as the tannins calm down and round out the mouth, along with rich oak, black cherry, raspberry, plum, dates, and herbs. The finish is super long with more plum, spice, rich oak, and coffee. This wine starts off quiet and builds with time, until it hits its stride with ripe red fruit, structure, mouth feel, lovely tannins, and bracing acid that keeps the wine balanced yet striking. This is a wine that needs time. Open it and taste, then let it sit for two hours and taste again, and then try it another three hours later and see what you get.

N.V. Four Gates Pinot Noir – Score: A-
The nose on this light purple colored wine is bursting with Chicken Cherry Cola, raspberry, plum, and mint. The mouth on this medium-bodied wine is a concentrated attack of red fruit, lovely acidity, along with not yet integrated tannins that play nicely with the wine and the bright fruit. This wine has wonderful bone structure, tannin, and oak, and over time will fill out a bit more, as the tannins integrate. The finish is super long with oak, nice acid, plum, and kirche cherry. This is not an over oaked wine in any way, and that is clear from my notes, still the oak is present in places and works well when it does peek out from under the fruit haze.

2006 Four Gates Frere Robaire – Score: A- to A
This wine is still young and needs time, but one worth the effort. To start the wine has black notes of blackberry, dark plum, rich oak, chocolate, with hints of orange and vanilla. The nose is subtle yet rich. The mouth of this full-bodied wine is a tight wine to start with dark plum, not yet integrated tannins, oak, and fruit all waiting to get into a long dance. The finish is super long and lingering with tannin, chocolate, cherry, and plum. After more time the wine wakes up and explodes with heavy tannin and more bright red fruit, over time the wine returns to its roots with a super rich mouth feel, chocolate, and ripe red and black fruit.

2003 Four Gates Merlot – Score: B++ to A-
The nose on this electric blue/purple colored wine is vibrant and expressive with plum, bramble, chocolate, oak, raspberry, crushed herbs, and date. The mouth on this medium to full-bodied wine is expressive likes its nose, from its fruit and acidity, over time it becomes full in the mouth, with slowly integrating tannin, acidity, raspberry, ripe plum, and spice. The finish is super spicy and long with acidity, powerful ripe plum, chocolate, long and luxurious finish with dates and vanilla.

N.V. Four Gates Merlot – Score: B+ to A-
The nose on this dark garnet colored wine is slightly muted now from bottle shock with black cherry, raspberry, dark plum, oak, dark chocolate, spice, and tobacco. The mouth on this medium to full-bodied wine is ripe and soft in the mouth with ripe black fruit soft tannins, and oak. The finish is long, spicy, and extracted with oak, chocolate, black plum, tobacco, and lovely tannins. This is a more ripe, black and fuller wine than the 2003 Merlot. It has less astringency, more balanced, and a bit fuller, while also showing nice fruit and extraction.

Posted on February 16, 2012, in Kosher Red Wine, Kosher White Wine, Kosher Wine, Wine, Wine Tasting, Winery Visit and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.

  1. Great article David. You did the man and his wine justice.

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