California Local Area Rabbis – the new purveyors of artisanal kosher wines
This past weekend my good friend, Benyomin Cantz from the Four Gates Winery brought over a nice gift – a bottle of the 2011 La Fenetre Merlot, Mesa Verde Vineyard from the Santa Ynez, CA AVA. If that wine region sounds familiar, well that is because it is the same region where the now defunct California Classic Cellars used to be based out of. But before, we get ahead of ourselves, we need to jump into the semi-way back machine and set it for circa 2007 in Napa Valley, CA!
There you will find a successful and passionate Chabad Rabbi and his wife, Rabbi Elchonon and Chana Tenenbaum, two people who chose to bring Torah into the vast spiritual desert of Napa Valley. Though Napa is known world wide for its agricultural and vinicultural excellence, true Torah observance was not an ingredient readily found there. For that reason, Tenenbaum decided that Napa was just the place for the two of them and so they hopped on a plane from their east-coast religious dwellings to the west coast easy-going California.
Wine seems to be finding its way into the culture of Rabbis around the area, but much of that can be properly accredited to the insanely hard work and dedication of Rabbi Tenenbaum. You see, it was soon after he arrived that he caught the “good wine vibrations”, of course good kosher wine vibrations! Soon Tenenbaum was enjoying the joys of good dry wines, and he quickly realized that the hobby/interest comes at a price – his pocketbook! Good kosher wine is not cheap and so, in 2007 Tenenbaum set out to make some wine of his own. He had no training, but with the help of friends, and following protocols that he found in winemaking books, Rabbi Tenenbaum made a case of wine from grapes left over from a Rudd Winery vineyard, located in Oakville. He got the grapes (some 30 pounds or so), crushed them by hand/foot, and went on to ferment the wine, age it, and bottle it all by himself! With proper respect, he called the wine “King Salomon” and ode to the Hebrew name of the vineyard’s owner, Leslie Rudd, whose Hebrew name is Solomon.
Just to digress for a moment, I have not delved into the kosher wine idea here, because I have already hit that subject in my post called – kosher wine 101, and my rebuttal to many incorrect concepts in the world of kosher wine – Kosher Wine 101 2.0 and my rebuttal to many poorly written articles on kosher wine. So, with that understood, you realize that the Rabbi had to do all the work himself, even when he had help from knowledgeable non-Jewish winemakers.
Well fast-forward a year, and Rabbi Tenenbaum goes from playing with the idea of wine making to become a true vigneron (a person who does everything regarding the wine making process)! A friend of Jeff Morgan, head wine maker at Covenant Winery asked Mr. Morgan if he knew of anyone who could manage his vineyard. The vineyard was a field blend of Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah. One of the wonderful parts of this story is about a barn that resides on the same property as the vineyard. Engraved on the Barn is the following quote from Leviticus: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not strip your vineyard bare nor gather the overlooked grapes; you must leave them for the poor and the stranger.” When Rabbi Tenenbaum saw that, it was hook line and sinker! So, for 7 months the Rabbi, with initial help and direction from a vineyard manager of David Abreu Vineyard Management, pruned and sulfured the vines, and managed them to the point of leaf thinning and fruit dropping. All of this was done on a vineyard of 400 vines, far less than an acre, but the vines were still fruitful enough to produce a barrel of wine. The wine was made in combination with Jonathan Hajdu. Jonathan took a portion of the bottles and sold it under the Besomim Cuvee Chabad label. We had the chance to taste a bottle of the 2008 Besomim, Cuvee Chabad (which is the same wine as the Pardes), and the wine note can be found here. The Rabbi bottled his wines under the Pardes Cuvée Chabad label.
For two years, 2008 and 2009, the Rabbi managed the vineyard and helped make the wine – and wonderful wines they were! After that, the Rabbi took a well-deserved break. Though, he and Jonathan both told me they wish they could still get the grapes from that vineyard. The vineyard was re-purposed by the owner for some other winery or the sort, so the vineyard was no longer available. Still, I think honestly, after talking with the Rabbi, that the winemaking experiences opened doors for him. Even talking with the Rabbi for a short period of time, you can see how knowledgeable he is in the wine trade, the wine makers and wineries, and of course, in verse, scripture, and law. It is a very intriguing and exciting balance that I am sure is not lost on the region in which he attempts to profess the word.
Fast forward to 2011, and what can I say, the allure was too strong and the Rabbi was back! In combination with Mr. Morgan, and Jonathan Hajdu, and Covenant Winery, they produced Cuvee Chabad again! This time it was a pure Zinfandel from the Lodi region. Cuvee Chabad Zinfandel is sourced from the same vineyard as Covenant’s Landsman Wine Club Zinfandel. The Landsman wine club allows you access to three or so different wines a year (2011 it was Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel). The Cuvee Chabad of 2011, a wine I have yet to taste (but a wine that I have procured for a later tasting), was an instant hit to many of my wine and foodies buddies, so I am looking forward to tasting the wine soon! I hope to do it in a blind tasting of many kosher Zinfandel from the US and Israel. Much along the line of what I did with the Syrah wines. In this winemaking relationship, the Rabbi is spared of the vineyard duties, but he does promote his wines on his Facebook page, and continues to be equally, if not more passionate on the subject than when he was waist deep in weeds and grapes. Best of luck to him and please try some of his wines. I can say, that the 2012 wine is 100% off the charts! I had a chance to taste the wines with Gabriel Geller, and Hajdu and we were blown away. The wine was rich, layered, and deeply blue – which is a shock for Zinfandel, but what a wine! Get ready to press the buy button, on both the Cuvee Chabad and the Landsman wine club – 2012 will be one of those years that we will all remember! We tasted through much of the 2012 vintage of Covenant and Landsman wines – they were all stunning!
The Cuvee Chabad is a great example of what a Rabbi can do for the wine industry here in California! Rabbi Tenenbaum started by making the wine all by himself in 2007, he then moved to working hands on with the vines and the wine, though much of the real wine work was done by Hajdu (released as Besomim Cuvee Chabad and Pardes Cuvée Chabad). Then the Rabbi handed over the reigns to Messrs.’ Hajdu and Morgan, while managing the marketing campaign. If you look at the overall spectrum of kosher wine making and supervising you will find three stages:
- Wine Supervisor – much like the OU/OK does for most wineries – essentially a kosher supervision, because there is a religious wine maker who makes and produces the wine physically, or has a group of people to do the physical work for him/her. In the end, there is no real hands-on wine work done here as much as there is just kosher supervision. Much like what was done for 2011 Cuvee Chabad Zinfandel, as Hajdu did the wine work.
- Wine maker and supervisor. Here we take up the work to a totally different level, with the Rabbi doing 100% of the hands-on wine work, with or without a consulting winemaker. This means, de-stemming, pressing, fermenting, punch downs, racking, bottling, and managing the host of issues that a winemaker needs to actually do (or one of his/hers’ wine rats / cellar minions). This is what Rabbi Tenenbaum did when he made his first wine in 2007.
- Vineyard manager. This is something that I did not ever see being done by a Rabbi – before I heard the story of Rabbi Tenenbaum. Seriously, how many Rabbis’ do you know that have pruned a vineyard! I can barely prune my own roses! Add to that the inevitable number of times that he helped with the wine making process in 2008 and 2009, and one can not help but give mad props to Rabbi Tenenbaum for his passion and tenacity in this new arena.
Well, if Rabbi Tenenbaum is a serious wine and personal inspiration to me, imagine what he must be for other Rabbis of California! According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, “California agriculture is nearly a $36.6 billion dollar industry that generates $100 billion in related economic activity. With that in mind, we switch to Rabbi Chaim Hillel of Chabad San Luis Obispo, who also not only supervised a new kosher wine from Le Fenetre Winery, but, again because of kosher wine law, actually carried out each step of the wine making process.
The funny thing is that this wine was made with very little fanfare and in the world of social media, keeping a kosher wine under wraps is no easy feat! But that is exactly what Joshua Klapper and Rabbi Hillel managed to do! Though, if he wants to sell his wine, it is time to get the word out! I heard about this wine, from Elliot, yes the man who underwent the great California wine adventure and came out a better wine man for it! He sent me an email that read as follows (with slight adaptation for space):
It is with great pleasure that I announce the release of the first of hopefully many kosher releases for La Fenêtre Wines. The project started in 2010, when my father Ben Klapper approached me with a simple request, as if anything our parents want is ever that simple… “How about a kosher wine?” he asked. What ensued was a back and forth conversation that lasted about a year. During that time, I researched kosher winemaking and concluded that it was simply not possible. My father persisted.
Non-Mevushal kosher wine is an entirely different product. Because the juice is never ‘purified’, the wine when not ‘Double-sealed’ can only be caused to move by a Shomer-Shabbos (Sabbath-adhering Jew). This meant that as wonderful a winemaker as I am (thank you very much) I could not make this wine kosher on my own! To complicate matters, there seemed to be, at that point, a shortage of Rabbi’s to certify this project on the Central Coast…
Luckily, my father’s persistence paid off and we found. Chaim generously donated his time and effort in order to make this possible. Guided by a crack winemaking team (read: Joshua Klapper & Alex Katz), he not only supervised but actually made each and every ounce of the wine we are offering you today! Cheers!
So, when Benyo called me and said hey I have a new wine you never heard of from California I said – you mean – the 2011 La Fenetre Merlot! Hey what can I say, it is good to have friends who have knowledge – thanks EL!! Anyway, long story short, Benyo brought the wine over and we tasted it – and I was impressed, but man was the wine green and short of red or black fruit. I picked up fruit over time, but clear and obvious fruit was a hard endeavor! You can buy this wine by clicking on this link or by finding the 2011 La Fenêtre Merlot, Mesa Verde wine on the site. This is the only wine that they made kosher in 2011.
Also, there is the possibility that there will be more kosher wines from La Fenetre winery’s 2012 vintage. We will have to wait to see what comes out of this new “kosher” line! Much Success!
Step a year forward, into 2012, and not only did the patriarch of California kosher wine Rabbis (AKA Tenenbaum) make wine with Covenant Winery, but so did Rabbi Hillel (a few varietals from what I hear) once again with La Fenetre, but so did a new Rabbi from Livermore Valley, CA. Rabbi Resnick of Chabad of the Tri Valley is the now the third Rabbi to make kosher wine in the California wine region! This time Rabbi Resnick will be doing it under the tutelage of Mitchell Katz, from the Mitchell Katz Winery. Katz not only donated the grapes, barrels, and equipment being used, but he is donating his time and knowledge to Rabbi Resnick.
Once again, the Rabbi is the wine maker and since he comes from the concrete jungle of Manhattan, working around vineyards, grapes, let alone presses, crushers, and vinification systems, this was a whole new experience. When I called him to learn more about the adventure, it quickly became apparent that he too had picked up much of the lingo and knowledge and was deeply embedded in the process. As always that includes the aches and pains of making wine, from racking to topping up barrels. But no matter the challenge or circumstance, the Rabbi sounded up and ready to live his own wine adventure. I truly look forward to tasting the wine when it comes out.
In closing, proper respect must be paid to Rabbi Tenenbaum who started this wonderful trend. Hopefully, the Rabbis and their upcoming wines will be as successful as this trendsetter who plowed, pruned, weeded, and bottled this unique kosher winemaking road.
My wine notes follow below:
2011 La Fenetre Merlot, Mesa Verde Vineyard – Score: B+ to A-
The nose is very Bordeaux like, with a bit of black cherry, but dominated by bramble, dirt, slight heat, licorice, mineral, orange rind, and black plum. The mouth is a lovely medium bodied wine which was aged for 16 months in French oak barrels, showing good concentration of blackberry and black cherry, a slight hint of blueberry (but that blows off), along with a shocking saline flavor profile (that eventually also goes away), graphite, searing eucalyptus, roasted herbs, nice tannin structure, along with good green foliage. The finish is long and green with good spice, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, baker’s chocolate, raspberry, and what seemed like tar to me.