Hagafen Cellars is located in Napa Valley, California and was founded in 1979 by Irit and Ernie Weir, as the first kosher winery in California. At a time when fine kosher wine was almost an oxymoron, Weir sought to produce a wine that can hold its own against the best of the Valley yet upholds the strictest of kosher standards. Judging by the number of gold medals and now frequent accolades in mainstream publications like The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, he has succeeded beyond his own wildest imaginations.
I recently had the chance to enjoy the 2007 Hagafen Cabernet Franc and the 2009 Hagafen Merlot. Both are elegant red wines with soft, silky tannins and red, ripe fruits. With Passover approaching, now is a perfect time to stock up and bring a bottle over to wherever you are spending the Seder -- just make sure you also get a couple for yourself.
I also had the chance to speak with Ernie and find out a little more about the story of Hagafen and his plans for the future.
Tell us about your decision to start a kosher winery in the Napa Valley?
I had been working for a large winery in Napa since the early 70’s. I saw the mainstream market change and I had a feeling the Jewish and kosher market would change in parallel. I thought I had a unique opportunity as someone established in the high quality wine making of Napa to bring quality kosher wine about.
At that time, none of the other quality kosher wines of today were around. I wanted to make a wine that would be inspirational to all types of Jewish people, not just those who were religious. I wanted to make a wine that would appeal to a broad market. I also wanted the wine to be as high quality as possible so that anyone could and would enjoy it, kosher, Jewish or not. Now, over 30 years later I can attest that most of the people who come to our winery and buy the wine don’t even know it has anything to do with kosher.
Has kosher winemaking brought you closer to your Jewish roots?
Absolutely. I grew up in suburban L.A. to European immigrants of the Holocaust. My grandparents were Orthodox, my parents were Conservative and we were connected Jewishly. I had cousins in Israel but didn’t visit until the 60s. Now, my wife is Israeli, our house is bilingual and we go to Israel regularly.
I am not necessarily more observant now, but I am fully conversant in the whole topic of kashrut. I have been able to meet Jews from everywhere on the planet. Daily, I speak to people from a broad range of communities. I am a very proud Jew.
If you were stranded on a deserted island and had to select one bottle of Hagafen wine to drink, what would you choose and why?
Oy vay – it is so hard to choose. There have been a lot of stars over the years. Right now the 2008 Cabernet Franc under the Prix label is a winner. I also love our late harvest wines under the Prix label. But, I can’t forget our first Riesling from 1980 that set the tone and has been made every year for the last 32 years.
Really, I can’t answer this question. Wines are like a metaphor for children. I can’t choose a favorite.
As we approach the Passover holiday, Jews all over the world will gather together to celebrate the story of our Exodus from Egypt and celebrate our freedom with four cups of wine. What is your best Passover memory?
Passover always occurs right around my birthday, so I am often stuck with sponge cake for occasion, but my fondest memories are sitting next to my grandfather. Because he read every word, every syllable, even though I couldn’t understand it as a young child I loved that time, I loved how involved he was. It is a lasting memory.
What are your plans for the future?
I have a new vineyard that will be certified organic and I am committed to growing grapes using sustainable agriculture. My wines won’t be organic because of the restrictions imposed on making organic wine, but most of the grapes used in them will be.
I also want to add how pleased I am and our customers are that our wines are served at the White House. On the walls of our winery you can see the menus from the White House. I think all Jews can get satisfaction out of that, seeing our contribution to society.
The Hagafen label is available around the country in most stores, and you can order the Prix label from the website… or be a part of our wine club.