Spiritual Vintners

By Joshua Yaffa

Published June 06, 2007, issue of June 08, 2007.
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As biblical legend tells it, Noah, having successfully unloaded his animal cargo on the craggy peaks of Mount Ararat, set off to handle some business of no lesser importance: planting a vineyard.

Yes, Noah turned into something of a drunkard, the Old Testament warns, but the precedent was nonetheless set. Jews and the soil, united in Torah and terroir.

It is a connection not lost among the quiet, sloping hillsides of California’s Napa Valley, where a handful of Jewish winemakers work to turn the fruit of the vine into bottles of upmarket wine enjoyed by Jew and gentile alike.

“It’s a spiritual journey, taking something from the vine to the glass,” Art Finkelstein said. Finkelstein owns Judd’s Hill winery, a small family-run producer in the Napa town of St. Helena. The cabernets and pinots that the 65-year-old Finkelstein produces with wife Bunnie, son Judd and daughter-in-law Holly are not strictly kosher, but are nonetheless rooted in a Jewish understanding of working the soil.

“Making wine is a gift, a God-given process,” Finkelstein said. It is a sentiment that permeates the Napa Valley, where the natural rhythm of the earth settles into a subtle harmony with the celebrations of the Jewish calendar.

“The parallels are pretty easy,” said Ernie Weir, who owns Napa’s only kosher wine producer, Hagafen Cellars. “Sukkot is around harvest season, and Tu B’Shvat is exactly the time when we plant our vines.” And depending on the vagaries of wind, sun and rain, the High Holy Days often fall in the middle of peak harvesting and crush periods, meaning that winemaking Jews such as the Finkelsteins often sit in synagogue with fingers stained a deep, runny crimson.

“It’s a sign of honor in Napa to have purple hands,” explained Holly, who married Judd in 2004 and now, along with her husband, runs many of the winery’s day-to-day operations. “There’s a close connection to creation here. When we say the blessing over the wine, we can look over and touch the earth where these grapes came from.”

While the bond between Jews and wine has strong liturgical and historical roots — wine is mentioned no fewer than 141 times in the Old Testament, after all — this understanding shifted at some point during centuries of diasporic wandering. The dry, nuanced Mediterranean varietals that biblical Jews most likely drank gave way to sweet, sticky wines, the Manischewitzes of the world that we now associate with Sabbath dinners and Passover Seders.

“It was a tradition that perpetuated itself,” Weir said of the Ashkenazic preference for the Concord grape, a fruit that yields overly sweet wines and is local to both Eastern Europe and the communities along the East Coast where Jews first settled in the United States.

But just as the gourmet mentality has infused itself in American culture as a whole, so, too, has it penetrated the kosher marketplace. “It’s not all about gefilte fish anymore,” Weir said, referencing a growing number of small, artisanal kosher food producers such as Straus Family Creamery, a kosher dairy located just down the road from Weir’s winery.

When Art, Bunnie and Judd first arrived in Napa in the late 1970s, they were one of a handful of Jewish families involved in the winemaking industry. This early pioneering generation also included Michael Bernstein at Mount Veeder, Al Brounstein at Diamond Creek and Weir at Hagafen. “I used to joke that we sounded like a Jewish law firm: Finkelstein, Bernstein, Brounstein and Weir,” Art said.

The region was first settled by Jews during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, according to Lin Weber’s 2003 book, “Under the Vine and the Fig Tree: The Jews of Napa Valley” (Wine Ventures Publishing). Jewish cultural life ebbed and flowed in the intervening years, and was relatively dormant by the time the Finkelsteins arrived in 1979.

When Bunnie called the Napa synagogue that year to ask when its Hebrew school program would start, as she hoped to enroll the then 8-year-old Judd, a somewhat surprised voice answered, “Well, when would you like it to start?” Judd, the family learned, was the only Jew in the entire St. Helena school district.

As the Jewish population in Napa has grown — the synagogue now has almost 150 member families — so, too, has the awareness of Judaism’s historic relationship with wine. Later this month, the Napa Valley Center for Jewish Culture will host the second annual L’Chaim festival, three days of tastings and winery tours hosted by the region’s Jewish growers, vintners and owners.

“It’s interesting to see who comes out of the woodwork,” said Sue Wollack, who is helping to organize this year’s event. Wollack and her husband, Richard, own the Bighorn Cellars winery. “There were a lot of moments where I saw a familiar face and said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know they were Jewish.’”

But Jewish winemakers are careful to point out that their religion doesn’t limit their wine to being a niche product for observant Jews only. Weir estimates that more than half of Hagafen’s sales are made to non-Jews. “We don’t make kosher wine per se, we make high-quality Napa wine that also happens to be kosher,” he said.

Finkelstein, who is known to grace the Napa synagogue’s Friday night oneg services with his famed hot-smoked salmon and a few bottles of Judd’s Hill Cabernet, suggested that Judaism informed the subconscious aspects of winemaking more than the conscious.

“When the fermentations are finished and you pour yourself a glass, you just have to sit back and think: ‘God, I don’t know how you did it, but it sure tastes great,’” he said.

Joshua Yaffa is a writer in New York City.

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