A Winemaker Is Forced To Close Up Shop

By June D. Bell

Published June 17, 2005, issue of June 17, 2005.
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kosher winery or a Jewish education for the kids?

After a decade-long juggling act, Northern California winemaker Craig Winchell was finally forced to confront just this choice. Although he has a passion for crafting kosher chardonnays and cabernets, the educational needs of his children has won out.

As a result, Winchell’s Gan Eden winery, located in the Sonoma Valley town of Sebastopol, will close its doors this month after 20 years of producing award-winning kosher wines. Gan Eden is liquidating its remaining stock on its Internet site (www.ganeden.com), and the 20-acre winery is being sold to vintners who will make non-kosher wines.

With no Orthodox schooling or tutoring consistently available in their area, Winchell and his wife, Jenny, reluctantly opted to shutter the winery that annually produced about 10,000 cases of Orthodox Union-certified kosher wine. “We didn’t think it would become such an acute choice,” he said heavily, “but it did.”

Winchell, 47, an oenophile who embraced Orthodoxy as an adult, plied his craft single-handedly, working long days to create kosher wines with bouquets as complex and appealing as their nonkosher peers.

Because Gan Eden’s wines were handled solely by an Orthodox Jew, they did not need to be flash pasteurized to be certified kosher. Some connoisseurs claim that flash boiled, or mevushal, wines lack the complexity of their unpasteurized counterparts.

Gan Eden’s closure makes Napa’s Hagafen Cellars the only major kosher winery left in Northern California. Hagafen, which has 10 employees, produces about 8,000 cases of wine annually and welcomes about 5,000 visitors each year for tastings and tours, owner Ernie Weir said.

Gan Eden’s Winchell knew that settling in rural Sonoma County, more than an hour north of San Francisco, would present educational challenges for his family. Over the years, the six Winchell children, who range in age from 5 to 17, attended a short-lived Chabad yeshiva in a nearby county and participated in an educational cooperative that ultimately folded. The younger four supplemented their public-school education with intermittent tutoring.

The family’s older children have left home in search of a Jewish education. Gedalia David, 17, attends a yeshiva in Los Angeles. Sarah Rivka, 15, studies at the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland’s Yavne High School for Girls.

The family is mulling a move to Los Angeles, which has a wealth of Orthodox schools and which, Winchell hopes, fresh opportunities for winemakers. (As it happens, the country’s largest kosher winery, Baron Herzog, is set to open a new facility in Oxnard, outside Los Angeles.)

The Winchells aren’t alone in their willingness to uproot themselves to secure their children’s Jewish education. For instance, for each of the past several years, Cleveland has had a few-dozen Jewish families move within its borders, in part because of its well-regarded 700-student Hebrew Academy, according to the school’s educational director, Rabbi Simcha Dessler.

Nationally, about 750 day schools serve roughly 210,000 students through age 18 — the highest enrollment ever in American Jewish day schools. But two-thirds of those schools are concentrated in the New York metropolitan area, according to Marvin Schick, senior adviser to the Avi Chai Foundation, which last year the conducted a study of American day schools.

But while Winchell’s path may be in tune with certain demographic trends, his trajectory has been far from ordinary.

Young Craig learned the nuances of burgundies and bordeaux at his parents’ dinner table in Louisville, Ky., where his father, an anesthesiologist, was an avid wine drinker and collector.

After dropping out of Haverford College, Winchell managed a wine shop in New York City’s Greenwich Village area and worked at a Louisville liquor store. After earning a degree in fermentation science at the University of California, Davis, he worked at wineries and became increasingly religiously observant before launching Gan Eden in 1985.

Winchell knew he wanted to craft wines that were distinct from other Golden State vintages. “California tends to go for big, juicy wines with a lot of oak on top of them,” he said. He preferred to blend a palette of grape varieties to craft old European styles of wine. Gan Eden did not grow its own grapes, freeing Winchell to buy and blend the types he wanted.

Gan Eden’s offerings included a cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, black muscat, chenin blanc and gewürztraminer. Winchell was a one-man show, tackling everything — the winemaking process, marketing, sales and administration — alone. He brought in help only for bottling.

The relentless demands of the business left him exhausted and, after open-heart surgery to correct a congenital defect, concerned about his long-term health. He also had scant time for his large family.

Ultimately, the dearth of Jewish educational alternatives helped tip the scale. “I feel relieved that things have finally come to a head and there is resolution,” Winchell said. “We felt for years we were shortchanging the kids, but it wasn’t bad enough to change. We always felt guilt, but now there is no more guilt. The decision was made for itself.”

June D. Bell is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

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