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An L.A. doctor revives the tradition of Persian Jewish winemaking

Wine flows freely in the ancient story of Purim, which takes place in ancient Persian. Buzzed on wine, King Ahasuerus asks the beautiful Vashti to come party. At two other wine-soaked feasts, the heroine Esther sways the king against the evil Haman.

A view of Jamshid Winery vineyards in Calfornia's Santa Ynez valley.

A view of Jamshid Winery vineyards in Calfornia’s Santa Ynez valley. Courtesy of Jamshid Winery

Wine all but disappeared from modern-day Iran following the country’s takeover by Muslim clerics in 1979. But now, in faraway California, a Los Angeles cardiologist is bring the ancient tradition of Persian winemaking back.

“We take great pride that as Jews we’ve existed in Iran for such a long time and that as Jews, we’ve been such a major part of winemaking in Iran from the time of the story of Purim and through the centuries,” said Dr. Jamshid Maddahi, who recently released the first wine from his own Jamshid Winery based in the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara.

Maddahi, a professor at UCLA’s medical school and also practices internal medicine, cardiology and nuclear medicine, said he has had a passion for wine since he was a young man in Iran, but only 10 years ago purchased a property in Santa Ynez with the specific intent to make wine.

Grape-growing, he said, is an escape from his busy medical career, and “a spiritual experience.”

“I wanted to be deeply involved in every stage of the process,” he said, “so I acquired a property and started everything from scratch.”

The name on the bottle, Jamshid, is not merely personal.

Dr. Jamshid Maddahi

Dr. Jamshid Maddahi Courtesy of Jamshid Winery

In ancient Persian mythology, the Persian King Jamshid began making wine after a woman he spurned drank rotten grape juice, which she thought would kill her. Instead she woke up refreshed and happy.

“Sharing that name with the Persian king made it a nice coincidence,” said Maddahi.

A long history of wine-making

Jews had been making wine in Iran for centuries.

“From ancient times all the way up to the 1979 revolution, each Jewish family in Iran bought fresh grapes and made their own wine at home which was used for the Shabbat blessings, Jewish holidays or a happy occasion like a wedding or brit milah,” said Los Angeles Rabbi Ruben Malekan, who is from Iran.

Since moving to the U.S., the older generation of Iranian Jews who knew how to make homemade wine have not passed on the tradition to their children as kosher and non-kosher wines are readily available for them to purchase in stores, he said.

Dariush Fakheri, former president of the International Judea Foundation, said Iran’s Jews for centuries also sold wine to Muslims and others because it was one of the few trades that Jews could earn a living doing and were not barred from partaking in by the authorities in Iran.

In one of his poems, the renowned Persian poet Hafez, refers to “a secret Jewish drink,” which is a reference to Jews making wine, said Fakheri.

Likewise, Fakheri said for hundreds of years Jews in many Iranian cities often gave away wine they made to local Muslim street thugs known as loties to secure protection for the Jewish ghettos from potential antisemitic attacks.

Asher Aramnia, an 85-year-old Iranian Jewish businessman living in L.A. who was born in the Iranian city of Shiraz, said winemaking was especially popular in the city’s Jewish ghetto where Jews not only made wine for themselves but also sold it to Muslim residents and visitors.

Wine plays an important part in Persian Jewish history.

Wine plays an important part in Persian Jewish history. Courtesy of Jamshid Winery

“I even remember a Jewish doctor going to villages nearby Shiraz and sometimes giving his patients small doses of home-made wine to serve as pain relief for their different aliments,” he said.

Prominent Jewish families in Iran during the mid-20th century made and sold wine commercially in their factories based in the cities of Kermanshah and Ahwaz. The same families later made the popular ‘Shams’ beer, said Dr. Nahid Pirnazar, a professor of Iranian Jewish studies at UCLA,.

Pirnazar said all of the alcoholic beverage businesses owned by Jews in Iran were confiscated or destroyed by the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

L.A. Persian winemakers

In California, home to the largest population of Persian Jews, Maddahi is not the only Iranian Jewish businessman involved in making.

“When I bought my vineyard 10 years ago, my family thought I was nuts because they could not understand how it could be a viable business,” said Babak Shokrian, a 56-year-old Iranian Jewish businessman who owns the Shokrian Vineyard also located in the Santa Ynez Valley. “But now that our wine brand is gaining popularity and we’ve achieved success each year, they appreciate it more.”

Shokrian, who originally lived in L.A. and worked as both an independent film producer and a real estate developer, said he purchased the established vineyard from a family because he had a passion for wine and also wanted a change from the fast-paced lifestyle in L.A.

For his part, Maddahi said he hoped his winery would inspire the new generation of younger Iranian Jews living in the U.S. to embrace the community’s long tradition of winemaking not just for Purim, but thoughout out the year.

 


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