NAPA – Robert Louis Stevenson brought notoriety to the now-fabled Napa Valley
when he came here on his honeymoon in 1880 and wrote The Silverado
Squatters. In the many intervening years, the valley has acquired an
iconic persona as a rival to some of the world’s finest wine-producing regions,
drawing countless visitors to its pleasant setting north of the San Francisco
Stevenson’s work recalls the long-extinct Silverado mine near
where he and his bride honeymooned. But the name has since become associated
with the Silverado Trail, a two-lane roadway bordered by wineries, where bikers
can sometimes be seen pedaling past the vineyards.
The trail runs
parallel to the Napa River for about 40 kilometers (25 miles) between Napa and
the small town of Calistoga, known for its hot springs and Saturday farmers
market. It is also less developed than Highway 29 to the west – a more
commercial stretch of road with large wineries, shopping opportunities, and
Either of the two roadways will provide you with a good
taste of the Napa Valley, and the route you choose depends on how “developed”
you prefer your exploration to be.
Another option, of course, is to
divide your time between both of these routes, because each one has wineries
On this particular day, my destination is the Silverado
Trail to meet Ernie Weir and his Israeli wife, Irit, at Hagafen Cellars, their
kosher winery whose vintages have graced the White House table, including state
dinners for visiting Israelis.
When I pull off the road at the southern
end of the trail, I drive up a long, narrow driveway bordered by 12 acres of
Hagafen’s own Cabernet Sauvignon and come to a stop outside the winery’s modest
two-story building and small tasting room with its adjoining, wood-covered patio,
which doubles as a succa.
Bordering the pathway leading to the tasting
room is a pretty flower garden adorned with sculptures, and beyond that and out
of view, the Weirs have planted a vegetable garden and built a new chicken coop
to raise eggs.
I chat with Weir and his wife under the patio, where
chimes sounded in the cool breeze and the afternoon light reflects off
mosaic-covered glass tables designed by Irit, who is an artist and a
He is dressed in his trademark work jeans
and blue T-shirt, while his wife wasis wearing an attractive, peach-colored
dress and a contrasting purple sweater.
“The whole image of kosher wines
has changed,” Weir begins. “Kosher wines are every bit as good as wines that are
not made kosher. There’s very little distinction anymore....”
changing image of kosher wine is something that Weir knows well – he has been
producing it for around 32 years and has witnessed the industry grow and broaden
its appeal to ever-widening audiences.
Weir says he first noticed a shift
in taste from sweet to dry wines in the Jewish and non-Jewish world in the late
1970s. What’s more, a major Jewish winery had begun to put corks in all its
bottles, “and that had some slight significance that they wanted to have their
wines be taken more seriously, [and] that meant that eventually they would have
to continue to improve the quality of the wines.”
PERHAPS THE crowning
achievement in the acceptance of kosher wine in America is the fact that it is
sometimes served at White House dinners; the recent instance and the one of
which Ernie is “most proud, extremely proud” was last June, when President
Shimon Peres received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
For that event,
the White House served Hagafen’s 2008 Pinot Noir and its 2010 Roussanne – a
white grape variety originally from the Rhone region of France which was harvested from vineyards in
Lodi, California, a small community near Sacramento.
Weir describes the
Roussanne as a blend of 85 percent Roussanne and 15 percent Marsanne, another
The Roussanne wine, he says, is “straw-colored... with
somewhat of an aroma of cut hay that would make it a little less vegetative than
Sauvignon Blanc but a little bit more vegetative than Chardonnay, with the body
and the... weight more like Chardonnay. It’s a nice intermediate wine, and it
fits very well with fish.”
There have been other noteworthy examples of
Hagafen wines served at the White House.
In 1981, when president Ronald
Reagan hosted prime minister Menachem Begin, Hagafen’s 1980 Winery Lake Vineyard
Johannisberg Riesling was served.
And at a White House celebration last
May marking Jewish-American Heritage Month, guests enjoyed the winery’s 2007
Napa Valley Brut Cuvee.
That particular event had special sports-related
significance for Weir because one of his baseball heroes was in
“I was really happy,” he says, “because the event was the one
that [baseball legend] Sandy Koufax got invited to, and he doesn’t come out and
appear very often.... I haven’t gotten him to the winery yet, but that would be
a long-term goal.”
Hagafen produces 100,000 bottles of wine a year and
sells around the world and through its wine club and tasting room, which
welcomes visitors. The winery also produces Cabernet Franc, Syrah and White
In addition, it has two other labels. One is a reserve
called Prix, which is a play on the Hebrew blessing over wine: “pri hagafen,”
fruit of the vine. The other is Don Ernesto, a jovial reference to Ernie
“Don Ernesto is our fun or poppriced, consumer-oriented wine,”
Weir’s connection to Israel goes back to 1973, when he worked on
Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan near Haifa and began to reestablish his agricultural
“I’ve always been associated or attached to the agricultural
elements in the Bible,” he says. “I’ve always thought, well, that’s very cool,
we have these holidays that are agricultural....”
When he returned to the
United States, he settled in Napa and went to work for Domaine Chandon winery,
eventually attending the prestigious UC Davis Department of Viticulture and
Enology, where he earned a viticulture degree.
The next step was starting
a kosher winery.
“I was young,” he says, “and I thought to myself, ‘What
type of wine can I make to contribute to the world of wine and the community of
wineries in Napa Valley?’ So when I saw many of my counterparts who were of
Italian origin or Swiss origin or whatever making wine and... evoking wonderful
cultural pride amongst their peers, I thought, well, let us see how we can do
“There isn’t such a thing as Jewish wine, but there’s
kosher wine,” he continues. “I really didn’t know all I was getting into,
so to speak, in the world of kashrut, but I’ve learned.... Since then, many
other wineries have joined... around the world.”
AROUND THE same time,
Weir met his wife, who had moved to Los Angeles with her family after doing her
army service in the IDF. On a subsequent trip to South America, she happened to
meet someone who told her about a woman doing acupuncture in Berkeley, so she
moved to Berkeley and took a job with her.
“I used to clean her office,”
she recalls, sharing a glass of wine with her husband. “Within a week, she asked
me if I wanted to be her secretary. So I went from cleaning to secretary.” At the same time, Irit became “very
impressed with the body-mind connection and also the idea of healing without
She decided to study acupuncture at the American College of
Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco. From there, Irit went to
China for a master’s degree in acupuncture and worked in a hospital in Guangzhou
for four months.
In the early years of the winery, she was more involved
in its operation, though these days, even with her acupuncture practice keeping
her busy, she manages to make joint decisions about Hagafen with
The couple visits Israel every year, and Irit recently gave a
workshop at an international acupuncture congress in the country, noting that
Israel has “wonderful healers.” In the last 10 years, she says, “it’s amazing”
to see the growth and acceptance of acupuncture in Israel, where there is what
she terms a “blend” of medical approaches.
By contrast, she notes,
“there’s more of a struggle” between doctors and acupuncturists in the United
As we sit around one of her mosaic tile tables, she explains that
she produces her own tiles and works with tempered glass, too.
Lately she has been working with oil paints and is scheduled to show her work at
an exhibit slated for the large Mondavi Winery in Napa.
In February or
March of 2013, the couple will lead a wine tour to Israel for about 10 members
of the Hagafen wine club.
“Over the course of a week, we might be able to
tour three or four wineries every day,” Weir says. “It will include four or five
days of wineries that are kosher with restaurants and hotels, and maybe another
non-kosher option for another day or two.”
“Ernie has a personal
relationship with almost every winery in Israel, so it will be a very personal
tour, and when it comes to the restaurants, we also have some good friends... so
it will be nice,” says Irit.
For some years, Weir did consulting with
Israeli wineries, and there is still some interchange going on.
[Israeli winemakers] come [to Napa] because of the kosher aspect,” he says, “but
some come because they know that in Napa we’re on the cutting edge of New World
viticulture and wine-making, and they come to see what kind of small, little
piece of information they might find about a new variety, a new clone of a
variety, a new technique... just sort of what’s happening.”
Weir, this Israeli connection means that he has really come full circle – with
winemakers now traveling to Hagafen Cellars from Israel, the country where he
first renewed his agricultural roots.