Hagafen’s Owner Looking Ahead After Blaze

Hagafen’s Owner Looking Ahead After Blaze

Hagafen Winery, left, during last summer’s wildfire. Its visitors center, right, is being expanded. JTA/Hagafen Winery
Hagafen Winery, left, during last summer’s wildfire. Its visitors center, right, is being expanded. JTA/Hagafen Winery

Nearly six months after wildfires swept through wine country along the picturesque Silverado Trail in California’s Napa Valley, Ernie Weir is looking back, and ahead.

For Weir, whose Hagafen Winery, the only kosher winery in the area, was badly scorched by the Atlas Peak fire on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 8 (during the intermediate days of Sukkot), the fire was a blow to business. Especially since it hit in the run-up to the crucial Passover selling season.

“We lost our tractor, forklift, sprayer, duster — all kinds of equipment that we need to farm was all burned and destroyed,” Weir told The Jewish Week in an interview last week. “Basically, everything that was not attached to the winery building was destroyed.” 

Being a metal building, the winery itself, which is in the town of Napa, was not destroyed. However, it was no doubt subjected to extreme heat. Asked if the heat would affect the wine in tanks and barrels, Weir would not comment. But he said, “We will not bottle any wines that are not up to our standard of quality.”

Perhaps though, the most lasting damage will be to one of his Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards, which “was scorched … mevushal beyond repair,” he said, employing a bit of gallows humor by referencing the heating process required to make a wine kosher. Weir said he is making plans to replant the vineyard in 2019 and in 2020.

However, it will take years for the replanted vineyard to be productive. Until then, says Weir, “one way or another there is going to be an impact — either I sell less wine, or I sell less grapes on the open market.”

Weir also mentioned that on the evening of the fire he was harvesting, and he was able to redirect the grapes to the Herzog winery in Oxnard, where the wine was made instead. 

Recalling that night, Weir said he “was in denial for about 20 minutes. Then I heard a newscast describing the path of the fire, and I knew we were right in its path. I got some calls from my harvest interns who were staying in the guesthouse at the winery [the fire later destroyed the guesthouse]. At 11:30 they called a second time and  said that they could see the fire coming in the backyard of the winery. I picked them up; by then it was a quarter to 12. 

“It was a hurricane-like storm: fire and rocks and twigs and burning embers were all swirling around. The sky — everything — was orange. The colors had changed. We drove away.”

The fire also came within 150 yards of the Weirs’ home, some three miles from the winery. 

While the area was closed off for eight days, a few days after the fire police escorted Weir to survey the damage at the winery. “It was devastating. We had not seen it this way before. Everything that had been green was now black. It was empty; a lot of things that had been were no longer there.”

Weir is determined to rebuild. Much of his agricultural equipment has already been replaced. Hagafen’s visitors center, the exterior of which was charred, is being repaired, and he is even expanding it. “In three months it will look nicer than ever.”

Tasting Notes:

Ernie Weir sent me samples of three of Hagafen’s recent wines, all of which were quite good.

Hagafen, Sauvignon Blanc, 2017: Made from a blend of savignon blanc grapes grown in both Napa and Sonoma, light-bodied, straw-colored wine has a vibrant nose of apples, lemons, Seville oranges and gooseberries, with just a whiff of honeysuckle in the background. Look for flavors of Seville oranges, mandarins and lemons. While I imagine that this wine was likely in tanks while the fire ravaged the winery, there is not even a hint of heat damage. Crisp, dry and enjoyable, this wine is ready to drink now and for the next two years.

Score B+ ($21.99. Available at Beacon Wine & Spirits, 2120 Broadway, Manhattan, [212] 877-0028.)

Hagafen, Napa Valley, Brut Rosé, 2015. Made from 100 percent pinot noir, this dark-peach-to-rose-colored sparkler has a rich mousse of large bubbles and nose redolent of strawberries, raspberries, citrus and earth.  Look for flavors of raspberries, cherries and lemons, all leading to a bready yeastiness and a minerally background. Perhaps a touch sweeter than many bruts, this well-structured wine is ready to drink now and for the next five years.

Score A- ($44.99. Available at Suhag Wines and Liquor 69-30 Main St., Flushing, Queens, [718] 793-6629.)

Hagafen, Napa Valley, 36th Anniversary Winemaker’s Reserve, 2014: Made from Weir’s 36th vintage (while Hagafen did not open until 1979, Weir had made a small amount of kosher wine in 1978), this full-bodied, inky, dark-garnet-colored wine has a dense bouquet with elements of cherries, blackberries, cassis, pipe tobacco, leather, spice and smoky oak. Raspberries, blackberries and crème de cassis dominate the front of the palate, moving to Bing cherries and wood notes mid palate, with chocolate, citrus peel and spicy wood on the finish. Truly delicious, the wine is very enjoyable now, but will start to show its best in about a year, and should then drink well for another seven years.

Score A. ($120. Available directly from the winery, hagafen.com, [888] hagafen.)

Please Note: Wines are scored on an ‘A’-‘F’ scale where ‘A’ is excellent, ‘B’ is good, ‘C’ is flawed, ‘D’ is very flawed, and ‘F’ is undrinkable.  Prices listed reflect the price at the retailer mentioned.

For the author’s articles on native Israeli varietals and spirits for Passover, browse the Jewish Week Kosher Wine Guide for 2018.

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