For nearly four decades, California’s Napa Valley has been home to some of the best kosher wines in the world. Most of them have been made by one man — Ernie Weir, the founder of Hagafen Cellars. Located at the southern end of Napa Valley’s famous Silverado Trail (one of the valley’s main wine tourism routes), Hagafen is housed in a picturesque set of stone and plaster buildings, next to a green, leafy vineyard, with purple-topped mountains hovering in the distance.
Weir started making kosher wines in Napa Valley in 1979, at a time when, for most American Jews, the choice in kosher wine was between Manischewitz and Mogen David. Weir says that his desire to make kosher wine dates back to his childhood in the 1960s when he was bothered by the fact that wine-loving relatives felt the need to bring quality non-kosher wines to the family Passover seder. He said to himself, “This is absurd, why can’t we have that product [quality wine and kosher wine] all wrapped up in one.”
In 1973 Weir moved to Napa Valley to learn about growing grapes, and was soon working at Domaine Chandon, the first French-owned winery in the U.S., and studying viticulture and oenology at the University of California at Davis. Five years after arriving in Napa, he decided to make his own wine, and Hagafen was born.
“In our first year, we sold all of our wine in California,” he said, but his wines were quickly getting attention throughout the kosher world. “One of the benchmarks that told me that I was on to something was when other people contacted me and told me that they were going to copy me or do something similar. I was getting calls in the early ’80s from the people at Yarden, and the people at Weinstock, and from the people at Manischewitz who wanted to make a dry Chardonnay.”
Even today, Weir continues to get calls from around the world from would-be kosher winemakers. “I treat them like a non-Jew wanting to convert; I try to talk them out of it three times before they get accepted,” Weir said. “There are different levels: a financial level, a spiritual level, a business level, a marketing level. It’s not for me to judge if they’re prepared [to go kosher], but if we have a deep enough conversation we touch upon all of those things.”
In 1997, Weir left Domaine Chandon, after 24 years, in order to devote himself full-time to making Hagafen. That same year he broke ground on the Hagafen winery, which opened in 2000. In 2004 Weir started to produce a reserve line of wines (which he later named Prix Vineyards), and in 2006 he started producing Don Ernesto, a line of lighter, easy-to-drink wines whose bottles proclaim “Good wine shouldn’t be complicated.”
In recent years Weir has also started making a growing number of private label wines. He is very proud of Padis Brilliance, a blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon he makes for his friend Steve Padis, from grapes grown on Padis’ Napa Valley property. “A lot of people are appreciating this wine,” Weir said.
Another new venture is the line of Poppy Fields wines that Weir makes for Nakedwines.com, a crowdsourcing marketplace for wine that has 75,000 members (and a months-long waitlist to join). Each member pre-spends $40 per month on wines, and this money is used to directly fund independent winemakers. Since 2012 Weir has been the website’s kosher winemaker. “Nakedwines is a very interesting venture for all of the participant winemakers. … I’ve been making about 2,500 cases a year for them, half red and half white. We think that number will go up a bit,” said Weir. “It’s good for me because it allows me to spread my overhead over more cases of wine. And the wines I make there I am intending never to be directly competitive with my other wines. They are all from unique vineyards.”
Weir’s page on the Nakedwines website has a Facebook-like wall with more than 6,700 posts, most of them with positive reviews of Weir’s wines; clearly for many of those posting, Poppy Fields is their first exposure to kosher wine. “I think this is largely a new customer base for me,” he said.
In general Weir sees the kosher wine industry evolving along two parallel tracks: “Look how it [the industry] has developed and matured over the past number of years. It is continuing in sophistication, and it is continuing with bargain wines.” According to Weir, “that is the natural direction of the development of any category [of wine].”
When asked about future trends at his winery, Weir said, “I think that we’d like to continue, where appropriate, the trend of vineyard designation to appellation-specific wine, and in so doing we have a preference to produce wine from organically grown vineyards.” Indeed, Weir has become increasingly involved in the organic viticulture movement, and is excited by the number of wines he is producing from organically grown grapes. “All of our wines from our ranch in Coombsville are organically grown, and our Cabernet Sauvignon from our estate vineyard is organically grown.”
Hagafen Cellars (including Prix Vineyards and Don Ernesto) currently makes approximately 8,000 cases of wine each year, much of which is sold at the winery’s tasting room, which has become a regular stop for Napa Valley wine tourists. “Most of the people who come to us have no idea that they are coming to a winery that is any different than any other winery,” said Weir. “And many leave without even knowing the wine is kosher. … We are just part and parcel of the tapestry of the Napa Valley. And I think that’s great.”
Below is a selection of some of Ernie Weir’s recent releases:
Hagafen, Pinot Noir, Coombsville, Napa Valley, 2014: Made from organically grown Pinot Noir, this wine has a dark ruby color and a medium body. Look for fruity flavors and aromas of red cherries, currants, raspberries, strawberries, and pencil shavings and spice, with a hint of cherry brandy on the finish. This wine is well-structured with smooth, well-integrated tannins. Drink now and for the next five years, or perhaps longer.
Score: A- ($32. Available directly from the winery, 888-hagafen or hagafen.com.)
Hagafen, White Riesling, Wieruszowski Vineyard, Napa Valley, 2015: Weir has been making this wine since the beginning of the winery (the 1980 riesling was served at the White House in 1981, when Prime Minister Begin met with President Reagan). This year’s vintage is a straw-colored, medium-bodied wine. Look for a nose of oranges, lychees, honey and spice, with a light floral background. The flavor has elements of oranges, lychees and allspice, with notes of honeysuckle and bitter almonds. With 4 percent residual sugar, this wine is somewhere between semi-dry, and semi-sweet, but has crisp acidity to balance the sweetness. Drink now until the end of the decade.
Score: B+ ($24. Available directly from the winery, 888-hagafen or hagafen.com.)
Prix Vineyards, Reserve Chardonnay, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley, 2014: With a full body, and a tawny dark-straw color, this Chardonnay has an impressive nose of apples, pears, quince, brier, and toasty oak. Look for flavors of apples and Meyer lemons at the front of the palate, moving to notes of coconut and roasted nuts mid-palate, with quince and notes of eucalyptus and mulling spices on the finish, and a moderate note of oak running throughout. While drinking well now, this wine will probably start to show its best in about a year, and then should drink well until at least 2022.
Score: A/A-. ($40. Available directly from the winery, 888-hagafen or hagafen.com.)
Don Ernesto Clarinet, Tempranillo, Lodi, 2014: This light garnet-colored, medium-to-full-bodied wine has flavors and aromas of cherries, cranberries and blackberries, with a whiff of Napa cabbage. Look for notes of green bell peppers and white peppercorns on the finish. Drink within the next three years.
Score: B+ ($27. Available directly from the winery, 888-hagafen or hagafen.com.)
Poppy Fields, Merlot, Napa Valley, 2014: Full-bodied and garnet-colored, this Merlot has flavors and aromas of cassis, cherries and blackberries, with a hint of brier. With an abundance of chewy tannins, and a slightly rustic character, this wine should drink well until the end of the decade.
Score B/B+ ($29.99 for non-members, and $15.99 for members. Available at Nakedwines.com.)
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.
Gamliel Kronemer writes the Fruit of the Vine kosher wine column for the paper.