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Copyright © 2018
Forkmedia LLC


by Fred McMillin
for April 20, 2000


How Sweet It ISN'T!


With the beginning of Passover today, we quote the late Tom Stockley, whose words of wine wisdom have been extinguished by the recent Alaska Airlines crash...

"I've been looking into the kosher wines available today. Compared to the days when about all one could find were sweet, syrupy wines with a screw cap, we've come a long way."

British expert Stephen Brook agrees in the Wines of California... "Kosher wines used to be ultra-sweet treacly blends that were scarcely drinkable. Since the early 1980s excellent kosher table wines have been available from a handful of specialist wineries in California. The pioneer was Ernie Weir of Hagafen (hu-GAF-en) Cellars, which he established in Napa in l979."

Ernie Weir

Ernie Weir

Hagafen Cellars
Hagafen Cellars

The Rest of the Story

However, Ernie was not the first to make California kosher. Prof. Thomas Pinney tells us that honor apparently goes to a Bavarian Jew named Benjamin Dreyfus. In the wake of the Gold Rush, he came north to San Francisco to promote his Los Angeles wines, managed a cellar there, and in 1864 made Kosher wine.

Another pioneer was Louis M. Martini. During Prohibition in the 1920s home winemaking was legal. So he made and sold to the public a grape concentrate aptly named "Forbidden Fruit." Also, he made the legal medicinal and sacramental wines. with a rabbi living on the grounds, they "even made kosher wine."

There was a trickle of dry kosher wine produced after Prohibition but it died out and for decades the only available koshers were those sweet, screw-cap specials.

The Impossible Dream

Then, 30 years ago, a young student with big ideas and a small wallett had an impossible dream. Here's how he decribed it to me on March 24, 1988.

    In the 1970s, as I completed my studies at U.C.-Davis, I began to dream of making the best quality Napa Valley wines using modern methods but infused with my Jewish cultural identity. Now, a decade later, we are about to release our first Reserve Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, both kosher.

That was many wines and many medals ago. Success has been so great that in a few months the handsome new Hagafen ("vine" in Hebrew) winery will open, ready to process the year 2000 crush.

One of the newest triumphs is Ernie's first Merlot, our...

Wine of the Day

1997 Hagafen Merlot, Napa Valley
Accolades—California State Fair Competition (if you have ever been there, you know it is huge and impeccably objective with top judges)

  • Gold Medal
  • Best of Class
  • Best of Region(Napa Valley)
    Food Affinities - Lamb stew with mushrooms and tiny pearl onions; quail; robust pasta dishes
    Contact—Office of Nancy Levenberg, (707) 252-0781, FAX (707) 252-4562
    Price—$20 range


    We've covered kosher wine criteria in past WineDays, including these dates and titles.
    April 23, 1997 - "A Fine Wine for Passover" ("kosher" means "correct.")
    October 3, 1997 - "The Story of Kosher Wine" (the accidental start of sweet kosher wine in New York City)

    James Lapsley, Bottled Poetry
    Diane Bulzomi, Research Assistant

    About the Writer

    Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


    This page created April 2000