New York rabbi makes kosher wine from St. Helena vineyard
By David Stoneberg
Thursday, October 23, 2008
When most grapegrowers talk about history, they talk about a time nearly 150 years ago when the first vines were planted in the Napa Valley.
Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum, the director of Chabad of Napa Valley, connects with history, too — only it is ancient history, when Orthodox Jews tended vines and made wine for the temple in Jerusalem.
According to Genesis, Noah was the first one to plant vines, grow grapes and make wine. Today Tenenbaum is tending the grapevines and making wines much the way Noah did thousands of years ago.
At 6 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 16, Tenenbaum and Jonathan Hajdu met at the Pratt Avenue vineyards owned by Naomi Glass, and spent four hours harvesting about a ton of grapes from the head-trained, 30-year-old zinfandel and younger syrah and carignane vines.
“We wanted to beat the heat,” Tenenbaum said. “It was a great experience: We would go through the bushes and make sure the grapes were ripe enough, although the Brix was lower than anticipated.”
The grapes were destemmed and Tenenbaum said the fermentation is happening naturally in open-top bins. “We’re leaving it up to God,” he said. Afterward, the must will be hand-pressed and the wine will be aged for a year in used oak barrels. Tenenbaum said his methods are a blend between modern winemaking techniques and ancient ways that may be unorthodox.
Make no mistake about it, the rabbi is a man of God and the field blend he is making follows kosher protocols and is able to be used in Jewish rituals. It will be bottled and released in December 2009, in time for Hanukkah, the celebration of the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem.
The wine, the first “Cuvee Chabad” made in thousands of years, will not be for sale. “We’re leaving it up to a higher authority and it will be used for ceremonial purposes,” Tenenbaum said. “It goes a bit beyond money, because the wine is priceless.”
The rabbi said the experience of making the wine and the holiness associated with it makes each bottle of wine unique. “I look at it very differently,” he said, than just a commercial transaction. Tenenbaum said Judaism is the blending between the spiritual and physical and by making wine he is increasing his faith and realizing how Judaism is connected to agriculture.
Tenenbaum, a New York native who was educated in Judaism in the concrete jungles of Brooklyn, says simply that two years ago he was directed by God to come to the Napa Valley. He founded Chabad of Napa Valley, which is a center open to all Jews.
Last year, Tenenbaum and Jeff Morgan, a St. Helena resident and co-owner of Covenant, made a case of cabernet sauvignon wines from grapes grown in Oakville. The two were tasting the developing wine and Morgan mentioned he had had a conversation with Naomi Glass, who owns a small vineyard on Pratt Avenue. She was looking for someone to take care of her vines. Morgan told her, he knew just the person.
In February, Tenenbaum and Jonathan Hajdu, the associate winemaker at Covenant, started pruning the 400 vines on the Glass property. Afterward, the two sprayed the vines for mold, fertilized and watered the vines and suckered them when the time was right. After bud break they dropped some fruit to focus the vine’s efforts on the remaining clusters.
“Coming from New York, this is a huge change in things,” Tenenbaum said. “I realize how Judaism is connected to agriculture, with the harvest.” Additionally, Judaism’s three major holidays, Passover in April, Shavuot in June and Sukkot in October are all connected to different phases in agriculture. These show how the Jews, God’s chosen people, are connected to God.
“God is the essence of the world,” Tenenbaum said, “We are able to recognize godliness through the growth of the vine.”
Five years ago Morgan started Covenant with Leslie Rudd specifically to make kosher wines. Morgan said Tenenbaum’s field blend is the first “Cuvee Chabad” made in 4,500 years. “It’s very exciting,” he adds.
Hajdu, an Orthodox Jew, and Tenenbaum harvested a ton of grapes in mid-September but purposely left some grapes on the vines. Glasses’ property, La Buona Stella, was established in 1890. On one of its barns is a quote from Leviticus: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not strip your vineyard bare nor gather the overlooked grapes; you must leave them for the poor and the stranger.”
The quote is another reason the rabbi believes God directed him to the Napa Valley and to tending the vines on the Glass property.
It’s not easy making kosher wine, as only Jews can crush the grapes, tend the wine in its barrels or bottle it. And they can’t work on it during Sabbath, which starts Friday at sunset and ends 24 hours later, or during the Jewish holidays. Additionally, those workers need to be certified as “Sabbath observant” by a rabbinical agency.
Add to that the fact that all of the ingredients in the wine have to be certified kosher, but the Morgan’s help, Tenenbaum should be able to find what he needs.
“Wine is the oldest beverage, Jews first started making it for the holy temple in Jerusalem some 3,000 years ago,” Tenenbaum said. Not much has changed since then and the connection between the ancient and contemporary again shows how God directs the world. “It’s been a very spiritual experience,” he adds.
Wines and Judaism
For more information on Napa Valley kosher wines, visit
For information on Chabad of Napa Valley, visit www.JewishNapaValley.com.