Accidental winemaker cultivates an eco-kosher niche from organic vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountain

Friday, September 15, 2000 | by

ALEXANDRA J. WALL



The shofar's wail echoed throughout the vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The blowing of the ram's horn is customary every day but Shabbat during the month of Elul, in preparation of the High Holy Days.

But on Sunday the shofar's call was just a side note. A spell of hot weather had caused Benyamin Cantz's pinot noir grapes to ripen earlier than usual, and they needed to be harvested—now.

So Cantz put the call out to his friends. And about 30 of them—some from Santa Cruz, some from Berkeley, some with their children in tow—showed up to help the proprietor of Four Gates Winery spend a day in the vineyard, picking grapes.

The pickers began in a foggy vineyard, but by noon the clouds had given way to bright sunshine. While handling the clippers and filling the buckets was fun at first, after a few hours, 11-year-old Daniel Feld of Berkeley tossed a few of the blueberry-like specimens in his mouth, and declared, "I'm bored." Meanwhile, 15-year-old Moshe Langer of San Francisco meandered between rows, offering water to parched pickers.

Ramona Rubin of Santa Cruz, who keeps up on products that are "eco-kosher," meaning both organic and kosher, said she believes Four Gates is the only kosher wine made in America that uses organic grapes.

Cantz's foray into winemaking was more or less accidental. A member of the second graduating class of U.C. Santa Cruz, he has been living in the same place in the Santa Cruz mountains since 1971.

To reach his vineyard, one must drive four miles off Highway 17 and then up a treacherous dirt road "that gets easier once you're familiar with it," he said. A Christmas tree farm is down the hill.

While he did some of his own organic farming, Cantz was intrigued by some old grapevines on the property. "Someone had planted a small vineyard years ago, so I started taking care of them," he said.

In fact, he said, a vineyard used to be on the site in the 1880s, but the vines were pulled up during Prohibition.

Cantz, who had a Conservative upbringing in the San Fernando Valley, was involved with Jewish activities on campus at Santa Cruz. But after he graduated, he gradually became more observant.

He started making wine in 1980 because he wanted a dry, kosher wine that was also organic, for Kiddush, and there was none on the market. In the beginning, he drove to Gilroy to buy grapes, and his early batches yielded five to 10 gallons.

In the fall of 1989, he had made enough to fill 13 5-gallon jugs, but they all were destroyed in the Loma Prieta earthquake.

"They all broke, and I had nothing left." he said.

While he has taken one-day workshops here and there, Cantz is self-taught, and has learned by trial and error. In the beginning, he often called other local wineries to ask questions. Everyone was forthcoming with information, he said.

Because the wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains are much smaller than their counterparts in Napa and Sonoma counties, winemakers "see themselves in competition with everyone else, not each other," he said.

While he hires workers to pick—when friends are unavailable—he does absolutely everything else himself, in two rooms. Cantz, who on Sunday was wearing a baseball cap and like a few of the other pickers, had his tzitzit hanging over his jeans, showed a visitor the two-story wooden shack amid the redwoods, saying, "Here is Four Gates' international headquarters."

Outside, barrels and other assorted winemaking paraphernalia lay scattered throughout a cluster of trees.

Inside, a bottling machine that fills one bottle at a time, sat atop piles of boxes. The contraption that labels the bottles is cranked by hand, and also churns out one bottle at a time.

Throughout the winemaking process, Cantz says "L'kavod Shabbos Kodesh," (In honor of the holy Sabbath) aloud to improve the flavor.

The mashgiach, or kosher overseer, stops by whenever he's in the area, Cantz said. According to Chanan Feld, father of Daniel and a Berkeley-based mohel who was also picking, for wine to be considered kosher, it must be made by someone who is Sabbath-observant.

Non-Jews can handle the grapes before they are crushed as well as the bottles once they are double-sealed, but not in between, Feld said.

"Certain ingredients can't be used," said Cantz, "but not using them isn't a big deal. Grape juice is grape juice."

Currently, Cantz has 2,000 vines on 3-1/2 acres of land. Chardonnay grapes comprise half of the crop, one-fourth is merlot, and the rest is a mix of pinot noir and cabernet franc.

Cantz began bottling in 1997, producing about 300 cases a year. But he just began selling it this past April. His wine is kosher, year round and for Passover. So far, he has sold 100 cases, mostly through word of mouth.

While Cantz has supported himself over the years by doing calligraphy and teaching calligraphy classes, he hopes to be able to produce the wine full time. But just as important, he said, is the belief that he is creating something for a higher purpose. So far, he admits, the actual process of making it has taken precedence over marketing it.

He was nervous Sunday morning, not sure how many people would show up. Luckily, enough did, and he estimated about a ton of grapes would be harvested, which would produce about two barrels.

Four Gates was initially named after the four gates in Cantz's deer fence. One gate led to his house, one to his barn, one to the meadow and one to the forest. To him, that symbolized home, work, agriculture and the mystical wilderness. But then, he noted, there are the four cups of wine in the seder; the four ways of studying Torah; four directions on a compass and the four-letter name of God.

Plus, he said, "gates symbolize the pathway to spiritual growth."

Once the pickers completed their work, Cantz continued on. Beginning to unload the crates of grapes from the bed of his pickup truck, he said, "I will crush these tonight."