I could smell it from the parking lot — corned beef, fried onions, and was that noodle kugel? I was in downtown Sonoma for the third annual Jewish Winemakers’ Tasting and Nosh, a celebration of Jewish winemaking in Sonoma and Napa. Like any Jewish event worth its name, there was plenty to eat. They call it “cleansing the palate” in polite vino circles, but I call it enjoying. What’s wine without food?
Yet what odd pairings were on tap. The usual fare at a wine-tasting is cheese and crackers, maybe a little fruit. But at this fundraiser for Congregation Shir Shalom of Sonoma, Jewish food was on the menu, and it never stopped coming out of the kitchen. There was noodle kugel — the good kind, with raisins and cottage cheese. There were potato latkes, hot dog sliders, falafel in pita, bagels with lox and cream cheese, potato knishes and miniature Reubens (that was the corned beef I smelled earlier).
And — get this — matzah ball shooters. Teensy matzah balls, two per plastic cup, floating in a bit ’o broth. “Don’t shoot ’em, you’ll choke,” cautioned the woman handing them out. (All the food was prepared by shul volunteers. Next year, I hear, they’re adding gefilte fish sushi.)
“This is the best Jewish wine event anywhere,” enthused event organizer Avram Goldman, co-owner with his wife, Lori, of Tres Hijas Vineyards in Sonoma. Why the best, I asked? Because Napa and Sonoma wines are the best, he said, so — ergo — the Jews who make wine there are also the best.
Goldman was pouring his 2009 sabroso rojo, a Rhône-style field blend of red grapes from Sonoma Valley. At $38 a bottle, it was about middling price for the room.
And how would it go with, say, a matzah ball shooter? Not that well, Goldman admitted. “It goes better with the Reuben,” he said. “Or the hot dogs.”
Jews have been making wine in Napa for as long as the juice has been running — at least since Friedrich “Fritz” Rosenbaum planted his grapes in St. Helena in 1878. (His home still stands, as the St. Clement Winery.) Some years ago, there was an attempt to get an annual Jewish winemakers’ weekend off the ground. It ran for three years before fizzling out. Goldman picked up the pieces and made it a fundraiser for his shul. Twenty-four winemakers were pouring this year, from home vintners to big operations such as Napa’s Hagafen, which also was the only kosher winery on hand.
If it’s not kosher, what makes a wine Jewish? “Me,” suggested Jeff Sternfeld, assistant winemaker at Jacuzzi Winery and Cline Cellars.
“I have a really deep relationship with the Earth,” offered Ross Halleck of Halleck Vineyard, playing the environmentalist card as he proffered some of his award-winning pinot noir. “I work with these vines every day and feel I’m [performing] a bit part in a play I hardly understand. I’m awestruck every day — that’s very Jewish.”
Next to Halleck and his blockbuster pinot was Judi Shapiro, who with her husband, Mitchell, makes just 80 bottles a year of cabernet franc from the 50 vines in their yard.
“I’m the head stomper,” she announced. “I used to stomp barefooted.” The Shapiros can’t legally sell their wine, so they give it away, mostly to benefit Shir Shalom. Now that’s pretty Jewish.
Speaking of giving it away, Josh and Cathy Stein of Stein Family Wines donate 5 percent of every sale they make to the children of local vineyard workers, mostly for college scholarships. As they write on their website, “It’s just as vital to be concerned about the experiences of the children of those who produce the wines as the environment of that wine production or the consumer’s understanding and enjoyment of that wine. “
That is huge. Five percent of every sale, not just of profits. For the Steins — both community college teachers — this is why they went into the business.
“It’s the idea of tikkun olam,” Josh told me. “Sustainability is more than what you put in the ground. It’s about the people, too. I want to be able to look at my kids at the end of the day and say, yes, I created this for you.”
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at email@example.com.