Trend Chabad rabbis make their own (kosher) wine

The first time Chaim Zaklos checked on his cellared vats of cabernet sauvignon, something unexpected happened.

“During the fermentation stage, the smell is very strong,” recalled the Vacaville-based rabbi of Chabad of Solano County. “It actually got me high.”

on the cover: Rabbi Dovber Berkowitz with twins Chana and Shua

Since he took up winemaking more than a year ago, the entire enterprise has put the 32-year-old Zaklos in an altered state of joy.

Zaklos is one of a handful of Northern California Chabad rabbis dabbling in the kosher winemaking arts. Living as they do in wine country, the fruit of the vine calls out to these rabbis with every simcha and Shabbat dinner.

Their winemaking ranges from bathtub batches to small-boutique output, and one that is produced commercially and sold internationally (Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum’s Cuvée Chabad in Napa).

But all of the rabbis agree that working the earth, handling the grapes and bringing forth a drinkable wine — a product venerated in Jewish tradition — has been deeply, spiritually satisfying.

“The best designer couldn’t design it better,” Zaklos said, recalling his first morning in the vineyard. “At 6 a.m. the sun rises over the ridge. There’s the perfect purple color of the grapes. You realize wine is a living thing. It has a life of its own, and sheds light on the idea Kabbalah teaches us: Everything has a life, even the inanimate.”

Winemaking isn’t a new venture in traditional Jewish communities. Historically, because kosher wine was not readily available, pious Jews made their own at home.

“Winemaking has always existed in my circle,” said Zaklos. “I can think of at least 10 families in my close circle of family and friends who did this to have homemade wine for Passover. They were not the best tasting or most professional, but there was a special touch to it being homemade.

“As a child I was intrigued and hoped one day to make wine as well,” he continued. “When we moved to NorCal where so much of life here revolves around winemaking and especially after seeing the success in what Elchonon did, it planted the idea in my head, and when the possibility presented itself I jumped on it.”

To craft his debut vintage, Zaklos handpicked one ton of grapes on a 4-acre Vacaville vineyard owned by a member of his Chabad community. He then jumped feet first into the crushing, as well as the fermentation, barreling and bottling processes.

When he was done, Zaklos had produced 111 bottles of ruby red cab, all of it kosher-certified by an expert: him.

Rabbi Chaim Zaklos harvests grapes in the Vacaville vineyard owned by Steven Silberstein

Why the odd number? He was marking the 111th birthday of the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the seventh and last rebbe of the global Chabad movement. Zaklos sold the bottles as a fundraiser for his center.

His operation so far has been modest. He did not even name his wine or put labels on the bottles. Zaklos is now working on his next vintage, this time planning on 113 bottles.

Rabbi Raleigh Resnick, 35, of Chabad of the Tri-Valley, has been a bit more ambitious with his Alef-brand wines. His debut run of a 2012 cabernet sauvignon came in at 288 bottles.

Alef is named after the Hebrew alphabet’s first letter, which some religious Jews believe possesses a power of its own. Resnick noted the shape of the letter Alef has the Hebrew letter yud “on the top and the bottom, which is a way to connect heaven and earth, fusing the earth with the spirituality of our community. That was the purpose of the wine.”

Because Resnick grew up in Manhattan, far from anything resembling a grapevine, he is especially proud of getting his hands dirty to create his wines.

“I live in an area where wine is very much part of the culture,” Resnick says of his eastern Alameda County home base. “I always thought it would be wonderful to fuse the Livermore wine community and the Jewish community. My goal was to take the taste and flavor of Livermore Valley and put it on a Shabbos table.”

Resnick started winemaking in 2012 after conferring with one of his Chabad community members, Dan Kozak, an amateur vintner. They bought cabernet grapes from a Livermore grower, and then Resnick consulted the manual.

“I had learned [the laws of kashrut] as an abstract subject,” he said. “All of a sudden, all the things I learned in yeshiva I got to see: when it’s considered halachically wine, when it’s juice or not juice, when it can only be handled by Jews — even the different types of yeast.”

He learned that kosher yeast is hard to come by. Some cultures are grown on corn, which is considered kitniyot by Ashkenazi Jews and cannot be ingested during Pesach. Other yeasts are derived from dairy, which would make the wine OK to drink only when no meat is served. Some yeasts can be ordered from Israel but cost a fortune.

Then he had to make the equipment kosher.

“Usually you think of blowtorching,” said Resnick, who has blasted his share of kitchen ovens to render them kosher. “But for a barrel, you fill it with cold water for 24 hours, drain it and repeat three times.”

Resnick and Kozak oversaw the crush of the grapes. The rabbi even drove the forklift at one point. They added yeast, and then twice daily for a month they punched down the grape cap (a strenuous mixing of solids that rise to the top). In the end they had enough to fill two barrels of American oak, yielding nearly 25 cases, or 288 bottles.

When their 2012 cabernet sauvignon was ready to debut, Resnick held a reception and wine pouring just before Rosh Hashanah 2014 at the Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton. The event coincided with the 10th anniversary of Chabad of the Tri-Valley. Many attended, including the mayors of Dublin and Livermore.

Resnick saved a few cases for himself but sold the rest at $36 a bottle, all of it benefiting his Chabad center.

Rabbi Raleigh Resnick (far right) presses grapes for 2015 Alef zinfandel with (from left) Daniel Kozak, Bill Webster of Little Valley Winery and Alex Blyudin.

“It was a big success,” Resnick said. “But the purpose and goal was to do something for the community. When you become a vintner you’re part of the fabric of the community. It’s no longer a guy from Brooklyn with a strange hat and beard. We didn’t do it as a major business venture.”

Tenenbaum didn’t start out making wine as a major business venture either, but it sure ended up that way.

Now on its third vintage of zinfandel, his Cuvée Chabad label is distributed worldwide by Covenant, a prestigious kosher wine operation based in Berkeley. (Covenant,  Hagafen Cellars in Napa and Four Gates Winery in Santa Cruz are the only commercial kosher wineries in Northern California.)

A six-bottle case of Tenenbaum’s wine will set a customer back $216. A 12-bottle case is $432 (with free delivery). Proceeds support Chabad of Napa programs.

Tenenbaum is the dean of Bay Area winemaking rabbis. He was the first to give it a try nearly 10 years ago, soon after he arrived in Napa Valley at the age of 28 to establish the valley’s first Chabad center.

“He is in a different league entirely,” said Resnick of his colleague’s winemaking operation. “He’s known throughout the country.”

Indeed, Tenenbaum says he has fielded calls from Chabad rabbis in Southern California and even Chicago who are interested in following his lead.

Tenenbaum grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, knowing only the ubiquitous syrupy-sweet kosher wines.

“When I left New York 10 years ago, we had the regular sweet wine,” Tenenbaum recalled. “But I always felt there must be something more to it. Slowly I explored it. That really took off when I came [to Napa].”

In the beginning, winemaking was a mere curiosity for him. He was allowed into an Oakville vineyard in 2007 after the harvest was done, and he picked whatever cabernet grapes he found left in the vineyard.

This act had tremendous Jewish resonance for Tenenbaum, as the Talmud mandates that the corners of the fields are to be left open for anyone who wishes to forage.

“When I worked in the vineyard, I would start out early in the day, about 6 a.m.,” he remembered. “There would be four or five hours of pruning the vines, walking up each row. I would listen on my iPod to lectures of the rebbe, so I felt that was a very interesting spiritual connection.”

He also learned something about manual labor: Don’t keep at it too long. “I’d go home and sit on the couch, and could barely move for three days,” Tenenbaum said. “It totally wiped me out.”

In 2007 he bottled his first cabernet sauvignon. The following two years, he worked with a field blend of petite syrah, zinfandel and other grapes. With each go-round he got better, and in 2010 he drew the interest of Covenant owner Jeff Morgan, who was then living in Napa. Cuvée Chabad was born.

In 2011 they released their first 100 cases, and two years later they doubled that figure.

Unlike other local Chabad rabbis, Tenenbaum no longer does his own kosher certification. That’s in the hands of the Orthodox Union, which has global recognition. He also no longer picks his own grapes.

But he still likes to get his hands dirty.

Tenenbaum remembers the day he went into the fermentation room to punch down the wine, a process of vigorous stirring of the skins with the fermenting juice that helps create the richest possible color, among other benefits.

“I came in one day, punching wine, and it splashed on my shirt, a rich purple, beautiful color,” he recalled. “Someone said, ‘Rabbi, you should come dressed for the occasion.’ I said, ‘This is a badge of honor. I wear this proudly.’ ”

Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum, founder of Cuvée Chabad, has been making wine for 10 years.

Tenenbaum notes that the Torah compares the Jewish people to wine, and that the Talmud suggests a sukkah be made out of leftovers from the vines and the harvest.

“When it comes to wine, as much as you want to regulate it, it’s really up to God,” he added. “Whether it’s a good year, with more rain or less rain, it’s out of your hands. There’s nothing you can do to dictate what HaShem and nature are going to do. It turns out to be a fantastic lesson. You really see a parallel between this process and something that enriches your life.”

Tenenbaum’s second cousin, 32-year-old Rabbi Dovber Berkowitz, is the most recent of the Bay Area rabbi-winemakers.

At first glance, the Montreal-born-and-raised Berkowitz might seem too busy to add winemaking to his activities. He not only serves as rabbi at Chabad of the Delta, which he founded six years ago in Brentwood, but he also teaches and leads services at Chabad in Walnut Creek 30 miles to the west.

Making wine wasn’t part of his plan when he and his wife moved here in 2010. “It’s not like we sit around a table in Crown Heights and say, ‘Northern California wine,’ ” he said. True, his grandfather, also a rabbi, used to make his own wine in the family basement in Montreal, but Berkowitz said he was too young to remember it.

As with the other local Chabad rabbis, winemaking more or less fell into his lap. Last September a Chabad community member who owns a nearby farm offered to donate enough grapes from her family vineyard to make one barrel of wine.

“She told me, ‘If you want grapes, I have some left,’ ” he said.

Racing the clock against the start of the High Holy Days, Berkowitz and a friend got a couple of grape bins, rented a crusher and had 1.5 tons of zinfandel grapes delivered to his backyard-garage-turned-winery.

“We crushed the grapes and started the fermentation,” he said. “September in California in a noninsulated garage can be hot. So the fermentation happened much quicker. The red color comes from the contact the [liquid] has with the skins. If you ferment quickly, you lessen the time, so it won’t have the deep, rich color.”

He barreled the zinfandel last fall and is storing it in an Oakland wine warehouse. But Berkowitz compares this trial run to the first pancake you make for Sunday breakfast: It’s usually one you throw out.

“The acidity was a bit too high,” he said. “We learned a lot along the way. We said let’s try a white wine this year.”

Early this year, his same farmer friend donated Malvasia grapes. Then Berkowitz rewired an old chest-style freezer to give it thermostatic control, so it could keep the fermenting wine at a steady 50 degrees. He now has three barrels-worth in a makeshift warehouse.

Like his colleagues, Berkowitz is fascinated by the Jewish connection to wine. He noted that according to gematria, the Jewish numerological system, “wine” has the same value as the Hebrew word for “secret.”

“The Talmud says when wine goes in, secrets come out,” Berkowitz noted. “Wine has the ability to reveal what’s going on in a deeper way. For me what’s interesting is, you see [in winemaking] how with time things get better. You have to put time and effort into it, and the reward just grows.”

While winemaking may be satisfying and spiritually uplifting for these Chabad rabbis, it comes second to their primary mission of Jewish outreach.

“We believe in taking the path HaShem puts us on,” said Tenenbaum. “If it develops into a full-blown highway, OK. We’re always open to where things will guide us, in terms of connecting with our brethren. For some Chabad rabbis, that turns into winemaking.”

Until he is guided otherwise, Berkowitz is moving foward full bore with his wine venture, and has even settled on a name for the soon-to-debut 2015 Malvasia: Invei, which is a form of the Hebrew word for grapes.

“We’re planning on bottling before Pesach,” he said — though keeping in mind his errant zinfandel, he added, “We just hope it’s not an Invei oy vey.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.