Chef David Nayfield flips his wood-fired chicken. (Photo/Janna Waldinger, Art & Clarity Photography)
Chef David Nayfield flips his wood-fired chicken. (Photo/Janna Waldinger, Art & Clarity Photography)

Wine lovers in Napa raise a glass — and raise it again — for charity

You know that stereotype that Jews don’t drink? The people who attended “L’Chaim Napa Valley: A Celebration of Jewish Vintners” proved otherwise at Napa’s Congregation Beth Shalom on Saturday night.

While winemakers were assigned to a table during dinner to pair wines with each course, they also cruised around the room, offering tastes to anyone who raised his or her glass.

“My table is lagging,” joked Wayne Fingerman, co-owner with wife Kara of Hard Six Cellars, as he made his way to another table.

The event began with a tasting from 16 wineries, all with either a Jewish owner or Jewish winemaker, and then transitioned into a sit-down dinner prepared by chefs David Nayfeld, chef-owner of San Francisco’s Che Fico, and Itamar Abramovitch, chef-owner of Napa-based Blossom Catering Company. The evening was a fundraiser for the synagogue’s youth programs, but it also was an excuse to highlight the Jewish vintners of Napa Valley, something that was done over a decade ago but that lapsed for some years.

Guests at the table of winemaker John Bonick of Art House Wines say the hamotzi. (Photo/Janna Waldinger, Art & Clarity Photography)
Guests at the table of winemaker John Bonick of Art House Wines say the hamotzi. (Photo/Janna Waldinger, Art & Clarity Photography)

The Jewish presence in Napa Valley started during the Gold Rush with French immigrant Leopold Lazarus, said Donna Mendelsohn, a past president of the shul and co-author with Henry Michalski of the 2012 book “Napa Valley’s Jewish Heritage.” Lazarus settled in St. Helena in 1862, operating a general merchandise store until 1875.

Some longstanding wineries in the Valley, such as Diamond Creek (started in 1968 by the late Al Brounstein and now run by his widow, Boots) and Judd’s Hill (started in the 1980s by the late Art Finkelstein and his wife, Bunnie, and now run by their son Judd and his wife, Holly) are still going strong.

For the new generation that arrived over the last decade or so, this event was a first. Among the newer crew were winemakers Rebekah Wineburg and Alex Farber, who both poured at the tasting.

Winemaker Drew Neiman of Neiman Cellars pours wine for a guest. (Photo/Alix Wall)
Winemaker Drew Neiman of Neiman Cellars pours wine for a guest. (Photo/Alix Wall)

“During harvest, I wouldn’t come out for very much, but it’s so much fun to share what we do,” said Wineburg, from St. Helena’s Quintessa. “I’m not very religious, but wine is such a part of our culture.”

Added Farber, winemaker at Miriam Alexandra, “it’s always so wonderful to connect with the Jewish community and pour wine at Jewish events, where everyone is so appreciative,” she said. “It has such a homey feeling, and it’s all about making connections.”

“It seemed like the right time to resurrect this Jewish vintners’ group,” said Beth Shalom Rabbi Niles Goldstein, noting the Jewish connection to wine in the Bible.

The crowd was a mix of members and nonmembers, and event chair Marc Hauser was thrilled with the results, as the twin goals of raising funds for the youth program and throwing a great party were met.

“We also achieved the goal of bringing together a significant number of Jewish vintners in Napa Valley and showcasing them to the community,” he said. “I hope that we’ve restarted a tradition that will only build on itself in the years to come.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."