For any business owner, hitting the 40-year mark is a huge accomplishment. For Ernie Weir, founder and owner of Hagafen Winery in Napa Valley, this milestone also brings a sense of pride and gratification.
For one thing, he loves that at least half of the visitors to his winery aren’t Jewish and aren’t even aware that they’re sampling kosher wine. Even after their visit, they sometimes leave none the wiser.
“That’s one of the things I was trying to do, normalize kosher wine and make it part of the overall food and wine culture,” he said. “Of course it’s special for Jews who come looking for kosher wine, but for others, we’re just a winery in a fine production area on the Silverado Trail.”
He is also proud of consistently winning awards in various competitions, and until recently it was a point of pride that Hagafen has been served in the White House in every presidential administration going back to Ronald Reagan. Until the most recent one. When he was notified that the wine was served at last year’s White House Hanukkah party, he replied, “No comment.”
Weir is a Los Angeles transplant whose parents were immigrants from Germany and Czechoslovakia. He came to appreciate wine through his parents, though their taste ran only to white wines.
After graduating from UCLA, he headed to Israel to experience life on a kibbutz, as he was interested in living an agricultural setting that was also a socialist collective. At the time he thought he would be learning to grow grapes, another of his interests. But unfortunately, there were no grapes to be found on this particular kibbutz.
Weir stayed on the kibbutz for a year and then went to Napa upon his return. It was 1974, “a time period when Napa was reawakening,” he said. “There was a second great wave because of Robert Mondavi. I must have heard that and also knew of people leaving the big city and going back to the land.”
Weir had taken to chicken farming on the kibbutz, and he has kept chickens over the years, but he did not want to pursue it as his livelihood. When he arrived in Napa, he was still on a mission to learn how to grow grapes.
He got a job with Domaine Chandon, the first French-owned sparkling wine producer in Napa Valley. He also attended UC Davis’ viticulture and oenology program. When he left Domaine Chandon in 1979, he went off on his own and eventually, with his Israeli-born wife, Irit, started Hagafen.
Weir said his decision to make kosher wine was influenced by the ’70s, an era in which there was a “great surging of cultural pride, with all ethnic groups proud and asserting their identities.”
Even though he didn’t grow up keeping kosher, he said, “Culturally, it’s a nice thing to do, if we can bring honor to the way Jews drink wine.”
Part of it was pragmatic. He had never tasted a kosher wine he liked, and barely anyone was making one that wasn’t syrupy sweet like Manischewitz. “I thought, ‘We’re not drinking very good wine. Can we do something better? I took it upon myself to apply myself toward that goal.”
Because wine is used for sacramental purposes in Judaism, it has its own rules in the production process to ensure it’s kosher. For instance, only Sabbath-observant Jews can handle it during the fermentation process. This means Weir stands by with his hands in his pockets, telling his workers what to do.
He knows he couldn’t have made it for this long without his loyal customers.
“I really appreciate the people for buying and appreciating what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years,” he said. “I knew I was onto something when others came after me.”
Looking toward the future, Weir said he’d like to reach 50 years in business. As of now, none of this three children are interested in taking over, but they’re still young adults; it’s possible they could change their minds.
“The kosher industry has blossomed, and it’s fantastic to see the variety and the choice and quality that exists now. It parallels the rest of wine industry. It’s a beautiful thing to participate in, and I give credit to the people who are doing it well.”
Temple Israel in Alameda is hosting a “beer mitzvah” as a fundraiser for its school programs on Sunday, April 28 from 1 to 5 p.m. A $36 ticket buys unlimited tastings of at least 14 craft beers and ales. The day will culminate in a vote determining “the chosen one.” beermitzvah.brownpapertickets.com