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When restaurateur Michael Dellar was growing up in Los Angeles, Wilshire Boulevard Temple was known as “Synagogue to the Stars.”
Now the owner of One Market Restaurant and his fellow congregants want to make sure their shul, Congregation Beth Shalom Napa Valley, is known as “Synagogue of the Vintners.”
That’s one promised outcome of “L’Chaim Napa Valley: A Celebration of Jewish Vintners” being held at the synagogue on Oct. 19.
“When I moved to Napa in 1981, Beth Shalom was very different than it is today,” said Gary Lipp, managing partner of Coho Wines and the person who was charged with finding wineries that are Jewish-owned, have a Jewish winemaker or some other Jewish connection to participate in the event. Already 14 are signed on, including Covenant Wines, Hagafen Cellars, Judd’s Hill Winery and Neiman Cellars.
“Though the winemakers that were [shul] members were valued, there weren’t any efforts to affirm or promote the role of Napa/Sonoma Jewish winemakers,” Lipp said.
One certainly couldn’t say the same today.
Napa’s Jewish vintners held similar celebrations through 2006 or so but then went on hiatus. Last year, the shul decided to bring the event back as a fundraiser for the youth programs. This year it is doing the same, while also raising funds for a scholarship for deserving students in the Napa Valley College Viticulture & Winery Technology program.
“This program is an important part of the community,” said Larry Kamer, a co-chair of the event with his wife, Devereaux Smith. “So the synagogue and vintners thought it was important to establish that connection, to make an investment in the future of wine production here in the Napa Valley.”
The format will be similar to last year’s, starting at 4 p.m. with a wine-tasting for $50, where all 14 wineries will be pouring for guests; cheese will be selected by local Jewish cheese maven Janet Fletcher. Dinner will follow for $195 (price to attend both is $225).
The dinner is a multi-course affair planned by Joan Nathan, who is teaming up with chef Itamar Abramovitch of Blossom Catering. He was featured recently in this column for Balagan, his Israeli pop-up in Napa. Abramovitch is a member of Beth Shalom.
Nathan, author of numerous Jewish cookbooks, is “perhaps the most acclaimed Jewish culinarian in the country,” Kamer said. She’ll be signing books and answering questions at the event.
The meal will begin with six appetizers from around the world, including Defo Dabo, Ethiopian Sabbath bread, and Persian Barzagan, a bulghur salad with tamarind and nuts. A late addition is a Libyan fish in a spicy tomato sauce called Aharaimi that was just in the New York Times’ food section for Rosh Hashanah. The main courses are brisket with red wine, vinegar and mustard and a Moroccan vegetable tagine. Dessert is dates in brown butter with vanilla ice cream, date syrup and halvah crumble.
Each table at the dinner will be hosted by an individual winery, and the winemaker or owner will pour more exclusive or rare wines, bottles that are primarily offered only to wine club members.
“Everyone is bringing out their best stuff,” said Dellar, who is a partner in a label called Stardust Wines. “I’m bringing magnums from 2007, it’s a really special vintage.” (A magnum is a large-size bottle that holds twice as much as a traditional bottle of wine).
While the Jewish relationship with wine goes back to Biblical times, the first Jewish presence in Napa Valley on record was in 1850, during the Gold Rush. The first Jew to make wine in Napa was French immigrant Leopold Lazarus, who began doing so in 1869 in Yountville, 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.
The number of wineries in Napa Valley with a Jewish connection has ebbed and flowed ever since, said Mendelsohn.
“I think there are less now,” said Mendelsohn. “We are seeing a lot of younger vintners coming up, as some of the old guard is dying or selling to larger corporate entities. We don’t have the number of small family vintners that we used to.”
She recalled one event in 2006 where as many as 40 Jewish-affiliated wineries participated.
“But we have Jewish vintners that are still a force in the valley who are still making fabulous wines that are held in high esteem,” she said. “They’re carrying on a tradition that’s thousands of years old and part of our heritage. And we don’t only have vintners, we have restaurateurs and chefs and people very much involved in the industry.”