Winemaking congregants say kiddush over homemade red

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When members of a Wine Country synagogue give thanks for the fruit of the vine at Sukkot, they'll be raising their glasses with a blend of their own — Rebbe's Red.

The new label, Kerem Beth Ami, is the fulfillment of a three-year dream that culminated in March, when members of Santa Rosa's Congregation Beth Ami said kiddush over the fledgling product.

Unusual? "Not up here," said Rabbi Jonathan Slater. "You have to remember that many of our congregants are backyard vintners or work in the wine industry."

Among the synagogue members are Jeffrey Sternfeld, a lab supervisor for Kendall-Jackson Wines, and Ed Sherman, whose backyard operation includes 40 vines. The two spearheaded an amateur effort to bottle Kerem Beth Ami, Hebrew for "Vineyard of Beth Ami." The labels were designed by a congregant, graphic artist Leanne Schy.

The project took root in the fall of 1998, when a group of amateur vintners began meeting to develop a kosher wine, with congregants taking sole responsibility for harvesting, producing and bottling. Sherman lent a motorized crusher, a destemmer and basket press. Sternfeld persuaded Sonoma County's Kendall-Jackson to donate a third of a ton of grapes, enough for roughly 170 bottles.

"With several excellent home winemakers already sharing their wines at congregational potluck dinners and a smattering of professional vineyard and winery people in the congregation, the expertise was available," Sternfeld said.

Admittedly, the post-El Niño harvest season was not the best of times for the Sonoma County winemakers. But in mid-October, Sternfeld said, "four intrepid pickers battled the sun and a few bees" at Kendall-Jackson's demonstration vineyard near Fulton, harvesting more than 700 pounds of sangiovese, charbono, barbera, French colombard, chenin blanc and semillon grapes.

The result: Rebbe's Red, an amalgam of all the red grapes. Three white varietals were eventually blended to create Hagigah, Hebrew for "celebration." Sherman produced a third wine in his garage, creating a light beaujolais-style wine, but from Dry Creek Valley zinfandel grapes.

Congregants consumed their first sample at a community seder in March. "Beth Ami Blanc" was filtered to remove all residual yeast cells, making it kosher for Pesach.

An attempt at meshuval — making the wine kosher by heating it — was a dud. "Messy," explained Sternfeld.

While the ingredients of the synagogue's wine are all kosher, Sternfeld said the product "certainly wouldn't meet the standards of commercially sold kosher wine, which technically must be made by shomer Shabbos Jews under the direction of a rabbi."

The group is preparing for the harvest of 1999. Donations have already rolled in, in the form of stainless steel tanks and new oak barrels.

Sternfeld said he hopes to increase wine production by 50 to 100 percent this fall, when the second harvest is completed.

Slater said the project "was successful from the first run," perhaps because "we're dealing with people who've been doing this all along."

For the synagogue, the winemaking "creates a sense of community since people are participating in the process, either picking grapes, pressing them, fermenting the juice, and finally bottling the wine," Slater added. "And it creates a sense of community at large in that we then enjoy this product together at temple events, whether at Pesach or Sukkot. And of course, we then have access to a relatively low-cost product."

There's talk of generating a massive enough quantity that congregants may bring Kerem Beth Ami home for use at Shabbat or holidays, but the likelihood is greater it will be restricted "just to special events," Slater said.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.