Then and Now: Kosher wine turned golden in Napa Valley

Although kosher wine, for most of American history, existed somewhere on the taste continuum between cough syrup and bubble gum, today’s local kosher wineries like Covenant Wines and Hagafen Cellars produce liquid delight that has profoundly changed that reputation.

From the beginning, local Jews were intimately involved in creating the viticulture behemoth known as Napa Valley. In the generation after the Gold Rush, when it became clear that the real California gold was not ore but the dirt itself, agriculture became the state’s primary economic engine.

In the 1870s, former shop owner Samuel Lachman began to market California wines to the rest of the country. His son Henry created the California Wine Makers’ Corporation. At the turn of the century, financial trailblazer Isaias Hellman (Wells Fargo Bank) took over the California Wine Association, which controlled the production of the majority of the state’s wines.

The metaphor of California as a Jewish Promised Land took on a literal meaning to many 19th century Jewish merchants, for whom biblical visions of grapevines danced with financial opportunity. In the book “Under the Vine and the Fig Tree: The Jews of the Napa Valley,” Lin Weber describes what they might have seen in the valley north of San Francisco, as “the hillsides turn gold in the summer, and in the early fall the leaves of the grapevine took on a ruby glow” in what many today still call “a kind of Eden.”

This column is provided to j. by Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where stories of local Jewish life are explored in “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.”

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.