Vintner rabbi ties kosher wine to Jewish heritage, earthly pleasure

Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum appears to be in a state of reverie. His eyes nearly closed, he tilts his head back and takes a deep breath.

“This is part of our heritage, our history,” he says. “It’s connected to almost every ritual in Judaism.”

Tenenbaum isn’t talking about the Torah. He’s standing in an airy warehouse in Napa, not far from the Chabad Jewish Center of Napa Valley, which Tenenbaum and his wife, Chana, founded some six years ago.

The rabbi swirls his long-stemmed wine glass and takes another sip of zinfandel.

Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum samples a glass of Cuvée Chabad. photo/emma silvers

To be specific, it’s his zinfandel: the 2011 Cuvée Chabad Zinfandel, a spicy, fruity, deep red kosher wine. It was grown, crushed and aged here in Napa, under Tenenbaum’s supervision. And while the rabbi has been making wine in small batches for the past five years, October will mark the first time any of his wines will be available to the public.

 “I want to revolutionize the way people think about kosher wine,” he says. “Most people understand it to be this sweet bottle  on the table at Passover … when in reality there’s such a spiritual significance to wine. There’s not a moment in Judaism where wine isn’t involved. It’s been part of the kosher diet for so long, it’s essentially a way of connecting to our Jewish DNA.

 “And when the Talmud talks about wine,” he adds with a slight smirk, “the Talmud talks about good wine.”

Originally from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Tenenbaum and his family moved to the Bay Area in 2006 to establish the first Chabad center in Napa. Soon after his arrival, Tenenbaum met two Jewish winemakers, Leslie Rudd and Jeff Morgan, who made quality kosher wines under the names Covenant and RED C. (Rudd, a heavy hitter in Napa’s food and wine industry, also produces his own non-kosher wines at Rudd Winery.)

When Tenenbaum expressed an interest in wine, Morgan and Rudd were his biggest supporters. After the 2007 harvest, the rabbi made his first batch of wine, 12 bottles in all, with grapes left over from Rudd’s harvest. Tenenbaum shared the wine with Morgan, who was thoroughly impressed. Later that evening, Morgan ran into a Jewish friend who asked him, “Do you know someone who can take care of my half-acre of old vine zinfandel?”

For the next two years, Tenenbaum farmed and harvested the vineyard, making small batches (one barrel, or 25 cases, per harvest). Though the first vintage was aged in his garage, Tenenbaum cared deeply about getting it right.

He remembers one November, when he had to travel to Brooklyn for the annual Chabad emissaries convention, he found himself calling his wife every few hours to check on the wine, making sure she was taking temperatures and overseeing the fermentation process. Still, it wasn’t a business. The rabbi gave the wine away to friends, or poured it at special occasions.

In 2010, Tenenbaum entered into a partnership with Covenant wines, sharing the winery’s space and its crew. The Cuvée Chabad team is essentially Tenenbaum, Morgan and Jonathan Hajdu, the associate winemaker at Covenant.

Cuvée Chabad joins a small and tight-knit family. In California’s massive wine industry, only a handful of wineries produce kosher wine: Covenant and Hagafen in Napa; Baron Herzog in Oxnard, just north of Los Angeles; Shirah Wine Company in Los Angeles County; Four Gates in Santa Cruz; and newcomer Brobdignagian, produced by Hadju.

Making kosher wine is labor-intensive — unless the wine is mevushal, or heated just below boiling point, only observant Jews can crush the grapes, tend to the wine in its barrel stage or help with bottling. Kosher restrictions mean that plant stems, insects and other “natural” debris that might find their way into other wines are strictly forbidden from touching the wine. Not being able to work on Shabbat or during Jewish holidays adds another layer of difficulty and, of course, each ingredient added must be certified kosher.

Tenenbaum approaches these hurdles with open arms. “The challenges of making kosher wine add to the spiritual element of it,” he said, adding that the patience and endurance necessary for tending to a vineyard, as well as the celebration at harvest, are in line with Jews’ traditional relationship with agriculture.

 “I’ll never forget my first January, out trimming branches, thinking ‘These look dead’ … and then spring comes, and so do the blossoms, and you watch this metamorphosis that in my view is absolutely divinely inspired,” he says. “Every bottle tells a story, every bottle has a history.”

Tenenbaum sees making wine as a natural extension of his work as a Jewish educator. A tagline on Cuvée Chabad’s Facebook page reads, “The question is not, ‘How did a Chabad Rabbi from Crown Heights, Brooklyn become a winemaker in Napa Valley?’ But rather, ‘How could the rabbi not become a winemaker?’ ”

Morgan, who says he’s become more observant through his work as a winemaker, says he hopes to see Tenenbaum and his wines flourish. “I’ve always known that you could make really good wine that just happens to be kosher,” says the winemaker. “I hope what [the rabbi] is doing will help put Napa on the map that way.”

Tenenbaum sees his wine business as one more way to spread the word about Chabad-Lubavitch. “This is carrying out the Rebbe’s mission to get the message out, in a way that resonates with a lot of people.”

If the past week’s pre-sales are any indication, the rabbi is right about the “lot of people” part. Tenenbaum sent out a press release Sept. 5 about upcoming Cuvée Chabad sales. Within 24 hours he had pre-sold one-quarter of the 101 cases available this year. With an eye toward next year’s wine, the rabbi says he doesn’t know what direction the business will take, though he’s optimistic. “At Passover we say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ ” he says. “This is sort of, ‘Next year, with good wine.’ ”

But for now, helping other Jews to connect to their heritage is cause enough to celebrate.

 “When we observe Jewish traditions by eating a certain food or drinking wine at a certain time, we’re carrying out 3,000 years of Jewish wisdom and guidance,” says the rabbi, taking one last sip. “It’s observing with your taste buds.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.