Careering from Cap’n Crunch to California cabernet

If you attended Berkeley Rep’s fall musical “Amélie,” based on the French movie, and ordered the accompanying wine pairing at the theater’s bar, you got a glass of C.G. Di Arie Cabernet Franc. If you attended last year’s “Party People,” a play about the Black Panthers, the pairing was a red blend called Taksim, named after the Istanbul neighborhood where the winemaker grew up.

His name is Chaim Gur-Arieh, and while there’s nothing new about pairing wine with food, he isn’t aware of anyone else who pairs wine with plays.

The winery that Gur-Arieh, 81, runs and owns in the Sierra Foothills with his wife, Elisheva, produces 10,000 to 15,000 cases a year and is the official wine partner of Berkeley Rep. Located in California’s Shenandoah Valley, the winery represents the culmination of a lifelong dream for the couple. But it took a while to get there.

Gur-Arieh, who has a Ph.D. in food science and helped create some iconic American supermarket brands, Cap’n Crunch and Hidden Valley Ranch among them, was born Chaim Mizrachi in Istanbul. His father’s family had been in Turkey since the 15th century, and his mother was descended from Greek Jews.

During World War II, when Chaim was just 14, he made a bold decision: He told his family he was going to Israel, where he had an uncle and grandmother in Haifa. His parents, who ended up joining him seven years later, felt they had no choice but to let him go.

But the situation there wasn’t all milk and honey. His parents “didn’t know what a miserable life my uncle had, and I didn’t know either,” he said. In fact, Chaim’s uncle didn’t show up at the port in Haifa when he arrived, so the boy ended up spending time in a resettlement camp until he finally located his family members.

Elisheva and Chaim Gur-Arieh

Chaim took the last name Gur-Arieh, “lion cub,” leaving behind the name Mizrachi, so common in Israel “it’s like Smith,” he said. After serving in the Israeli army, he studied chemical engineering at the Technion-Institute of Technology and took a job at a rubber factory. Dissatisfied with his work, he became intrigued when someone suggested he might like food science. He applied to advanced-degree programs in the United States, and when he got an offer from the University of Illinois — tuition paid — he moved there.

After completing his master’s and Ph.D., he got a job with Quaker Oats. At the time, the company was looking to branch out from oats into the burgeoning breakfast cereal market. Cereal was culturally foreign to Gur-Arieh, but he was a fast learner and was able to apply what he called “very complicated technology” picked up during his stint at the rubber company.

“I knew extrusion from working at the rubber company for making electrical wires with plastics, and so instead of electrical wires, we could extrude cereal,” Gur-Arieh said. At 29, he was tapped to lead the project.

Quaker introduced Life cereal in 1961. The company’s next venture into the cereal market was Cap’n Crunch, with Gur-Arieh at the helm.

Some years later he moved to California to work at a company developing food for astronauts. In 1974, he married Elisheva, a child of Holocaust survivors (her father was saved by Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara) who had grown up on a kibbutz and came to San Francisco as a teenager. Her stepfather was Henry Drejer, cantor at Congregation B’nai Emunah for 38 years.

The couple lived in Piedmont with their daughter, Sivan. Elisheva, an artist and former dancer, helped found Tehiyah Day School, as well as the docent program for the former Judah L. Magnes Museum.

She had developed an appreciation for wine in her 20s, and it continued to grow. While Chaim was busy with his flavor company Food Development Corp., which later merged with California Brands Flavors — and working on such projects as power bars and wine coolers — the couple learned as much as they could about wine.

When they were ready to open their winery in 2000, they looked to Napa, but then a bat mitzvah they attended in the Shenandoah Valley wine country changed their minds.

“I felt I had been here before,” said Elisheva, “with the lush rolling hills, the chaparrals, the cypresses, the olive and fig trees. I told Chaim, ‘This is it, forget Napa.’ I wanted to emulate my kibbutz life.”

They now live on more than 200 acres. Chaim makes the wine, and Elisheva does everything else: marketing, event planning, label design, sales, etc.

“From the onset, we decided we want to make quality wines,” Chaim said. “My wines have an Old World flare. These are not New World wines. I like balance. I can make flawless generic wines, but quality wines are more exciting.”

DUMPSTER DELICACIES: On the first night of Hanukkah, while you were no doubt feasting on your latkes and sufganiyot, so was I, inside a dumpster.

The evening was the brainchild of New York-based Josh Treuhaft, who started the Salvage Supperclub as part of his master’s degree program at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. His goal was to bring attention to the issue of food waste.

This was the first event on the West Coast, and judging by the interest of those who came, it will not be the last.

Pesha Perlsweig prepares latkes for Salvage Supperclub. photo/alix wall

About 18 of us sat at a long wooden table inside the dumpster set up in the street outside a home in North Berkeley, while chef Pesha Perlsweig and her sous chef worked on a six-course menu. The food came from local farms and backyards, as well as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Alameda County Food Bank and the online retailer Good Eggs.

I had come straight from a friend’s Hanukkah party, not expecting that latkes and sufganiyot would be on the menu.

But once Perlsweig got word that potatoes would be available, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. She had served the identical menu a day earlier, figuring no one would mind that they were getting latkes a little early.

Treuhaft, who is also Jewish, came up with the idea after observing his peers spending money on fine dining and Instagramming every course. They were after an experience and he was giving them one, while also raising awareness about the enormous amounts of food that go to waste in this country. The evening was a benefit for the Oakland nonprofit Food Shift.

“My goal is to show people a range of possibilities, and give them the opportunity to eat things we don’t think are edible, and find the places in the food system where food is needlessly getting wasted, but doing it in a fun way, like with a dumpster on the street,” he said, before diners donned their coats and went outside to eat (and yes, it drizzled a bit on us while we were out there).

Among the other things we ate: spaghetti with carrot-top pesto, pickled cauliflower leaves, radish-green oil.

Because Perlsweig had worked at a gourmet retailer and salvaged some of the  expired products while an employee, we also had truffle oil and other such delicacies — not your usual dumpster fare.


Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."