There is little in this cellar that is unlike any other cellar. Racks of barrels, sealed with bungs. Hoses and clamps, stored neatly. Cat-food dish, for the winery cat. But catch a closer sight at those bungs: they’re sealed with light blue tags, nailed down tight to the barrels. “There shall be no wine before its time,” it’s been said. At Hagafen, there shall be no wine before it’s kosher.
Not that you’d know it right away from their brochure or website. Wine-industry veteran Ernie Weir, who founded Hagafen in 1979, may make his wines mevushal, but meshuga he ain’t. “Kosher wine” carries the heavy, treacly burden of Manischewitz past (although I have fond memories of the sweet, blackberry wine, which I managed to obtain the summer before my ID was kosher). Hagafen wines are aimed at the premium market first; of course, the fact that they’re made under strict rabbinical supervision doesn’t hurt Passover sales and has earned Hagafen (“the vine” in Hebrew) a place on the table at the White House.
What makes Hagafen wines so handy for serving at key state dinners (memorialized across the walls of the tasting room; Ronald Reagan brought them with him from California) is that they are passed through a flash-pasteurization machine that staff has nicknamed “the Mevushalginator.” Wines thus processed, according to that most instructive scroll, Wikipedia, “will keep the status of kosher wine even if subsequently touched by an idolater.” Even highly vetted White House staff may prove to be idolatrous, you never know.
The tasting room is small, packed on weekends, and friendly. If you see some guy restocking wine or stacking pallets off in a corner, that’s the hardworking owner, Ernie. Now, Mevushal does mean “boiled,” but take it easy; flash-pasteurization has done these wines none the worse. The Don Ernesto 2010 Collage White Table Wine ($15) is an easy takeaway, with cinnamon and floral aromas, and flavors of lychee fruit and pineapple.
The crisp 2011 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($21) is bold of green gooseberries, mellow of crushed peanut and honeydew melon. Recently served at the White House, the 2010 Roussanne ($18) is mercifully not over-oaked, with rich caramel and a nutty hint of orgeat. The 2010 Napa Valley White Riesling ($24) is a nice surprise (to my taste in Riesling, anyway), with petrol notes over lively acidity, and the 2007 Cuvée de Noirs ($36) is a pink, strawberries-and-cream sparkler, perfect for appetizers and seafood. Just please hold the shellfish.
Hagafen Cellars, 4160 Silverado Trail, Napa. Open daily, 10am to 5pm (yes, they’re open Christmas). Tasting fees $5–$15. 707.252.0781.—James Knight