Major Israel wineries, like Golan Heights Winery and Galil Mountain Winery, have gone a long way toward countering the stereotype that all Jewish-owned wineries produce something resembling Mogen David or Manischewitz.
Consumers know great Jewish-owned vineyards, kosher and non-kosher, exist on both sides of the Atlantic, from South Africa to South America. Just as important, they exist right here in Los Angeles’ backyard — and more than just Oxnard-based Herzog Wine Cellars.
The following bottled jewels from Santa Barbara, which are not kosher, may need to be sought out, but locals willing to venture into new territory will appreciate their Jewish contributions to California’s broadening network of wine trails.
Although Manhattanite Seth Kunin spent several years of his childhood in Westlake Village, it was UCLA and its medical school that brought him back to Southern California from New York. Later, the restaurant business and a passion for wines prompted him to shift his focus and settle in Santa Barbara. Working at the Wine Cask Restaurant in the early ’90s, and then at Gainey Vineyard, served as his post-graduate work in all things wine.
"In 1998, I decided I was ready, and bought some barrels and grapes," Kunin said. "We produced 450 cases for our first vintage, and have since grown to around 5,000."
He focused on Rhone varietals and makes five types for the general market, including Viognier, Zinfandel, a Santa Barbara County Syrah, an Alisos Vineyard Syrah and "Pape Star," a blend inspired by Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
"As we make wines in an Old World style, we source our fruit from small, family-farmed vineyards in cooler climate areas. This gives us the most control over the farming while providing grapes with bright acidity, complexity and structure," he said.
This success prompted Kunin and wife Magan in 2009 to open a tasting room on Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, a former industrial area now regarded as a hub of cutting-edge art and wine. The couple is in the process of opening another tasting room this spring in the Funk Zone on Yanonali Street for their new brand, Anacapa Vintners.
"The tasting rooms give us an opportunity to educate people about the wide range of wines that can be cultivated in Santa Barbara because of its microclimates, soils and varietals, regions, valleys and other things," Kunin explained. "They are a one-stop shop for a great overview of what Santa Barbara County has to offer."
Smaller bottlings that are only sold through the tasting room and wine club include such varietals as Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc as well as single-vineyard Syrahs, biodynamically grown wines and dessert wines made in small batches based on financial or logistical factors.
Kunin Wines (kuninwines.com) products have received numerous accolades from the popular press (Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate, International Wine Cellar, The New York Times) and are poured at restaurants across the nation. Local retailers include Vendome Wine & Spirits stores, Woodland Hills Wine Co., Wally’s and Paradise Pantry in Ventura.
Shawn Shai Halahmy, who was born in Israel and came of age in the West Valley, made a name for himself in real estate. Although he still works in this field, his travels back to Israel and around California as an adult led him — literally — into new fields, this time of the vineyard variety.
"I came into winemaking during many trips to Israel as an adult, grasping its history and heritage beyond Judaism and the ruins of Caesarea to Masada," Halahmy recalled. "There is no other food product like wine, which endures on so many levels. You harvest grapes, you let them ferment, you bottle it, and, whether it has been in the bottle for one, five or 20 years, it is drinkable."
Although his boutique winery, Shai Cellars (taken from his Hebrew name, which means "gift"), established in 2008, is a relatively new player in Santa Barbara’s winery scene, it already has produced wines that have captured the attention of top publications with wine experts on staff, including The Tasting Panel, The Rhone Report and Wine Spectator.
While the Adome ("red" in Hebrew) wines are the most prominent in terms of the fruits of his labor, Shai Cellars (shaicellars.com) offers several reds inspired by the Rhone region in France and other Old World wine-production areas.
"As I love the Rhone region, the varietals I generally use are similar to what are used there, including Grenache and Syrah," Halahmy said. "Having said that, my goal as a winemaker is to create something of high quality regardless of what varietal is used. The first couple of vintages, I was able to get my hands on some really great fruit, and it is all about the fruit quality, and that fruit happened to be Syrah and Cab. While Cabernet is a Bordeaux varietal, I thought I’d experiment with blending the two. At a blend of 65 percent Syrah and 35 percent Cab, I realized that a balance was created and the best assets of both were really coming out."
Restaurants and retailers offering Shai Cellars wines include Cornell Winery (Agoura); Malibu Beach Wines; Vendome Wine & Spirits stores, Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café (Santa Barbara County); Fab’s Corner Cucina (Sherman Oaks), Bistro Alessio (Northridge) and Trattoria Grappolo (Santa Ynez).
While San Fernando Valley-bred Dave Koz is known worldwide for his Grammy-nominated jazz albums and live shows, wines bearing his name — now made in collaboration with Santa Barbara County’s Terravant Wine Co. — have been a hit since their inception in 2009.
"Like many kids who grew up in the Valley, my first exposure to wine early on was Manischewitz," Koz said. "My parents [lived] in a time where wine was considered something only for special occasions. That was unfortunate because wine today is so prevalent in our lifestyle, along with the studies that reveal, for example, that there are health benefits in drinking red wine in moderation."
And wine drinkers and jazz lovers are not the only ones benefiting from his good taste. Proceeds from sales of KOZ Wines offered through the California Wine Club and through a partnership with Whole Foods are donated to the Starlight Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit benefiting seriously ill children and their families. Koz is a global ambassador for the charity.
Building on this, KOZ Wines (davekoz.com) entered a partnership with California Pizza Kitchen over the recent holiday season, offering the Tarravant-made "You Make Me Smile" Chardonnay and "Know You by Heart" Merlot to diners to boost the fundraising efforts.
"I am very passionate about being involved with this because I found there’s a kinship between winemakers and musicians," Koz noted. "There is a lot of improvisation, creativity and artistry that comes with each year of making a new vintage.
The musician is enthusiastic about Tarravant, a private-label winery with a state-of-the-art facility that is also behind some of the finest wines in the world, including Ken Brown Wines and Hartley Ostini Hitching Post Pinot Noirs. He cites their strengths in marketing and in understanding his philanthropic goals with wines bearing his name. While Tarravant’s roster includes fine wines made for cellaring and special occasions, Koz wanted them to create the kind of wines that, like his music, are accessible and can be enjoyed in the moment.
"Though I was ambivalent at first about the idea of putting my name on a wine when a friend suggested it to me, I realized that if there was a way I could make it a charitable activity, then I could get behind it," he said.