Hagafen Winery

#237 – January 12, 2013

After nearly eight years of living in the US, I finally got my act together and made it out to the West Coast for some winery visits.  While Israel continues to produce the vast majority of kosher wine on the planet, California is home to a number of the finest kosher wineries and some of the best and most interesting kosher wines come from the handful of kosher wine producers located on the West Coast.  I have previously written about many of these wineries which include Herzog, Hagafen, Covenant, Brobdingnagian, Agua Dulce, Shirah Wines and Four Gates and had the opportunity to visit most of them this past August (brief musings from the trip and my Napa Valley impressions were previously discussed in newsletter #226). I missed Agua Dulce and Shirah Wines but hope to make up for that soon, maybe even during Royal’s West Coast IFWF2013.

This week’s piece on Hagafen Cellars is the first in a series about the West Coast wineries I visited on my trip.  I am starting with Hagafen simply because it is the only California winery that I have not yet dedicated a newsletter to.  While I have provided many tasting notes for Hagafen and also warmly recommended their Prix wine club, this newsletter is the first time I have showcased the venerable Hagafen winery – one that is surprisingly both underrated and underappreciated.  Hagafen was the last winery visit of a long yet fruitful day of wine, following a great visit with Covenant and Brobdingnagian, which included many barrel tastings and a sneak peek at Leslie Rudd’s mind-numbingly beautiful wine cellar and meticulously cared for vineyards at Rudd Vineyards (where the Covenant Solomon is [at least partially] sourced from).  Turning off the picturesque Silverado Trail, which runs parallel to the more famous Napa Valley highway – Highway 29, which houses Opus One and other famous Napa Valley wineries, I drove down a driveway bordered on both sides by Hagafen’s organic Cabernet Sauvignon vines (pretty much the prevalent scenery throughout Napa Valley) and parked in front of the winery and adjacent tasting room for my meeting and tasting with Ernie Weir, Hagafen’s founder, proprietor and wine maker.

With over 30 harvests under its belt, Hagafen is one of the oldest kosher wineries in the world and certainly in the United States.  Hagafen Winery was launched in 1979 and maintained as Ernie’s pet project for a number of years while he worked at another winery (Domaine Chandon – the US arm of the famed French Champagne house – Moët & Chandon) and trained at the famed UC Davis.  The first Hagafen vintages were comprised of one barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon wine, with White Riesling added shortly thereafter and remaining a major player in Hagafen’s portfolio even today (a relative rarity, at least among kosher wineries).  Ernie purchased the land on which the winery and Cabernet Sauvignon vines are currently located early on (the Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in 1997, replacing the previously planted varietals which included Pinot Noir), but the winery itself wasn’t opened in its current location until 2000 (the tasting room was added in 2002).  Subsequent years saw an expansion of the winery’s vineyards (all located in the same general area), both by acquiring and planting its own vineyards and also by locking in long-term contracts in some of Napa’s best vineyards, and the addition of new varietals to its portfolio including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay.

Today the winery produces approximately 100,000 bottles annually, spread across nearly 30 different wines.  Hagafen markets their wines under three different labels, the first of which is their highest line, the black-labeled “Prix”, which [for the most part] is only available to club members and directly from the winery.  The Prix line was launched with the 2004 vintage after Hagafen landed some new and very high-quality vineyards and the label includes a number of single vineyard (or even single “block”) wines in addition to their flagship blend – Mélange.  In addition they have their original, red labeled, Hagafen line which contains a number of single varietal wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc (once in a while), Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, a number of White Riesling wines, with varying degrees of residual sugar and a sparkling wine.  In 2006 Hagafen launched an entry-level wine playfully named Don Ernesto, which features a number of white (Collage) and red (Clarinet and Crescendo) blends and an annual rosé.  While the market for the higher-end wines is likely primarily the kosher consumer (as unfortunately remains the case for nearly all kosher wines), the Don Ernesto wines are popularly priced and not targeted at the kosher consumer (while they are kosher, I don’t believe they are labeled as such) and a large percentage of the wines sold at the winery are sold to non-kosher consumers.

Until I moved to New York, other than on a few rare occasions I never really drank any Hagafen wines, as they weren’t readily available in Israel.  It was only after I moved to New York and starting writing my newsletter that I realized how much of a bedrock wine Hagafen had been to American wine lovers for decades (and continues to be one of the few kosher wineries with wines that have serious aging potential).  While we are spoiled today by the overabundance of terrific kosher wines and the proliferation of quality wineries and wine makers who make them, back in the 1970s, Hagafen was really on its own, especially in the world of quality wine making (together with Manischewitz, Carmel and the other early Israeli wineries were really mostly producing sweet wines and plonk).  Yarden, Tishbi, Herzog and Gan Eden all came shortly thereafter and no doubt forced Hagafen to up its game, qualitatively and quantitatively, to compete.  While Ernie’s abilities as a winemaker are well established his visionary qualities are unheralded.  Imagine the chutzpah and foresight required, at a time when kosher quality wine consumption was pretty much non-existent, to recognize a future need for high-end kosher wine and commit to it big time – even before the market was there.

Another unique thing about Hagafen is that all their wines are mevushal, including their flagship Mélange blend.  While the wines were not mevushal initially, once Hagafen replaced their existing kosher supervision with the OU, the OU required them to make all the wines mevushal.  While this was a requirement of the supervising agencies at the time, I believe it has paid off handsomely for Hagafen as, together with the Special Reserve wines of Herzog, they remain one of the highest quality mevushal wines available and one of the only ones capable of serious long-term aging (although the proprietary mevushal process Shiloh has drummed up may be a serious trailblazer in this arena going forward – stay tuned).  The general premise is that the earlier in the process the flash pasteurization occurs, the less harm is done to the wine and the more leeway the winemaker has to “fix” any negative effects before bottling.  Hagafen does it very early in the process while most of the lower end mevushal wines are flash pasteurized after the winemaking is completed and right before bottling.  Without taking anything away from the wines in question (especially the Roussanne – one of my favorites and recently nominated as a great QPR Wine), the mevushal aspect of the wines has likely also contributed to the recurring inclusion of Hagafen’s wines at official White House dinners, something Ernie is very proud of.

Despite the exclusive Napa Valley appellation, Silverado Trail location, top-notch winemaking, decades of delicious wines and plenty of gold medal awards, for some reason, Hagafen hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves.  In talking with fellow wine lovers, it is very rare that folks get excited about Hagafen’s wines (while still acknowledging their obvious quality, aging ability, diverse portfolio and accessibility for all due to the “mevushalness” of their wines) and take them for granted.  While being taken for granted as a Safe Bet Winery isn’t a bad thing, it seems Hagafen deserves more respect than that.  Part of the issue was likely a drop off in the consistency of quality for a few vintage years (2006-2008), especially among the higher end Prix wines (and especially the Pinot Noir), but this issue has happily been resolved and the wines are back and better than ever.  It may also have to do with the lackluster marketing and the fact that people expect great wines from California, so they are looking for something extra to be excited about.  Throughout the years, Hagafen has stayed true to its roots, creating elegant and quality wines without the oakiness and ripe fruit that was in vogue for so long.  Perhaps now, as oenophilic tastes shift to wines with less oak and subtler fruit, people will give Hagafen its due.

With Ernie’s accompanying explanations and pleasant company, I basically tasted Hagafen’s entire available portfolio of wines, including most of the Prix wines and I have included a number of tasting notes for some of the wines I enjoyed (and for which I have not previously published tasting notes).  We did the tasting in the winery’s pleasant tasting room and visitor center, which is open to the public daily.  During the tasting a number of people stopped by to taste and buy some wines.  The Hagafen employees managing the tasting room seemed pretty knowledgeable about the wines and very friendly.  While the winery is kosher, it is very clearly managed as a quality Napa Valley winery that just happens to be kosher and a significant number of the folks tasting and purchasing wine at the winery likely have no clue about its kosher designation (nor do they care) – which is as it should be.

Hagafen, Sauvignon Blanc, 2011: Spending no time in oak, this wine is decidedly different from its Prix sibling (whose current release in the 2009 and which is more substantial and complex a wine) but delightfully refreshing in its own right.  With some apple and plenty of citrus on both the nose and palate, this light to medium bodied with has robust acidity, hints of peach and some herbaceousness that come together nicely and leads into a lingering finish.  Drink now.

Hagafen, Roussanne, Lodi, 2011: If not the only kosher Roussanne, this wine from Hagafen is certainly one of the only kosher versions available and well worthy of such distinction.  Native to France’s Rhône valley (where it is typically blended with Marsanne), it presents a wine profile somewhere between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  It has much of the refreshing crispness and high acidity of Sauvignon with more of the body and slight viscosity of Chardonnay.  A wine that can certainly age, its pure deliciousness has thus far prevented me from cellaring more than a couple bottles I buried in my cellar.  Blended with 15% Marsanne, the wine presents with a highly aromatic nose of bright fruit including pears, green tea and floral notes.  The medium bodied palate has more pear, tea with some herbal nuances on a slightly creamy texture balanced beautifully by sufficient acidity to keep everything alive and fresh and providing the potential for some nice aging ability.  While this is one of my favorite Hagafen wines, I did like the 2010 vintage a little better.

Hagafen, Pinot Noir, Combsville, 2011: While not yet a single block Prix Pinot Noir of yore; it certainly appears that Hagafen has gotten its Pinot Noir groove back as this is a very nice wine and reminiscent quality-wise of past successful vintages.  Plenty of raspberries, strawberries and other bright red fruit, a hint of spiciness and a medium finish round out this light to medium bodied and delicate wine.  Drink now through 2016.

Hagafen, White Riesling, Devoto Vineyard, 2011: With 2% residual sugar, this is my favorite of the White Riesling wines produced by Hagafen, including two with increasingly high levels of residual sugar (4% and 6% in the Prix version).  A rich nose of tropical fruit, lavender, lychee, citrus and honey envelopes you as soon as you pour your first glass.  Plenty of bracing acidity backs up the rich fruit and honey on the medium to full bodied palate which includes more tropical fruit, heather, melon, peaches with a hint of sweetness that is truly delightful.  A long lingering finish with a hint of minerals rounds out this wine and had me coming back for more.  Drink now through 2017.

Hagafen, Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009: A rich nose of ripe, mainly black, fruit including blackberries, currants, cherries and cassis with gripping tannins and slightly spicy oak with hints of espresso and some pleasing earthiness, most of which followed on the full bodied palate with more black fruit, spicy oak, some nice baker’s chocolate and a lingering finish.  Give this one another year to come together and for the tannins to integrate before enjoying through 2018, likely longer.

Hagafen, Prix, Cabernet Franc, 2008: As I rushed to get the newsletter out before Shabbat last week I unfortunately neglected to include this wine – thanks MP for the reminder (and I have included in on the relevant page of my website as well).  After utilizing the first vintage of Cabernet Franc grapes from the Weir Family Vineyard (a/k/a Rancho Weiruszowski) for the “regular” bottling, the 2008 vintage made it into the Prix level wine.  A full bodied and delicious wine with near sweet tannins, blackberries, purple plums, cherries, cassis and floral notes together with the characteristic tobacco leaf and hints of cedar are held together by nicely integrated tannins and a generous dollop of acidity along with the traditional hint of green herbs and notes of lavender.  A really nice offering and worthy of the Prix name.  Drinking delightfully now, the wine should continue to improve in the bottle for a couple of years and cellar comfortably though 2017.

Hagafen, Cuvee de Noirs, 2007: Hagafen has a few different sparkling wines, including a 2001 “late disgorge” and all are delightful (there will be a “late disgorge” release of this wine as well).  A blend of Pinot Noir (80%) and Chardonnay (20%), the wine as a fresh nose of lemon, tangerine, summer fruit, hints of strawberries and nice yeasty notes with plenty of tight bubbles keeping it lively.  A medium bodied palate presents with raspberries, tart citrus, cooked strawberries and lemons, yeasty brioche and more summer fruits with a lingering finish that pleases with a hint of bitterness.  A truly enjoyable wine, albeit without the complexity I love in the Yarden Blanc de Blanc.  Drinking beautifully now, the wine should cellar through 2017.

Hagafen, Prix, Merlot, Vichy Block 4, 2006: A lovely nose of black fruit, some spicy notes and plenty of oaky vanilla that is in perfect harmony with the fruit.  A full-bodied palate with near-sweet notes of raspberry, black cherries and some plums are accompanied with some roasted herbs and warm spices with more vanilla and earthy notes with a very long and fulfilling finish.  A rich and robust Merlot, with plenty of character.  At its peak now, I’d enjoy now or in the next two to three years.