Hagafen Cellars has been producing excellent award winning wines since their first vintage in 1980 which was a single wine – a bottled as a Johannisberg Riesling made at Louis Bertolucci Cellars (Madonna Estate on the Napa Valley side of the Carneros District). This first vintage was made as a kosher wine. Production has certainly grown since then, but they are still considered boutique with an annual production of about 10,000 cases. The winery was founded by Ernie and Irit Weir in 1979 with initial help from rabbi Zach Berkowitz and Marin County teacher at the time, Norman Miller, who was in charge of sales and marketing. Rene diRosa, the former owner of Winery Lake Vineyard on the Napa side of Carneros, now home of diRosa Contemporary Art was also a founding partner. As a side note, Irit founded the Acupuncture Clinic of Napa in 1987, which still operates in the city of Napa and is a quick drive from Hagafen Cellars. She is also an artist and some of her creative paintings are available for sale at the winery.
Ernie grew up in Los Angeles and majored with a degree in Sociology from UCLA. He came to Napa in 1973 to learn more about the wine business and began working at Domain Chandon (which was a time by our count when there were less then 40 wineries in all of Napa who are still in existence today). Ernie worked at Domain Chandon for more than 20 years including as their vineyard manager. While there he started Hagafen Cellars on the side – making wines for the first 20 years at other wineries. In the early years he was entirely purchasing grapes from vineyards he did not own. In 2000 he built a winery and tasting room located just south of the Stags Leap District along the Silverado Trail. Hagafen owns the surrounding approximately 11 acres of vineyards planted entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Ernie and Irit also own the Wieruszowski Vineyard (where they live) in Coombsville located just east of the city of Napa. They grow several varieties here including Cabernet Franc, Syrah and what is very rare for Napa these days, Riesling. In additional to their own vineyards, they source grapes from premium sites primarily within Napa Valley but also from select vineyards in nearby counties.
The winery is set back from Silverado Trail against the base of the southern Vaca mountain range. The entrance is on a long-paved road (for many years used to be gravel) which bisects the vineyards. A visit here feels like ‘old Napa’ – no flash, a small and humbly appointed tasting bar and affordable very well-made wines. Friendly and very personable hosts help complete your tasting experience.
“Hagafen” in Hebrew literally means “the vine”. This was California’s first Kosher winery; there are at least five physical wineries in Napa Valley making some kosher wines. Four others are ONEHOPE, Marciano Estate, Mayacamas and VintEdge. Several individual kosher labels are also produced in Napa Valley from Napa Valley grown grapes including Padis Cellars. Covenant Wines founded by vintner Jeff Morgan used to be based in Napa Valley until he moved his operations to Berkeley, years ago. And one of California’s most well-known Kosher wineries, Ventura based Herzog made their early vintages in Napa Valley.
Kosher wines in part mean that no animal products are used during the making of the wine including egg whites, which are often used during the fining process. Rather than fully boiling or nearly boiling the wine for longer periods Ernie uses a flash pasteurization technique which quickly heats the wine and then as quickly, cools it back to room temperature.
For a wine to be kosher, only Sabbath-observant Jews may touch any part of the wine making process – from picking the grapes to crushing until either the bottles are sealed, or the wine is pasteurized.
Hagafen also participates in the annual L’Chaim, the Jewish Food & Wine Festival always held in the city of Napa (typically in August).
In the past, a single tour was offered daily at 1030am (an appointment is required) but please check current availability directly with the winery. This tour starts in the vineyards, visits their production facilities and usually lasts about 20 minutes. It is one of the shorter tours in the valley but is a good basic introduction to a small winery.
Have you noticed fans in vineyards but never knew their purpose? As you drive in you will have an intimate view of one fan located next to the driveway. These are for frost control and are usually used during late February and into March and April when vines begin to bud out and temperatures at night sometimes are freezing or below freezing. Cold air sinks to the lowest parts of a vineyard; if the tender young buds freeze, the crop for later that year will be damaged or destroyed and even the next year’s crop may be compromised. These fans turn on when the temperature falls to a few degrees above freezing and displaces the colder air below with the warmer air above – essentially keeping the ‘fruit zone’ slightly above freezing.
We can’t say enough about the quality of their wines as well as the diversity of their bottlings. This is old school Napa, a rare experience where guests can enjoy wines other than the ubiquitous Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. And there are plenty of wines to choose from; during our last visit, 20+ wines were listed on their tasting sheet (of which several are available to sample).
In addition to the Hagafen label, Ernie produces two other labels; Don Ernesto – featuring wines that are typically lighter in style and very approachable young, not to mention available at consumer-friendly price-points and the Prix wines (reserve wines) which are produced in very limited quantities and are only sold at the winery.
The Hagafen wines have a long history of being served at Presidential State dinners and other White House functions dating back to President Reagan. Coveted menus from these meals line the walls of the tasting room. And based on placing very highly in numerous state and national wine competitions over the years and Ernie’s ‘proclivity for bling’ as one of their tasting room employees eloquently stated, wine bottles containing medals from various awards line the counters above the tasting counter and on some of the shelves.
Visitors are offered five current-release wines from their Signature Tasting (although in our experience, the staff is flexible on what they pour based on visitor preferences). It is somewhat rare to be able to walk into a Napa Valley winery tasting room and be able to try older vintages; during one of our visits, wines up to nearly 30 years were for sale and potentially available for tasting.
Perhaps in a nod to his time working with sparkling wines at Domain Chandon, Hagafen produces one sparkling wine each year and is one of only a limited number of Napa Valley based wineries or brands who make sparkling wines on a consistent basis. We have tried several vintages of their Brut Rosé over the years; this wine is usually dark pink in color. It is always a refreshing way to start a tasting, especially for visitors who have appointments in the morning.
Hagafen produces several Rieslings and has produced at least one Riesling every year since their first vintage in 1980. Refreshingly they label each individual bottling with a sweetness scale on the back label ranging from dry, medium dry, medium sweet to sweet; this quickly eliminates the often confusion surrounding this variety in regard to residual sugar and palate preference. For many years they have produced their Napa Valley Riesling from their estate Wieruszowski Vineyard in Coombsville.
The 2019 Hagafen Cellars Napa Valley Riesling, Wieruszowski Vineyard Coombsville (medium-sweet) is medium straw in color; the aromas offer a hint of petrol, freshly cut grass, honeysuckle, star jasmine, grapefruit pith and lime. From the bouquet alone, it does not smell like it would be sweet on the palate; it is not overly so. Offers flavors of lemon/lime, lemon meringue, tart and tangy lemon drop candy, honeydew melon and a very subtle mint nuance. The palate does not show a lot of perceptible residual sugar; it lingers with mouthwatering acidity which shows best when this wine is chilled (rather than served at room temperature). This is a rare and beautiful bottling of Napa Valley Riesling. Riesling used to be more widely planted in Napa Valley but economics of planting red varieties in its place have severely dwindled plantings. Incidentally this vintage earned a Double Gold Medal Winner for sweet Rieslings in the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle’s Wine Competition.
The 2017 Hagafen Napa Valley Riesling, Wieruszowski Vineyard Coombsville contains 4% residual sugar. This wine simply smells good; it is very floral showing aromas of honeysuckle, citrus blossom and jasmine. An appealing palate strikes a nice balance between sweetness and acidity with both a simultaneous tartness and sweetness that lingers on the finish. It is very clean across the palate and is a wonderfully balanced wine. Recommended pairing? Try with some spicy Thai curry.
The one non-Napa Valley wine produced as of our latest update to this review is a Riesling from Lake County. The 2020 Hagafen Cellars Lake County Robledo Ranch Riesling (off dry – contains 2% residual sugar) is deep straw in color; the bouquet offers aromas of a citrus blossom, recently mowed lawn, a hint of apricot, honey and ripe red apple. This wine immediately hits the palate with a tangy acid profile and bright flavors including of lemon, lime, kiwi and guava. Lingers bright, fresh and with a persistent liveliness which begs another sip. Robledo Ranch in Lake County is one of a number of vineyard holdings owned by the Robledo family originating with family patriarch, Reynaldo Robledo, Sr who immigrated to the U.S. in 1968.
The 2021 Hagafen Cellars Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc is deep straw in color; offers aromas of young Sitka Spruce tips in late spring pressed among our fingers (still fresh in our memory from a recent hike in Sitka, Alaska), wintergreen, freshly picked mint and green tea leaf. On the palate offers flavors of gooseberry, kiwi, green apple and lime. This wine is very well balanced across the palate with a noticeable brightness and liveliness of acidity (but it is not green or grassy). We sampled this on a 100-degree Fahrenheit day and it was extremely refreshing served chilled. If you have a pool to enjoy this wine next to – even better!
The 2019 Hagafen Cellars Chardonnay, Oak Knoll District is medium gold in color; offers aromas of warm butter. Sniffing this wine made us think of the smell of rolling an ear of corn just out of the oven on a stick of butter. The bouquet also shows notes of vanilla, glazed apple and a medley of sweeter dessert spices. The aromas of butter continue onto the palate as flavor along with notes of hazelnut and lemon meringue. And the finish lingers very bright and rich with flavors of citrus and an oak influence on the end of the finish – from the 8 months aging in American Oak. With that said, this is not an oaky Chardonnay.
The 2018 Hagafen Cellars Coombsville, Napa Valley Merlot is deep ruby in color; features ripe aromatics of spicy plum, blackberry, dark licorice, tobacco smoke, cedar spice rosemary, and some hints of leather – the bouquet offers a pleasing union of both fruit and barrel influences and is somewhat savory. The palate is a rich showing of this variety with flavors of plum, dark cherry and black currant. Lingers with a spicy note and long-lasting flavor complemented by bright acidity and nicely integrated lighter styled tannins. It also shows a lingering note of dried tobacco leaf. This is an ideal food wine with its balance and liveliness as it bounces across the palate; perhaps pair it with a ravioli dish.
The 2018 Hagafen Cellars Napa Valley Coombsville Wieruszowski Vineyard Syrah (the same estate vineyard that produces the Hagafen Napa Valley Riesling from) is deep ruby in color with purplish tinges on the rim; this wine is highly opaque. Offers a familiar meaty aromatic sometimes inherent to this variety including aromas of bacon fat, aromas that some might describe as barn-yardesque, mushroom, black peppercorn and dried tallow. Or one can simply describe the aromatics as earthy. The bouquet eventually opens to some darker desert spices as it evolves in the glass. Features flavors of red cherry, black currant and plum. The brightness of acidity and red fruit flavors linger for quite some time on the finish. This is a very mouthwatering wine with tannins that show a medium dry grip but are not course in their textural feel. It is another excellent Hagafen food friendly wine.
The 2013 Prix Reserve Merlot from the Jaeger Vineyard Block 4 is a beautiful wine from this variety. The Jaeger’s an influential Napa family with deep roots in the valley (but very much stay out of the limelight) who have been involved in multiple wineries over the years as well as prominent wine organizations; fruit from their vineyards is highly sought after. This wine shows pretty aromatics with both fruit (red cherry, currant) and secondary aromas including toffee and cinnamon. Big but balanced – the wine shows intense flavors – both red and darker fruits including black cherry. Features long lasting fairly robust tannins.
A couple of wines used to be made with varieties not usually found from Napa Valley wineries including Tempranillo and a Roussane & Marsanne blend (however, these are no longer produced). And in the past, Hagafen has produced late harvest wines of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It is very rare to find a late harvest Chardonnay in Napa Valley; the 2006 Prix Reserve Late Harvest Chardonnay was one of the finer wines of this style that we have tried from a Napa Valley based winery.
The winery and tasting room were fortunately spared during the terrible fires in October 2017, although the guesthouse on site and equipment located behind the winery was destroyed. During these fires vineyards typically act as fire breaks but unfortunately a section of their vineyard was also burned and has since been replanted.
Visitors to the tasting room can pick up the latest copy of the Hagafen Gazette, a several page publication highlighting the latest with the cellar, their vineyards, some useful education content and the Don Ernesto Recipe of the Month. Occasionally Hagafen Cellars will sell older 1/2 oak barrels, which can be used as planter boxes. For more information and or to join one of their two quarterly wine clubs (Hagafen Club or the Prix Reserve Club), visit www.hagafen.com