When Rabbi Elchonon Tenenbaum mentions his wine label, Cuvée Chabad, he seems to swell with pride and joy.
After experimenting with winemaking for five years, he finally offers his wines, in partnership with Covenant Wines, for sale. So far, demand for his 2011 Lodi zinfandel seems promising.
“Our wine was offered for sale early in September and during the first week we sold 35 cases out of 101 cases that were offered overall. We had people contact us from all over — Sacramento, Los Angeles and New York,” he said.
New wine labels are released in the wine country all the time, but wine produced by an observant rabbi with no background in agriculture or viticulture is not something you see every day.
Yet Tenenbaum said he sees similarity between his work as a rabbi and his hobby of winemaking.
“The process of winemaking is related to studying of the Torah. When we are producing wine, as well as when we study Torah intensively, we extract a deep dimension of divine wisdom,” he said. “The grape symbolizes the idea of the essence. To bring out the qualities in each individual, we need to go through a process of bringing qualities from inside through learning.”
Tenenbaum added that wine has an ancient importance in Judaism. “Wine is used to welcome the Shabbat every Friday night in the Jewish household and it is used at every life-cycle event in Judaism, as well as in holidays and events,” he explained. “That goes back to biblical times.”
A Brooklyn native, Tenenbaum moved to the Napa Valley in 2006 with his wife and young children to establish a Chabad center for the Jewish philosophy and movement that emphasizes wisdom, understanding and knowledge. He has been serving as the director of Jewish life at Touro University since 2008.
“We arrived in the Napa Valley as part of the Chabad movement’s philosophy to have a rabbi everywhere there is a Jewish community,” he said.
The beautiful vineyard surroundings soon inspired Tenenbaum to pursue winemaking.
“Cuvée Chabad’s first vintage was in 2007, a year after we arrived in the valley. I made one case that year,” he said. “I would go to a vineyard in Oakville after the harvest was done and pick the remaining cabernet grapes. I didn’t have any clue and so I went to the bookstore and bought a book about winemaking. It actually came out pretty well.”
Winemaker Jeff Morgan of Covenant Wines, a premium kosher winery, was impressed. He also provided Tenenbaum with an opportunity to grow grapes for the first time.
“It happened that a friend of Jeff needed someone to farm her vines,” Tenenbaum recalled. “I started to farm half an acre of land up on Pratt Avenue in St. Helena. It was the strangest thing for me, coming from Brooklyn. I’ve never been in a vineyard and I did all the work myself. It was January and there was a lot of work to do.”
In 2008 and 2009, Tenenbaum produced one barrel of wine each year from the vineyard.
In 2010, he decided to take it to the next level and start a label, Cuvée Chabad, in partnership with Covenant.
“The idea of Cuvée Chabad was that the money could help our organization,” he said. “Jeff and Jodi Morgan have dedicated themselves to help us raise funds, and we are very thankful for that and wish them success.”
Morgan said he thinks the idea of a rabbi making his own wine is beautiful.
“I don’t know of any other rabbis who are currently making commercial wines to help support their efforts in the community,” Morgan said.
The idea of raising money through wine sales came from a Napa nonprofit tradition, Tenenbaum said.
“I was inspired by Auction Napa Valley, which brings funds to nonprofits,” he said. “We only intend to sell the wines directly through our website, CuveeChabad.com, or over the phone, and the money raised through Cuvée Chabad will go to our Hebrew School and holiday programs, as well as other ventures.”
Tenenbaum said he hopes the 2012 vintage of Cuvée Chabad will include more than one wine.
“Currently we are harvesting our 2012 vintage of zinfandel and we are looking into producing our first vintage of cabernet,” he said.
Likewise, Morgan is also happy with the outcome.
“I’m overjoyed with the quality of our 2011 zinfandel. It’s a fabulous fruit-driven, lush-textured zinfandel,” he said.
All Cuvée Chabad wines are kosher to the highest standard. “Manischewitz is not the only kosher wine,” Tenenbaum emphasized.
“Because wine is a sacramental beverage which is involved in many aspects of Jewish life and rituals, it is required that all work on the wine is done by an observant Jew,” he added. “Kosher process does not impact the wine.”
Tenenbaum continued, “Kosher wine can be done with any varietals and from anywhere around the world. There are amazing wines that are kosher and get high scores, especially Covenant from the Napa Valley.”
Morgan said he feels rewarded to work with Tenenbaum.
“We have a more integrated approach to winemaking that makes use of the rabbi as a spiritual guide for the whole process,” he said. “He works with us in the cellar and he is a constant source of inspiration. He is a conduit for embracing a Jewish life and keeps the door open for Judaism.”
To purchase Cuvée Chabad wines or to learn more about Chabad of Napa Valley, visit CuveeChabad.com or call 963-7385.