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Keeping Kosher

A striking anomaly on the plains of Oxnard, Herzog Wine Cellars adds a unique layer of depth to Ventura County.

By Matt Katz

Joseph Herzog, shown here at his family’s Oxnard winery, represents the youngest of eight generations in the business. But he carries on a tradition of kosher winemaking that dates back nearly six millennia, well beyond 19th-century Eastern Europe.

 

erzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard is a study in contrast. It is a place so at odds with the way most Ventura County residents perceive Oxnard, they don’t even know it exists. Yet you’ll find international jetsetters here, swirling crystal glasses and nibbling platillos at Tierra Sur, the winery’s fine dining restaurant, before leapfrogging their private planes over the Santa Monica Mountains into L.A. or up the coast to San Francisco.

On my first visit to Herzog, for lunch at Tierra Sur, I didn’t know what to expect. A fine dining restaurant at a kosher winery located in an Oxnard industrial park? It sounded fabulously bizarre—and it is. Incongruous images abound, from the building’s slick, modern façade to the scene I encountered that first day in the tasting room, where orthodox Jews from L.A. compared tasting notes with local bikers and surfers. It was as if Jackson Pollock had let fly with a great spatter of humanity and here they were: a mélange of people you’d never expect to find together in the same room, picking through chic art in the gift store, sipping and spitting wine, and sitting primly at tables in Tierra Sur—a decidedly hip earth-toned dining room with all the straight lines, polished silver, and black wood we’ve come to expect at hot tables in the big city.

But here? The whole thing was like seeing Sophia Loren at Disneyland: beautiful yet entirely out of place, a captivating upheaval of the expected. Wine bars are multiplying like tipsy rabbits in Ventura County, but where else can you find an ultra-modern eighth generation kosher winery with a museum style gift store and a fine dining restaurant?

Walking through the industrial halls of his family’s winemaking facility, Joseph Herzog belies time and place. With his East Coast gait, yarmulke, and classic white button-down with French cuffs, he appears quite comfortable amongst the polished steel tanks of kosher wine. But beyond these walls, in this industrial park by-the-sea surrounded by Southern California’s agricultural flatlands, he’d be as out of place as…a world-class winery in Oxnard.

The Orthodox-bearded Herzog speaks the technical language of viticulture with a heavy Yiddish intonation. Modern industrial jargon rolls off his tongue, but frequently finds a connection to ancient religious practices. He explains that the company’s most recent addition, a new automatic cross-flow filter, is especially important for a kosher winery because “even during the Sabbath it can be working.”

Good thing, too, because you won’t find any humans working at Herzog Wine Cellars on the Jewish day of rest. Even Tierra Sur is deserted on Friday night and all day Saturday. (Blasphemy in the eyes of restaurateurs who depend on that prime time dining revenue.) And it only gets more extreme: The winery and restaurant are closed for a solid week during Passover, and for Rosh Hashanah—which happens to fall smack in the middle of the grape harvest.

The company’s adherence to kosher law isn’t always met with great understanding. Joseph explains it anecdotally: “The growers always ask me, ‘How come you don’t take grapes? No one will know if you take the fruit or not.’ But I’m in business to produce kosher wine. If not for that, I don’t need to produce any wine at all.”

Originally from New York, now living near Hancock Park in Los Angeles, Joseph Herzog represents the youngest of eight generations of his family in the wine business. “Continuous generations, no buyouts,” he emphasizes proudly. The family traces its winemaking roots back to Slovakia, where Philip Herzog made wines for the Austro-Hungarian court more than a century ago. It is said that Emperor Franz-Josef so appreciated the wines, he made Philip a baron, a title that lives on in the family’s Baron Herzog line of premium yet moderately priced California varietals.

But the Herzog story goes beyond 19th-century Eastern Europe; it dates back nearly six millennia. This is a tale of scattered ashes and flourishing offshoots in the New World. It is the evolution of a winemaking tradition that predates even the Romans and Greeks, not to mention the French. When the ancient Gauls were still drinking water with dinner, the Jews were pressing grapes into wine for religious rituals that continue even today.

Now, over 5,000 years later, in Oxnard of all places, Herzog produces top-shelf wines lauded the world over. And you’d never know any of them were kosher—which, I discover, has nothing to do with winemaking technique. In fact, the head winemaker at Herzog isn’t even Jewish.

“People mistake kosher wine; they think it is sweet wine blessed by a rabbi,” Joseph tells me with a tone of comic exasperation. He’s been through this explanation before and recognizes the common misperception: that sweet concord wines like Manischewitz are representative of kosher wine. “When our family came to New York,” he explains, “we were used to drinking Bordeauxs, high-end kosher wines. In New York, with grapes like Concord and Niagara, there’s only so much you can do.”

California is a different story, and Herzog takes full advantage of the Golden State’s luscious terroir, buying grapes from a variety of appellations. “The Herzog family is really serious about going out and finding the best fruit to fit the program,” says Joseph Hurliman, the winemaker for both Herzog Wine Cellars and Baron Herzog wines. “They give us tremendous latitude to go out and find the grapes, the area we actually want to make the wine from.”

Hurliman has been with the company since 1998 and played a central role in the design and construction of the Oxnard winery, which opened in July of 2005. “People are stunned when they come here,” he says, echoing a sentiment I’ve heard before—and experienced personally. To be sure, there’s a delicious incongruence about this place, this spatter of elegance on an otherwise roughhewn canvas.

“You can see we’re in an industrial park,” Hurliman says, “but the architects really got that we wanted this to be a destination…The Herzog family actually sent the architects to Napa and Sonoma to look at buildings and tasting rooms.”

As we’re talking, I notice a couple of things about Joseph Hurliman: First, his personal style—his earrings, baseball cap, and outgoing nature—is a striking contrast to that of Joseph Herzog. Second, he never so much as mentions the word kosher.

“One of the hardest things to do is shift the image of kosher wines,” Joseph Herzog had said to me earlier, “to make people understand that kosher just means it’s supervised.”

Put simply, the only factor that distinguishes kosher wine from non-kosher wine is that it is handled by Sabbath-observant Jews during the winemaking process. That’s it. And that’s a good part of the reason for the Oxnard location: workers needed Jewish schools. Not many of those around Napa; but there are in LA and the San Fernando Valley, an easy enough commute to Oxnard.

Like many of its wine country counterparts, Herzog offers the local community a number of special events throughout the year, although summer is clearly the most active season. “We just finished four months straight of ‘Girls’ Night Out,’” explains Monica Agyekum, who lives in Ventura and organizes everything from art shows to car shows and winemaker dinners.

And when it comes to the food served at Tierra Sur, I’m quite certain most diners don’t even realize they’re eating kosher. Chef Todd Aarons’ culinary path wound its way through top restaurants in the Bay Area, New York City, and Tuscany before finding its way to Oxnard. This is no Jewish delicatessen—it’s an intentionally upscale fine dining restaurant, a branding vehicle designed in concert with the new winery to represent Herzog. “This [facility] was going to be the image of Herzog wines. So we decided to do a high-end restaurant,” explains Joseph Herzog. “We’ve changed the image of kosher wine, now we’re changing the image of kosher food as well.”

Again I’m struck by way this place shatters misperceptions. At Tierra Sur, grilled achiote-marinated red snapper with tomatillo salsa replaces gefilte fish; house-made organic corn tortillas filled with chili-braised lamb step in to take the place of matzo balls. Prix-fixe dinners offer a chance to sample perfect wine and food pairings. It’s a topnotch, cosmopolitan-style culinary experience—at a kosher winery in an Oxnard industrial park.

To be sure, Herzog Wine Cellars adds a unique layer of depth to Ventura County. It’s a local story with subplots the world over, a story at once ancient and contemporary. And the juxtaposition of so many opposing elements gives it an undeniable kick.

But its development in Oxnard was no happy accident. “This is a family of entrepreneurs,” says Joseph Hurliman. He raises both hands as if in praise and makes a sweeping gesture over the surroundings—the contempo artwork, the mixed bag of people sampling wines, the dashing couple with dinner reservations. “This was all by design...And it’s such a high class thing.”

11-01-2007

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