For California mountain man, road to God runs through kosher wine
Producing wine atop a tranquil mountain in a remote area of northern California is quite a way to make a living. For Benyamin Cantz, whose one-man operation in the hills of Santa Cruz produces kosher wine from organic grapes, it's also a calling.
“This is my livelihood but I don’t quite run it like a full-fledged business,” Cantz told JTA in an interview on his vineyard, Four Gates Winery. “It could definitely be run more efficiently, but I don’t see the process like that. I just love making wine and the holy concept behind it, and I just want to share it with others.”
Four Gates is one of the smallest kosher wineries in the country, producing only 400 cases a year. It's also one of the only ones in the world that grows its own grapes organically.
The vineyard is located deep in the folds of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Just getting up Cantz’s driveway is like an amusement park ride, with a newly paved road meandering up and around a labyrinth of thick foliage. The journey ends at a quaint sign greeting visitors in Hebrew. Beyond, sprawling green pastures give to way to breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean.
Cantz, 65, arrived at this mountaintop 42 years ago for a summer job doing handywork and never left. He had studied calligraphy in college, never intending to become a winemaker. But after becoming religiously observant with the help of a Chabad rabbi he met in town, Cantz says he came to understand the spiritual transformation grapes undergo on their way from the vine to the Shabbat table, and he felt a strong desire to become involved in the process.
“In a non-irrigated vineyard, the water literally comes down from the heaven as rain, and that rain goes through a whole spiritual journey just to give us our wine,” Cantz says. “From the sky, down to the earth, into the grapes, then crushed and bottled for our Friday night tables, it just reminded me of the whole enterprise of living. And I liked the idea of a physical voyage that manifests to find something physical to elevate God through. It’s hard to keep this image in my head every day, but it’s what keeps me going and its why I do the entire process myself.”
In 1991, Cantz planted four acres of vineyards, despite having no formal training. “There was no YouTube to figure these things out,” he said. It took Cantz many seasons to figure out the right way to plant and get his wine to taste just right — not to mention backbreaking labor and help from nearby vintners..
Cantz doubles as vineyard manager and winemaker, tending to his vines on four acres of a 60-acre parcel of land that once was managed by Mary Holmes, an art history professor at the nearby University of California, Santa Cruz. Cantz moved to the mountaintop to help Holmes tend the parcel and eventually took over her 50-year lease. He shares the land, which has a horse stable and is filled with 150-year-old redwood trees, with Holmes' son, who lives in Berkeley but drops by occasionally. Cantz never married.
Maintaining a vineyard is strenuous work, especially for someone working alone who doesn't use pesticides and must tend his vines on a slope where tractor use is impossible. In the spring and summer, Cantz spends his days planting, sowing, pruning and watering. In the fall and winter, he lives in isolation in a slightly dilapidated yet charming shack made of plywood and cinderblock that he built himself. There he crushes, presses, ferments, barrels, bottles, corks and labels his wine. While Cantz’s crop is certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers, his wine doesn't qualify as organic because Cantz uses sulfur dioxide to prevent further aging — a practice European wineries consider organic but Americans do not.
These days Cantz is growing merlot, chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet grapes. In a good year, he produces 5 to 8 tons, from which he extracts about 1,000 gallons of wine. The product is sold exclusively through his website, fourgateswine.com. Cantz handwrites invoices and treks down the mountain to the post office himself to ship bottles.
Like every agricultural business, there are good seasons and bad, and the past few were horrendous. Last summer, an excruciating heat wave struck California, killing half his crop. The season before, late summer rains caused a fungus which rotted his grapes. But Santa Cruz has been showered with abundant rains this winter, and Cantz is optimistic that this next crop will produce his best wine yet.
“Honestly, it’s really not that hard to make wine,” he says. “But making good wine means that you need to have all your ducks in a row. And the secret to the best wines is the perfect amount of fermentation.”
Cantz will release new lines of pinot noir, petit verdot, syrah, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and merlot in the next few weeks, ahead of Passover. He also saves a few bottles of his bestsellers to re-release the following year. This season, he's offering cabernet and cabernet franc from earlier vintages. His wines generally range from $20 to $50 per bottle; his most expensive bottle, the cabernet franc, sells for $60.
Because mountain-grown grapes tend to be sharper in flavor than valley-grown ones, Four Gates wine has a bit of a kick to it. But consumers don't seem to mind. Cantz's wines have sold out every season, even though Cantz doesn’t do any advertising. He relies entirely on word of mouth.
Every now and then, Cantz says, he will get an email from a client begging to take over the winery when he retires. But Cantz has a lease on the land until he’s 92, and he doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.
“I feel so lucky that God has blessed me with the opportunity to do something that I love,” Cantz says. “Wine has a whole scientific aesthetic to it, and includes so many elements of life I get to watch. It’s vigorous, but it’s all worth it.”