Days of wine and roses with Rothschild

Spend some time in Zichron Ya’akov, an Israeli town 22 miles south of Haifa, and you’re bound to cross paths with Baron Edmond James de Rothschild. Not the real baron, who died in France in 1934, but his spirit, which is everywhere: in buildings, parks and streets. The baron’s bearded, larger-than-life likeness even appears on an old water tower near the town center. 

Most notably, Rothschild’s life and work live on in Zichron’s wineries. 

At Carmel, Israel’s largest winery, and at Tishbi, a boutique winery so rustic-chic it would be at home in Sonoma Valley, tour guides point out that Rothschild — who preferred anonymity and was referred to, with a sly wink, as HaNadiv HaYadua, “The Well-Known Benefactor” — founded and funded, among other things, the country’s wine industry in the late 19th century. 

Even the town’s name is a legacy of Rothschild: He chose to call it Zichron Ya’akov (“In Jacob’s Memory”) in honor of his father, James, whose Hebrew name was Jacob.

Located on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean, much of Zichron now looks like a well-heeled American suburb; many of its 20,000 inhabitants work in high-tech businesses within commuting distance. Residents walk dogs on landscaped paths, stylish neighborhoods boast markets selling foodie products, and there’s a network of dirt trails, for hiking and bicycling, with views of the sea. 

Water tower bears a painting of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild.

Zichron has spruced up old cobblestone streets and historic buildings, gentrifying a downtown dotted with restaurants serving sushi, lattes or creme brulees. For Israelis on a day visit, it’s like going to chutz la’aretz — abroad — for a few hours.

But because of Zichron’s connection to The Well-Known Benefactor, and the town’s crucial role in the story of Israeli immigration and wine production, it’s best to start with a visit to the First Aliyah Museum. In a handsome, historic building that once housed the offices of Rothschild’s representatives, Avital Efrat, museum director, said that the baron was considered the black sheep of the family when he was young. 

“Edmond was the grandson of the founder of the Rothschild fortune,” Efrat said, “but at university, he chose to study philosophy and art history rather than banking.” 

It wasn’t until the 1880s, she said — when Rothschild was in his late 30s — that he found his life’s purpose: He saw the human toll that pogroms inflicted and set about using his vast wealth to get Jews out of Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. 

“The baron wanted to show that poor Jews, with financial support and guidance, could become self-sufficient,” Efrat said. “So he sent administrators here, when this area was still in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Rothschild bankrolled the enterprise that turned the first wave of Jewish immigrants, the first aliyah, into farmers, and he sent experts to advise them. 

“It was hard at first for the pioneers of the first aliyah. There were struggles with the baron’s representatives, who were autocratic and wanted full control of land and crops. Besides, most of these Jews were new to farming and had to deal with the gap between their hopes and the harsh reality they found here. … 

“In the early years, they tried to grow many different crops, which often didn’t work out. … Rothschild’s representatives realized that Mediterranean terrain and climate lend themselves best to growing grapes.”

At Carmel Winery, tour director and wine and culture manager Valerie Hecht said Rothschild “was sure there would be a market for wine produced here. He figured that Jews anywhere in the world would be willing to buy a bottle of wine from the Holy Land.” 

The initial obstacle to wine production was that the land was in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. 

“The Ottomans were Muslim, so wine was forbidden,” Hecht said. “This area had produced wine for thousands of years, but after Islam took control here in the seventh century, wine production, for the most part, stopped. So, for more than 1,000 years, the technology for making wine in Eretz Yisra’el was lost. The baron’s representatives went to Istanbul and made a deal with Ottoman rulers, who stipulated that all the wine made here would be exported.” 

The baron was willing to pay for everything but wanted all transactions carefully recorded. Hecht displayed a yellowed accounting ledger, well over 100 years old. One notation, in French, records the amount paid to an Ottoman potentate for “baquechiche” — baksheesh. The baron’s men were so thorough they even recorded bribes.

Hecht acknowledged that in the past, Israeli wines might not have been considered first rate.

“Over the years, our wines have gotten much better,” she said, “partly because the Israeli public has become pickier about wine, and partly because wine is no longer used merely for sacramental purposes but for enjoyment as well. That’s made a tremendous difference, along with the introduction of new materials like stainless steel vats and new technology like temperature control. We’ve evolved a lot since 1892.”

Wine is also produced at several boutique wineries in Zichron. 

At Tishbi Winery, a guide recounted that Michael and Malka Chamiletzki came from Lithuania in 1882 and settled in the area of Zichron, where they started growing grapes. In the 1920s, they hosted Israeli poet Chaim Nahman Bialik, who suggested they change their name to something “less Diaspora.” He proposed Tishbi and they agreed. 

For nearly 100 years, the family grew wine grapes for Carmel Winery. Then, in 1985, the Tishbi family started its own winery. Like wineries everywhere, Tishbi has a tasting area and sells its wine and brandy at the winery. If you prefer, you can bring an empty bottle and fill it up yourself at a stylish shop where they also sell gourmet cheeses and desserts. In addition, Tishbi has a restaurant with outdoor seating shaded by grapevines.

One high point of a Zichron visit is Ramat HaNadiv (Benefactor’s Hill), a beautiful — and free — public garden. This meticulously tended, extensive and ecologically conscious wonderland of grass, trees and flowers is a living memorial to Rothschild.

In 1954, soon after the garden opened, an Israeli navy frigate bearing the remains of the baron and his wife, Adelheid, left France and arrived in Israel, greeted by sirens and a 19-gun salute. David Ben-Gurion led the cortege to the couple’s final resting place in Ramat HaNadiv.

During a state funeral, in which the caskets were placed in a below-ground mausoleum, Ben-Gurion explained that the baron created and supported more than 40 agricultural colonies that became towns and cities. 

“I doubt,” Ben-Gurion said, “if one can find in the entire history of the Jewish people in the Diaspora — a period of almost 2,000 years — any person who equals or can compare with … that of Edmond de Rothschild.”

The theme of Ben-Gurion’s homage was that all Israelis, wherever they live, will forever hold Rothschild close to their hearts. That may be so, but when you’re in the Eden-like gardens of Ramat HaNadiv, you can’t help but feel that Zichron Ya’akov was the place closest to The Well-Known Benefactor’s heart: a town he created, nurtured and named after his own father. 

Rough It in Style at El Capitan Canyon

As a city woman whose family is unaccustomed to “roughing it,” I planned our family vacation to involve a lot of nature but no sleeping on hard ground. That’s what made El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara the perfect place for us: It’s camping for people who like staying in Hiltons.

A two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, El Capitan Canyon is a former private campground that was transformed five years ago into a plush nature resort on 65 acres heavily populated with oak and sycamore trees. It allows guests to savor a rustic environment, but with down duvets and gourmet coffee for the coffeemaker.

Upon arrival, we took in the sweet, clean air gently blowing through the canyon. We had booked two cabins for our party of seven: a king suite with a bedroom, a living room with a pullout sleeper sofa and kitchenette, and a bunk cabin (which could have slept six) for our three sons. All cabins have bathrooms with showers, as well as refrigerators in kitchenettes — an important consideration for kosher consumers like us who bring our own food.

For more rustic tastes, El Capitan Canyon offers canvas safari tents on raised wooden decks, with screened windows and zip-down flaps. Bathroom facilities and showers for the tents are located in nearby buildings. Though our boys were at first disappointed at the absence of TVs, the beauty and calm of the campground environment assuaged them.

Cabin rates range from $135 to $345 for their brand-new canyon loft, which has a king-sized bedroom, living room with a sleeper sofa and stairs leading to a sleeping loft that can sleep up to four. It also has a full bathroom, gas fireplace and kitchenette. Safari tents range from $115 to $135 for a deluxe tent. Midweek pricing specials are available.

Cars are not allowed in the canyon, but a shuttle brings guests from their cabin or tent to the entrance of the facility, where the El Capitan Canyon store and deli are located. We preferred walking the half-mile or so from our cabin to the store, spotting vibrantly colored scrub jays and woodpeckers along the way.

Visitors can be as relaxed or as busy as they want. Our family borrowed complimentary bikes from the front office and rode for several miles on the bike path along El Capitan and Refugio beaches, just five minutes from the campsite. Water-lovers can kayak or surf, though rentals are not available directly on the premises. My husband and I hiked along the paths in the canyon, on the lookout for snakes, bobcats or mountain lions, which signs at the trailhead warn live in the mountain. (Fortunately, we didn’t meet any.) Our less adventurous kids preferred to swim at the pool or play catch on the large grassy area adjacent to the cabins. Our favorite time was after dinner, when nearly everyone dined at picnic tables outside their cabins or tents. We met our neighbors, our kids met other kids and we had fun roasting ‘smores in our fire pit.

The campground management at El Capitan Canyon also offers a ropes challenge course, wagon and carriage rides, guided hikes led by a naturalist, and horseback riding at the adjacent El Capitan Canyon Ranch. Live concerts are performed Saturday nights through September, and feature jazz, blue grass, oldies rock ‘n’ roll and more.

But if that sounds too ambitious, telephone the front office and reserve a massage, facial, mud treatments or other spa services. After all, you’re there to relax!

The hit movie, “Sideways,” has made visits to the nearby wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley more popular than ever. We toured the Firestone Winery, which offers tours every hour, and while we could not partake of the wine tasting, it was fascinating to learn about the complex and delicate nature of wine making. For those who keep kosher, Herzog Wine Cellars is now open in Oxnard. Plan to make this kosher winery part of your trip on the way to or from El Capitan Canyon.

If you are traveling with kids, make sure to drive to nearby Solvang for seasonal apple picking. A stroll through Solvang and a quick stop at Ostrich Land in Buellton can help round out a family-friendly day.

El Capitan Canyon, 11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara. For more information, call (866) 352-2729 or visit

For help planning your trip, be sure to visit the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce at or the Santa Ynez Valley Visitors’ Association at

For a list of area wineries, visit For more information about Herzog Wine Cellars, call (805) 983-1560.

For fruit picking, try Apple Lane Farm, 1200 Alamo Pintado Road, (805) 686-5858; or Morrell Nut & Berry Farm, 1980 Alamo Pintado Road, (805) 688-8969.

Judy Gruen hopes her next vacation will include a trip to at least one outlet shopping center. Subscribe to her regular “Off My Noodle” humor columns at


Beyond Ordinary

The Silverado Trail, a picturesque highway that winds its way through the Napa Valley, isn’t exactly where you’d expect to find someone staking his claim to Jewish identity.
But for Ernie Weir, this is home base.

Weir is owner and winemaker of Hagafen Cellars, one of California’s three kosher wineries that exist in an industry dominated by hundreds of non-kosher wineries.

From all appearances, Hagafen, headquartered in a small yellow building at the end of a gravel driveway and bordered by vineyards on either side, could be any other Napa Valley winery — except for the mezuzah on the doorpost, the first clue to the Jewish nature of the enterprise.

As Weir told me, it was a need to express his Jewishness that led him to make kosher wines. But beyond the leitmotif of Jewish identity there lies a more practical side.

“To this day,” he said, “I’m respectful of the religious nature of it, but it’s not my intent. My intent is to make a product which can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.”
Weir’s approach also reflects the view of Baron Herzog and Gan Eden, California’s two other kosher wineries, that if you want to make it in this business, you must reach out beyond the rather limited Jewish market.

And today, of course, there is nothing to prevent winemakers from achieving this goal — now that kosher wine has thrown off its screw-cap identity to join the mainstream world of sophisticated varietals.
Weir, who worked for Domaine Chandon after graduating from the University of California at Davis wine department, prides himself on producing what he terms “ultra-premium” Napa Valley varietals, specializing in reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.

He owns about 12 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes, buying Chardonnay, White Riesling, Syrah and Pinot Noir from vineyards where he can exercise quality control. In 2001, Hagafen will introduce its first Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.

Hagafen’s total output is about 7,000 cases a year.

Since Weir is without his own production facilities, he makes use of other wineries, rendering them acceptable for kosher production by high-temperature water purification of the equipment. Soon, however, he will complete a new winery and tasting room on his own property.

During my visit, I tasted Hagafen’s 1997 oak-aged Merlot, a varietal enhanced with 5 percent Cabernet Franc that was named Best of Class and Best of Region at a recent California State Fair Competition. The wine had very soft tannins with layers of cherry and plum.

Hagafen’s wines have reached the White House for kosher state dinners. Its best sales, Weir noted, come from “very knowledgeable, very sophisticated” consumers on the West and East coasts.

While Hagafen’s origins are Napa Valley, it’s a different story for Baron Herzog and Weinstock, both made by New York-based Royal Wine Corporation, the largest producer of kosher varietals in the United States.

The Herzog family reaches back to 19th-century Czechoslovakia, when it was the exclusive wine supplier to Emperor Franz Joseph. Royal Wine purchased Weinstock Cellars in 1994.

Royal draws on long-term relationships with growers in a number of California regions, including Napa Valley, the Russian River, Sonoma, Clarksburg, Alexander Valley and Monterey County.

From its winery in Santa Maria, Calif., the company is making a concerted effort to promote new international varietals as an alternative to traditional sweet wines.

Royal’s winemaker, Peter Stern, is an international wine consultant with credits at Robert Mondavi who has also advised Israel’s Golan Heights Winery since its inception.

From all appearances, including his name and his pathfinding work in kosher wines, it would appear that Stern is Jewish. He is not.

“The kosher market,” said Stern, “is basically going through the same kind of evolution that you saw in the 1950s, when the consumer was not familiar with varietal wines.”

Baron Herzog, producing well over 100,000 cases a year, is arguably one of the few American wineries to really succeed with Chenin Blanc.

With aromas of peach and nectarine, this Baron Herzog wine — a Double Gold Sweepstakes winner at the 1998-99 West Coast Wine Competition — is made from prized Clarksburg-area grapes grown near the Sacramento River, where days are warm and nights can be refreshingly cool, thanks to delta breezes that blow in from San Francisco Bay.

Like Hagafen and Gan Eden, Royal targets a broad market: a quarter of Baron Herzog and Weinstock consumers are not Jewish.

Meanwhile, the story of the Gan Eden Winery, located amidst the apple orchards and small towns of Sonoma County’s Green Valley, reflects the religious odyssey of owner-winemaker Craig Winchell.
“So how many winery employees are there?” Winchell asked rhetorically. “Only one, myself!”
When he graduated from UC Davis with a degree in fermentation science, Winchell had no plans to produce kosher wines. He would, he thought, simply go to work in the mainstream wine industry.
But something else was happening in his life: he had embarked on a rediscovery of his Jewish roots and was becoming an Orthodox Jew.

What happened next was the marriage of two worlds: Winchell would make wine that was kosher and pursue a Jewish way of life. But from a distribution standpoint, he would target the broader market.
“The creation of this winery,” he explained, “was a direct result of my desire to live a Jewish life, rather than a desire to target the Jewish market.”

I found Gan Eden’s Cabernet full-flavored and delightfully robust, while its Late Harvest Monterey County Gewurtztraminer is full of luscious pineapple and grapefruit flavors.

The winery also makes a wonderful Black Muscat — the perfect companion to bittersweet chocolate — that has been featured at James Beard House “great chefs” dinners.

In 1999, Winchell produced 15,000 bottles of wine, which he said is pushing his limit for a one-man operation.

What makes all of these California varietals kosher is the fact that they are produced — that is, handled during production — by Sabbath-observant Jews. However, according to kosher winemaking standards, overall winemaking direction may come from non-Jews.

But that’s not the end of the story by any means. At kosher events, non-Jews may not be involved in serving kosher wine — a prohibition said to relate to a time when wine was used in pagan rituals.
How to get around this prohibition?

Drawing on an ancient Jewish formulation of boiling wine to alter its nature, kosher wine can be flash pasteurized by a process known in Hebrew as mevushal, thus permitting non-Jews to serve it at kosher functions. Herzog, Weinstock and Hagafen are all mevushal wines.

Flash pasteurization is a complex issue.

Some winemakers hold that the process can actually enhance a wine’s flavor, but others point to unpredictable changes to the wine’s sensory characteristics.

Gan Eden’s Winchell stays away from producing mevushal wines, although with a recent surplus of Chardonnay grapes, he introduced a new cuvee called “C’est Bouilli!” — French for “It’s Boiled!”
“I normally don’t make mevushal wine,” said Winchell, “and the lack of predictability is the principle reason. However, if done carefully, while it will always produce changes, they need not be detrimental changes.”

For example, it’s quite possible by making a wine mevushal to tone down one flavor characteristic and bring out another, as with Grenache over blackberry.

And a 1993 study conducted at UC Davis on pasteurization of young red wine found no significant effect on quality.

All of these issues aside, however, one thing is abundantly clear: significant progress has taken place in the kosher wine world.

Thanks to the trio of pathfinding winemakers, kosher California wines can now illuminate the finest table — and turn an ordinary meal into a banquet.