NAPA — The Silverado Trail is a picturesque two-lane roadway bordered by wineries, where bikers can sometimes be seen pedaling past the vineyards.
The trail runs parallel to the Napa River for about 35 miles between Napa and the small town of Calistoga, known for its hot springs and Saturday farmers market.
It is also less developed than Highway 29 to the west – a more commercial stretch of road with large wineries, shopping opportunities and restaurants.
On this particular day, I came to the Silverado Trail to meet Ernie Weir and his Israeli wife, Irit, at Hagafen Cellars, their kosher winery whose vintages have graced the White House table.
The Hebrew word “hagafen” means “the vine” and is taken from the Jewish prayer traditionally said over wine.
When I pulled off the road at the southern end of Silverado Trail, I drove up a long, narrow driveway bordered by 12 acres of Hagafen’s own Cabernet Sauvignon and came to a stop outside the winery’s modest two-story building and small tasting room with its adjoining, wood-covered patio.
The pathway leading to the tasting room is bordered by a pretty flower garden adorned with sculptures. Beyond that and out of view to visitors, the Weirs have planted a vegetable garden and built a new chicken coop to raise eggs.
I chatted with Weir and his wife under the patio, where chimes sounded in the cool breeze and the afternoon light reflected off mosaic-covered glass tables designed by Irit, who is both an artist and a Chinese-trained acupuncturist.
Weir was dressed in his trademark work jeans and blue T-shirt, while his wife was wearing a peach-colored dress with a contrasting purple sweater.
Hagafen’s wines have been served at White House dinners, including one for which Weir is “most proud, extremely proud” last June, when Israeli President Shimon Peres received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
For that event, the White House served Hagafen’s 2008 Pinot Noir and its 2010 Roussanne, a white grape variety originally from the Rhone region of France that was harvested from vineyards in Lodi.
Guests enjoyed the winery’s 2007 Napa Valley Brut Cuvee at a White House celebration last May marking Jewish-American Heritage Month.
That particular event had special sports-related significance for Weir because one of his baseball heroes was in attendance.
“I was really happy,” he said, “because the event was the one that (baseball legend) Sandy Koufax got invited to, and he doesn’t come out and appear very often. . . . I haven’t gotten him to the winery yet, but that would be a long-term goal.”
Hagafen produces 100,000 bottles of wine a year, which it markets around the world and through its wine club and tasting room, where visitors are welcomed. The winery also produces Cabernet Franc, Syrah and White Riesling.
Weir worked on Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan in Israel in 1973, when he began to re-establish his agricultural roots.
“I’ve always been associated or attached to the agricultural elements in the Bible,” he said. “I’ve always thought, ‘Well, that’s very cool, we have these holidays that are agricultural . . .’ ”
When he returned to the United States, he settled in Napa and went to work for Domaine Chandon winery, eventually attending the prestigious UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, where he earned a viticulture degree.
Weir and his wife visit Israel quite often, and Irit recently gave a workshop at an international acupuncture congress there, noting that Israel has “wonderful healers.”
In the past 10 years, she said, “it’s amazing” to see the growth and acceptance of acupuncture in Israel, where there is what she termed a “blend” of medical approaches, including acupuncture.
By contrast, she said, “there’s more of a struggle” between doctors and acupuncturists in the U.S.
As we sat around one of her mosaic tile tables, she explained that she produces her own tiles and works with tempered glass, too.
Lately, she has been working with oil paints and is scheduled to show her work at an exhibit slated for the large Mondavi Winery in Napa.
Next spring, the couple will lead a wine tour to Israel for about 10 members of the Hagafen wine club.
Said Irit: “Ernie has a personal relationship with almost every winery in Israel, so it will be a very personal tour. When it comes to the restaurants, we also have some good friends . . . so it will be nice.”
In the past 25 or so years, tiny Israel has undergone a virtual revolution in winemaking and restaurant fare. The country has many boutique wineries along with its larger operations, and there is a plethora of cuisines to be found in its restaurants.
Weir, who has done consulting with Israeli wineries, said Israeli winemakers are especially interested in Napa “because . . . they know that in Napa we’re on the cutting edge of New World viticulture and winemaking, and they come to see what kind of small, little piece of information they might find about a new variety, a new clone of a variety, a new technique . . . just sort of what’s happening.”
For more information about the winery and visits to its tasting room, visit www.hagafen.com. The winery is located at 4160 Silverado Trail, in Napa. For information about the Silverado Trail wineries, visit www.silveradotrail.com.
George Medovoy covers travel at www.postcardsforyou.com.