Rabbi Shmuel Hecht devoted many months to learning the Talmudic laws surrounding winemaking, but it was years before he would experience the process himself—and learn some important lessons along the way.
The opportunity came two years after the rabbi and his wife, Fraidy, moved to Kelowna, British Columbia, to open a Chabad center to serve the Jewish community in the rustic Okanagan Valley, renowned for its fruit groves and specialty vineyards.
“I had been learning Chassidic philosophy with a dear friend, Ezra Cipes,” who operates his family’s organic vineyard and winery called Summerhill Pyramid Winery, recalls the 28-year-old Hecht, “and we came up with the idea of collaborating on a kosher organic wine.”
Kosher wine is unique in the fact that—in its uncooked form—it must be only handled by Torah-observant Jews. Cipes concedes that allowing Hecht to take complete control of the wine-making process was a lesson in patience and faith, recognizing that the fate of the precious nectar was literally out of his hands.
But before they were able to begin, both men needed to do their homework.
Although Hecht had done exclusive research into the Talmudic laws that surround kosher wine production while on a fellowship with Colel Menachem in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., he readily admits that many of the terms he studied were more theoretical than practical.
At the same time, Cipes, 32, had to brush up on the basics of kosher winemaking and plan the logistics for a special run of wine completely separate from his main winemaking operations.
Cipes enlisted the help of expert Eric von Krosigk, who selected the grapes, chose the date of harvest and confirmed the barrel selection. The 2012 vintage was ideal for that purpose, as it was a balanced growing season with little needed in the way of intervention.
They also contracted Rabbi Levy Teitelbaum of the Ottawa Vaad HaKashrut (OVH), who would oversee key points in the process and give the wine the OVH kosher stamp of approval.
‘We were blessed!’
Finally one day in September of 2012, when von Krosigk determined that the weather and vintage were just right, the rabbis and vintners got together to pick and crush the grapes.
Since the wine could not be placed in barrels that had previously held unkosher wine, it was aged in new, fresh oak barrels.
Then, every day for the next seven months, Hecht would come to the small garage-turned-winery and press the grapes again, mixing the juice with the seeds and skins to extract all the tannins and colors they contain. Sometimes, he would be replaced by his wife, Fraidy. At all other times, the wine remained sealed and the garage locked.
When von Krosigk determined that the wine was ready, it was poured into bottles and then set aside to rest.
When the wine was finally deemed ready for sale in early 2014, Cipes says he was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the vintage, which he describes a “generous wine” with “some unique notes and a beauty that is easy to appreciate.”
“We were blessed!” he says. “We did not know how it would end up. All we could do was guide it along from a distance—and it turned out very well.”
Besides learning the mechanics of organic vinification and the appreciation of fine wine, Hecht says the process taught him some other valuable lessons.
“In Judaism, we place tremendous importance on small almost imperceptible details—the difference between a kosher dish and an unkosher one, the fine nuances that go into crafting a kosher pair of tefillin. People sometimes question if the details really matter,” he explains. “During these months, I saw how important little things can be. The subtle changes of environment and small traces of foreign material can have vast effects on the finished bottle of wine.
“Organic farming is all about doing everything right, with so many restrictions on what is allowed and what is not allowed in order for the product to be considered truly organic,” Hecht reflects. “I tell people that it’s the same with Judaism. I like to say I’m promoting organic, authentic Judaism. Sure, there are restrictions, but the product is unchanged, real and good for you.”
When it came to naming the 1,200-bottle run, Cipes says he chose “Tiferet,” a name inspired by his and the rabbi’s Tanya studies. In Kabbalistic terminology, the word (often translated as “harmony,” “beauty” or “compassion”) denotes a synthesization ofchesed (kindness) and gevurah (severity).
He says he sees the same dynamics in wine.
“On one hand, there is the sweet fruitiness,” notes Cipes. “On the other hand, there are tannins and acids, which are not pleasant on their own, but when blended with the sweetness, can create a beautiful result.”