A review of the Hagafen Sauvingon Blanc 2011 and some suggestions for a rewarding visit to Scotland.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week – June 6, 2012
While the number of kosher wineries is steadily increasing, there is a degree of comfort in returning to a familiar friend. One of our favorite winemakers is Ernie Weir, the owner of Napa Valley, California’s Hagafen Cellars. A multi-award winner, Hagafen has been making some of the world’s best kosher wines since 1979 when Ernie and his wife Irit began making wine from grapes whose source was the Winery Lake Vineyard located south of the Napa Valley. Over time the Weirs were able to build their own winery and obtain grapes from some of Napa’s finest locations, eventually purchasing two vineyards for their estate wines.
A model of consistent value and quality, most of Hagafen’s production is sold to non-Jews and their tasting room located along the Silverado Trail remains a popular destination for Napa Valley visitors. Hagafen wines have been served at numerous diplomatic events including White House state dinners. Another noteworthy distinction, all Hagafen wines are certified kosher and mevushal under the supervision of the Orthodox Union (OU) – yet the wines never seem to suffer any noticeable adverse effects from the mevushal process (a thermal processing akin to flash pasteurization).
Hagafen’s wines are released under the Hagafen, Prix and Don Ernesto labels and include Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Riesling as well as a terrific Champagne-style sparkling wine. An excellent summer sipper is the Hagafen Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($21) sourced from the Moskowite Ranch vineyard located on the eastern foothills of the Napa Valley. A bright, well-balanced delightful wine, it expresses ripe grapefruit and orange aromas that meld into peach, pear and tangerine flavors accented with hints of minerals, mangos and passion fruit. This food-friendly effort is perfect to pair with crudites, salads, mild fish and chicken dishes as well as simply grilled fish.
Spirits-wise, we were recently asked about Scotch whisky tourism – a topic we periodically cover in passing, and though we’d give it a fuller treatment for all those still making their summer plans. Scotland is a beautiful country to visit. Beyond the booze destinations, there is much to see and do for the entire family, and there are some excellent websites to visit for such information. From us, however, you’ll get little more info than booze.
A starting point to organizing a successful Scotland holiday is to decide on tourist priorities for your itinerary. The trip deciders should probably determine, at the outset, just how much distillery time they wish to clock in. There are over 90 working distilleries that are geared for tourists. So unless you are relocating to Scotland for a sabbatical, finding just that right balance between drink and non-drink activities will be important, otherwise you may very well experience – or remember – little else about the place.
Another consideration is transport. Driving is the easiest way to get around once you are there (getting there can be done via train, plane or automobile – and even by ship if you are so inclined). That said, driving there is not for the fainthearted, especially if you are not great at a manual transmission driving while on the “wrong” side of the road and the wrong side of the car (automatic transmission cars are available at the rental agencies, but are more expensive and not in evidence, despite advance booking). Obviously, a designated driver is an essential for all distillery visits. Private tour guides and drivers are easily booked as well, and for not too substantial an expense, but will probably exceed the relative value added for those seeking to get the biggest bang for their precious buck.
Jewishly (visit scojec.org for more resources), Glasgow will present the greatest findable concentration of landsmen. Most of the community lives on the south side of the city, in East Renfrewshire. There are six synagogues in Glasgow, five Orthodox and one Reform (grs.org.uk); the largest of these (the largest in all of Scotland) is the Orthodox Giffnock and Newlands Hebrew Congregation (giffnockshul.co.uk; Chabad on premises as well). One of us has clocked in some quality time schmoozing with the morning minyan crowd and will attest to the friendly, outgoing reception awaiting all new faces. The next largest Jewish community is in Edinburgh, its only functioning shul is the Orthodox Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation (ehcong.com). Up north, there is a small Orthodox community in Aberdeen as well (aberdeenhebrew.org.uk; minyanim can be tricky without advance notice, so call ahead). In general, travelers would do well to contact these shuls in advance for daily and Shabbos minyanim times, as well as availability of kosher food and mikvaot (ritual baths).
The only kosher grocery stores in Scotland are in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but a number of supermarkets have small kosher sections and some products on the general shelves throughout the country have familiar hechsherim (labels of rabbinic approval; such as the KLBD, the OU, the Chaf-K, etc.). For a price, kosher food can also be ordered for delivery throughout the U.K. from the Manchester-based Titanics (titanics.co.uk; under supervision of the Manchester Beth Din, mbd.org.uk).
For those with less stringent kashrut guidelines, fresh kosher varieties of fish are available in abundance throughout the country, as are smoked preparations. Also of note, for those who rely upon vegetarian options, the “vegetarian” designation on packaged food and restaurants is regulated by the government and is taken very seriously by purveyors, consumers and the government.
If the booze is the focus, head north to Speyside. The vast majority of working distilleries are to be found here, and many within manageable driving distance of either the Aberdeen or Inverness airports. Another option is to hit the Western coast of Scotland and include one or more of the islands, such as Islay, Jura and Skye. Though depending on your timing, Islay is traditionally a visit all on its own – the sheer force of personality of this Hebridean whisky destination and its eight working distilleries is more than enough to soak up a full week. Even that much time would be considered by many a grave injustice.
For those seeking to merely squeeze in one or two distilleries amidst family fun and ye olde historic and cultural sites, consider a visit to Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. It is a fabulous city. It is also well situated for boozy sightseeing. A great resource is the scotlandwhisky.com website. It’ll give you a basic overview of what’s offered – such as The Scotch Whisky Experience. The “Experience” is right in the heart of the city center, next to Edinburgh Castle, on the famed Royal Mile. Little more than a fun introductory romp through Scotch whisky history, the “experience” is entertaining, takes only about an hour, and includes a wee nip or two of the elixir itself – for educational purposes, obviously.
Not far from Edinburgh are several great distilleries worth visiting. Of these Glenkinchie (a roughly 20-mile drive) and Tullibardine (50-mile drive) are both interesting to visit and produce very nice whisky. Another worthy stop is the “Famous Grouse Experience,” which is housed at the Glenturret Distillery (55 mile drive) in the village of Crieff. This makes for a hugely fun, children-friendly visit, though it is much more about the blended Famous Grouse whisky than about the Glenturret single malt. So while we do highly recommend the Grouse tour, perhaps it would be better after a regular malt whisky distillery visit.
Heading west, towards Loch Lomond, Sterling Castle and Glasgow, offers one the chance to visit the Glengoyne Distillery, about 55 miles from Edinburgh. Glengoyne offers a variety of tour options, all excellent and well worth consideration.
Regardless of which distilleries one visits, it would be wise to contact the distilleries in advance to check dates and times and, if necessary, book your tours. Even though posted visiting times on the web are generally accurate, it is always good to find out in advance if anything is closed due to refurbishment or one of the many U.K. bank holidays. Better safe than sorry. L’Chaim!