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Oxnard: California’s kosher wine secret

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Herzong Wine Cellars sits in a nondescript industrial facility just off the highway MICHAEL STAVSKY PHOTO
Herzog Wine Cellars sits in a nondescript industrial facility just off the highway MICHAEL STAVSKY PHOTO

The sleepy seaside town of Oxnard, Calif., sits away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Although only about an hour and a half north in Ventura County, the town has the quaint charm of a Mediterranean village.

Free from the congestion and pollution of its southern neighbour, Oxnard’s rocky picturesque coastline sits dotted with endless yachts and pleasure boats. Many serve the nearby Channel Islands off the coast.

This bastion of tranquility is also far removed from L.A.’s half-million strong Jewish community. With neighbourhood after neighbourhood lined with synagogues of all denominations and kosher eateries that put Toronto’s measly few to shame, one would expect a major Kosher wine producer to set up shop closer to the heart of it all.

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But Oxnard’s proximity to the megalopolis of Los Angeles is secondary to its location closer to several of California’s major grape growing regions. And avoiding the near-permanent traffic jam of Los Angeles allows grapes from all over the state to reach Oxnard in a timely manner.

It’s here, away from vibrant Jewish communities, that Royal Wine Corporation, makers of Kedem grape juice and wines, established Herzog Wine Cellars some 30 years ago. Their current state-of-the-art facility opened in 2005.

Aging barrels at Oxnard
Aging barrels at Herzog Wine Cellars

Now the largest kosher wine facility in North America, the Baron Herzog line of fine wines rivals their non-kosher counterparts. Gone are the days of the stereotypical sweet table wines gracing the tables in kosher homes. Having won numerous wine competitions and tasting awards over the years, Herzog wines are sought after by Jews and non-Jews alike.

Herzog Wine Cellars sits in a nondescript industrial facility just off the highway. With the serene setting and fabulous climate, we were sure their grapes come from a nearby vineyard. But after seeing the immense production facility inside, we learned that Herzog’s California wines are produced from grapes grown in world famous regions like Napa Valley, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, as well as smaller areas like the nearby Santa Ynez valley.

Each region grows grapes that are unique to their area and have been cultivated to produce some incredible varietals. And Herzog’s master winemakers carefully select grapes that produce some fabulous wine blends.

Due to the laws of kashrut, from the time the grapes are crushed, only religious Jews are allowed to be involved in the wine making process. Herzog Wine Cellars are no different. Far from any large established Jewish communities, a team of Orthodox winemakers, machinists, staff and mashgichim (kosher supervisors) work together to produce wine shipped all over the world. One staff member mentioned the warehouse in back where nearly $3 million of wine is stored.

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On the day of our visit, the facility was in the process of bottling Baron Herzog Jeunesse. From our vantage point in the viewing area above the plant, we could clearly read the signs stating that only mashgichim were allowed within the bottling loop during production.

At 2p.m., production halted. With so many Orthodox workers in the facility, it was time to daven Minchah. In a small, makeshift synagogue at the corner of the immense fermentation tank room, I joined the men in prayer forming a minyan.

Next it was off to the bar where all of Baron Herzog’s wines are available for purchase. The wine-tasting option, however, is a must. For a small fee, patrons are served 10 different Baron Herzog wines ranging from exquisitely dry reds like Zinfandel to sublime late-harvest Chenin Blanc.

Oxnard tanks
Herzog Wine Cellars

The newest Herzog blend, called Camouflage and released in 2015, uses 12 different varieties of grapes and was produced to commemorate Herzog’s 30 years of California wine-making. With subtle hints of raspberry and chocolate, it was the wine I decided to take home with me. And any bottle purchased from the wine bar waives the fee for the wine tasting.

When the new facility opened in 2005, the Herzog family decided that visitors to the facility should complement their visit and wine tasting with a fine meal as well. It was with this in mind that Tierra Sur was established.

The only Zagat rated restaurant within 65 kilometres, the glatt kosher Tierra Sur appeals to Jews and non-Jews alike. With tasteful décor and available terraced dining, the restaurant sources many of its ingredients from local Oxnard farmers. Open for lunch and dinner, the restaurant serves elegant American fare with wine pairings available for each course. Rivaling any kosher fine dining establishment in Los Angeles, Tierra Sur is a kosher foodie’s dream and makes for an elegant nightcap to a visit to Herzog Wine Cellars.