Rabbi does more than bless the wine, he grows the grapes!

The year was 1981 and we had decided to get married in September of that year. Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood, California would be the location, chosen because other family members had been married there and spoke highly of the Rabbi…Rabbi James Lee Kaufman, fondly referred to as just Rabbi Jim. That would be the beginning of a long relationship with this temple and its beloved Rabbi.

Rabbi Jim went on to marry others in our family and preside over all rites of passage including bar/bat mitzvah, baby namings and britot, home blessings, and burials. No matter when we called or what was required, Rabbi Jim was there. At one such event held in our home, after the formalities were over we offered the Rabbi something to drink. He replied that a glass of wine would be nice. I asked, “what kind” and he answered, Cabernet, if you have it. Ah…a “cab guy”, I thought, and went to retrieve the best bottle I had. (Sorry I don’t remember what it was, but he seemed to like it. )

The year is 2010 and the results of the San Francisco Chronicle are in.  Willowbrook Cellars Pinot Noir, Kaufman-Sunnyslope Vineyard, 2008 has been awarded a medal. Kaufman-Sunnyslope Vineyard named after its owner…..In 1994 Rabbi Jim and his wife, Sue, thinking they would like to someday retire in Northern California, purchased a then un-planted 6 acre parcel in the prestigious Sonoma Mountain AVA. They originally planted the site to Merlot, then grafted over to Pinot Noir in 2007. Their first Pinot harvest of 3.5 tons in 2008 was sold to Willowbrook Cellars to be used in a single vineyard designated wine.

Willowbrook Cellars - 2008 Pinot Noir - Kaufman Sunnyslope Vineyard

Rabbi Jim has been a part of Temple Beth Hillel’s clergy since 1973, and although he stepped down from his position as senior Rabbi in 2010, he remains active in the temple community. It is there where I caught up with him to find out more about his passion for wine and how it led to vineyard ownership.

Perhaps that passion is summed up best when he says, “I drink wine because it interests me…I like the way it evolves in the glass”. Indeed, he says that it is the nose of a wine that most intrigues him, and can sit with an empty glass for quite some time enjoying the changing bouquet coming from the residual wine…much to the chagrin of many an impatient waiter hoping to clean up a table. In fact, patience as well, is part of what appreciating wine means to the Rabbi. He marvels at the historical component that wine inherently offers, as so many wines go back to vintages of multiple decades gone by. Patience must be practiced by the winemaker as he conscientiously checks his barrels over the years and holds back bottles for further aging in the cellar. Patience must also be a discipline of the consumer/collector as he buys bottles and lays them down until they reach the optimum maturity. Then, and this is Jim’s favorite part as an olfactory sensitive taster, comes the patience required to just let the wine sit in the glass for a bit to gather its bouquet for presentation. The Rabbi has on occasion used the making of wine as a comparison when conducting marriage counseling, pointing out that both require patience and nurturing to thrive and have the best possible outcome.

Rabbi Jim’s first wine encounter was in 1980 with a bottle of Chateau Montelena 1978 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon. He began collecting California cabs in 1980, and his collection includes verticals of Gemstone and Garric. While Jim doesn’t necessarily drink wine every day, he really looks forward to opening up an older bottle periodically to see how it has developed. Rabbi Jim has shared his love of fine wine with his five children. One family tradition calls for celebrating a college graduation with a Double Magnum of 10-15 year old Joseph Phelps Insignia. He sighs and says the “kids” have become quite spoiled and when he tries to serve them some of his “homemade” cab they tend to balk and ask for the “good stuff”. Although he doesn’t drink much Bordeaux, he did indulge in a half bottle of ’83 Margaux this last New Year’s Eve and enjoyed a ’70 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild for his 25th wedding anniversary and has another cellared for their 50th.

Rabbi James Kaufman

Rabbi James Kaufman

Kaufman-Sunnyslope Vineyard is located in the North section of Bennett Valley in the Sonoma Mountain area and is planted to two Pinot Noir clones. The influence of the marine layer coming through the Cotati Gap keeps this section cooler allowing for a more exposed grape in the canopy without danger of sunburn. The fruit achieves fully developed varietal characteristics with ripe Brix, low pH , high malic acid, excellent skin color and great aging potential. 2009 yielded about 12 tons of fruit which was sold to Willowbrook, Paro Cellars and Malm Cellars, some of which will be bottled soon. In 2010, due to cold and fog in June and July, the site production was reduced to about 6 tons and was sold to three different wine producers.

The Rabbi and his wife might  build a home on the property someday…when he really does retire.


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