Could this man who lives and vines in Santa Cruz become the world's first modern natural wine maker? He is certified organic, in a do nothing way. He picks when there's still acidity. He keeps the cap wet twice a day by bucketing over as well as punching. down. He doesn't use sulphur until after malo is finished--which he neither blocks or initiates. He is pulling back on oak but he does like the taste. Okay. But what he thinks is oak is another's stainless. He racks to bottle, done. Yup, he mostly adds yeast, but all he has to do is go native and then... But Benyamin has other concerns that conventional winemakers do not. What happens when the Jewish Holidays come along--as they always do--right in the middle of a ferment? "Yom Tov comes during the harvest almost all the time," he said, " I think G-d designed it to be a communal event. It's part of the 'tallying up' the spirit of the season (RH&YK) as well as zman simchatenu (Succos). Then, I just cover up the fermentation and go to shul, come back two days later and continue where I left off. From time to time there is a three day event string of days where one is not allowed to work. In such a case, It's a judgment call as to when to pick. If possible, I'll postpone. If not, I'll sulphur the must, cover it up, go, and add yeast when I return. Did I ever leave an active fermentation for three days? I can't remember, but probably yes. If the fermentation is sufficiently vigorous, it should be protected from VA. Plus a little VA can be eaten up by the rest of the fermentation. And as I mentioned to you, I'm sure my butt has been saved by low pH's. With Goldie gone to the porch, we sat down to taste. In time for the tasting came a friend, David (hi David!) in from San Jose, a wine lover with a talmud under his arm and go know, a reader of this blog. He's a lanky man with an eager, almost goofy laugh and where Benyamin is laid back and comes off shy and thoughtful, David is extroverted, quick and kicks up the wind. When I asked him if he too was a baal tshuvah (one who became orthodox after not) he laughed and said, "No! I'm FFB," which translates into Frum From Birth. (Which reminded me of one of the terms my mother taught me--PPG--Papa Has Gelt, but that's another story.) "I don't know how it works" Benyamin said, opening up a bottle of 2006 cabernet franc, but the grapes ripen. Another thing he said he didn't know anything about was the star red grape of the Loire. Here is what is so wild. In front of me was a man who had never had any of the world's great wines and believe, me there are no world great kosher wines that I've had. There is no Mascarello, there is no DRC, and there is no CRB cot and no Clos Rougeard cabernet francs. Hell, I don't even think there is a kosher Loire cab franc, so he is totally shooting in the dark, making wine from grapes with low pH, high acidity. The wine had freshness, varietal typicity and a lovely florality along with just the touch of bell pepper. "There's a minty flavor here."
"You see!" David said to Benyamin, I guess I affirmed his perception. But whether it was eucalyptus or mint, it was there along with tobacco, coffee, and a nice tang. Had I just had the best cabernet franc I ever tasted from California? Benyamin barely works with sulfur and unless he's dealing with the holidays--and has to delay fermentation--he only adds some after malolactic finishes (naturally.) We went on to a fifteen year old cabernet--still fresh! And, frankly I don't know how he did it, but because a friend, Rabbi Levine is allergic to sulfur he made a special cuvee for him, sans. The 2007 Rabbi Levine (not for commercial sale) kicked ass. Then there was a 1996 Chardonnay, without sulfur. Fresh! Lemon and butter. Yes, way to oaky for me but I swear there was something alive in that bottle. The man has talent! And the kosher wine world would be a better place if he'd increase production but was recently asked to make some Napa cabernet for a friend from purchased grapes. The results according to the winemaker wasn't pretty. "I now own acid, something I never needed to buy, just in case I encounter grapes like that again." We had to go. We were starving. Poor Jose was about to pass out. We made apologies. "Oh my! But I made lunch!" He gave us kings portions of pasta. Then it was blind tasting time as he asked me, "What are you eating?" "A very delicious pasta puttanesca!" I answered.
Jose ate two plates. Gratefully. In the end the only thing that separates Benyamin from being the worlds first kosher natural winemaker is the fear about going native. However there are years when the fermentations happened spontaneously and he didn't get in their way. "It was G-d's wine," he said. "And it was delicious."