Four Gates' Cantz carves a solo path to kosher wine
Benyamin Cantz's foray into winemaking must have been guided by a higher authority.
He never consciously had wine on the brain, nor did he feel he had a great palate. His story started in 1971 when this former San Fernando Valley boy, ex-peace marcher and art history major, moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains to watch over his UC Santa Cruz art professor's property, 660 feet up in the hills about 5 miles north of Santa Cruz. Surprisingly, he found he was smitten with the area's beauty and loved caring for her goats.
Except for the animals, he is now the only full-time resident on the mountain, but back in 1979, there was a fellow tenant who farmed marijuana. "He planted Chardonnay vines as, shall we say, cover crop," Cantz quips. "The tenant eventually left but the vines remained. I watched over them."
An idea was formed.
Kosher wine has been witnessing a resurrection of sorts - not just conscientious California producers but also such garagiste labels as Weiss Brothers' 1-2 Punch and Jonathan Hajdu's Brobdingnagian. Yet for those who long for more restrained, terroir-driven kosher juice at holidays, pickings have been slim - save for Cantz's Four Gates.
The self-effacing Cantz, 62, is an Orthodox Jew and a rare breed - what the French might call a vigneron. His hands are the only ones to work his land, tend the vines and make the wines. His vines have always been organic, and he approaches his work with a sincere, let-the-earth-speak philosophy. Here are true Santa Cruz Mountains wines; their kosherness happens to be a bonus.
Cantz was raised as a secular Jew but became increasingly religious and therefore had sipped only kosher wines. His motivation wasn't to make a New World stand-in for Richebourg or even Chinon - after all, he had no idea what they tasted like - but to make a simple wine over which to chant Sabbath and holiday kiddush.
He planted 3 1/2 acres of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir. By Jewish law, he had to wait until the fourth harvest to use his fruit. In 1996, he made his first commercial vintage.
His wine education came by reading and fumbling, and the wines often were preserved from failure by their natural high acidity. When he had questions, he called upon his winery neighbors. "Everyone was very helpful," he says.
He walks at a leisurely pace, as if he owns time, and that same attitude prevails in noninterventionist winemaking.
He dry-farms his certified organic vines. He does little to work the limestone, sandstone and clay soils; there is no tilling. He merely manures, using the goods from the on-premise horse and goat.
To keep kosher, only Sabbath-observing Jews are allowed to handle the wine once the process starts. No one else can even touch the equipment, so Cantz goes it alone. He inoculates for alcoholic fermentation. Except for a tiny dose of sulfur dioxide, which he adds after his natural malolactic fermentations finish, that's it as far as additives. The wines are barely racked between barrels, nor the lees stirred; he alone handles the bottling.
Cantz even refuses to flash-pasteurize his wine so it can be called mevushal. (There are two kinds of kosher: Non-mevushal wines like Cantz's are immediately "trayf," or non-kosher, if served by a non Sabbath-observing Jew. Mevushal wines can be served by anyone, making them the kosher wine industry's cash cow.) As a result, Four Gates loses some business but wins the affection of those who believe the process can scuttle terroir.
"I don't like the idea of mevushal," Cantz says. "And anyway, it's expensive and at my size, only 400 cases, it doesn't make financial sense."
To deal with his persistently low yields - 1 1/2 to 2 tons per acre - high acid levels and pronounced tannins, Cantz often blends vintages. "My wines need time," he says.
I'm hunting the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want them natural and most of all, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue. With this messiah thing going on, I'm trying to swell the ranks of those who crave the differences in each vintage, celebrate nuance and desire wines that make them think, laugh, and feel. Welcome.
And, if you'd like a signed copy, feel free to contact me directly.