The Jewish people have a special relationship to wine that predates even the Romans and Greeks. For the ancient Jews, whose temple in Jerusalem was renowned throughout the fledgling civilizations of the Middle East, wine played an important role in religious ritual. Today, thousands of years later, it continues to do so. Kiddush, the prayer over the wine, traditionally announces the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday night as well as other holidays.
And so it should come as no surprise that the Herzog family has been making wine for a long time. They trace their winemaking origins back to Philip Herzog, who made wine in Slovakia for the Austro-Hungarian court more than a century ago. Philip’s wines were so appreciated by Emperor Franz-Josef, that the emperor made Philip a baron. The Baron Herzog wines—a line of premium yet moderately priced California varietals—are named to commemorate the honor.
Baron Philip made both kosher and non-kosher wines. The kosher wines were made in a separate cellar and tasted remarkably like his non-kosher wines. Indeed, the wines were made in the same basic manner. However, the kosher wines required a Jewish, Sabbath-observant cellar crew.
During World War II, Philip’s grandson Eugene hid his family from the Nazis by moving them around the Slovakian countryside. After the war’s end, he emerged from behind a false wall in a courageous Christian friend’s woodshed to reclaim his family’s winery.
But three years later, the new Czech communist regime drove the Herzogs away from their European home for good. Forced to leave with little more than the clothes on their backs, the family said goodbye to their former royal economic and social stature.
Eugene brought the family to America in 1948 after the Holocaust. He arrived in New York City with his wife, Sidonia, six of his own children and two additional war orphans. They moved to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn with only enough money to rent a two-bedroom tenement flat. With his winemaking skills, Eugene found a job at a small kosher winery tucked away into a storefront on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For a paltry salary, he made sweet, Concord-grape wines in the cellar. (European grape varieties for dry wines were not easy to obtain in post World War II New York.) He also drove the wine delivery truck. But because the company was so poor, he was paid for his driving acumen in company shares, not cash.
For years the shares were worthless, but by 1958, all the other shareholders had given up their shares. They assumed the business was doomed to failure. Eugene and his sons, who all went to work at the winery, proved them wrong. They called their new venture Royal Wines, in deference to their grandfather, Philip.
In 1985, the Herzog family decided to expand their winemaking operations to California, where they make wine under two separate labels: Baron Herzog and Herzog Wine Cellars. After twenty years of renting space in various wineries, the family was finally able to build its own state-of-the-art winery just south of Santa Barbara, in the town of Oxnard. Here, under the supervision of head winemaker Joe Hurliman, Herzog Wine Cellars has created a center for high-end contemporary winemaking in a tradition that dates back nearly six centuries.