High above Hood River in the Columbia Gorge, off a desolate road garnished with fields of wildflowers and grape trellises, sits Washington State’s only kosher winery. Its location up an unmarked gravel driveway eludes the GPS. We pull in, and a rugged, windswept man emerges from a building and invites us in to a room where a table is set with several wine bottles, glasses, and a bowl of pistachios. To the right, enormous vats of fermenting wine await their hour of glory. Until then, their caps and knobs are sealed with tape bearing the stamp of the Orthodox Union.
Philip Jones, the winemaker behind Pacifica, doesn’t particularly mind that as a non-Jew he can’t touch his own products. The 66-year-old trained horticulturist and viticulturist got his start testing chemicals for the Environmental Protection Agency in the early 1980s, so he’s used to following protocol. “You just do what you’re supposed to do,” he says.
For wine to be kosher, only Shabbat-observant Jews can touch it, and it can’t have non-kosher additives. A representative from Oregon Kosher, the certifying agency in Portland, periodically pops into Jones’s hilltop estate to make sure things are, well, kosher. When the wine is ready, Jones has it loaded into a tanker truck and shipped down to Oxnard, California, where it gets bottled at Herzog Winery’s kosher bottling plant.
The process isn’t new to Jones. He and his wife, Sheryl, opened Pacifica on Underwood Mountain in 2010 after 20 years as successful winemakers in New Zealand, where they established the acclaimed Spencer Hill Estates. It was there that Jones got the idea to enter the niche kosher industry. “I looked at kosher wine as being another market,” he says. As that market heated up, Jones launched a kosher line, Goose Bay, which has received numerous accolades, including a rating of 90 by Wine Spectator for its sauvignon blanc.
“When my wife and I decided we wanted a presence in the U.S. again, we started looking in Oregon,” Jones says. “I planted a vineyard. I wasn’t going to make wine. I certainly wasn’t going to make kosher wine.”
Drawn to growing grapes on hillsides, Jones remembers sitting in Hood River, Oregon, when he spotted Underwood Mountain across the river. “I looked up at this mountain, and I said, ‘Sheryl, let’s go up there.’”
Then, with the recession in full swing in 2009, Jones did what he set out not to do: he returned to winemaking — kosher winemaking. “The kosher market wasn’t hit as bad as the regular market,” he says. So he partnered up with Royal Wine Corp., the largest distributor of kosher wines. Royal handles all the sales of Pacifica, and it also determines which wines Jones should make. On Underwood Mountain, Jones grows pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, but sells the chardonnay and buys grapes from around Oregon and Washington to make bold reds. Currently, you can find a 2010 Oregon pinot noir and Washington Meritage, a 2011 Washington cabernet-merlot, and a 2012 Oregon pinot noir on shelves in the region. (Try Affordable Kosher, QFC University Village and Mercer Island, Clay’s Market, and Evergreen Wine Cellar. Prices range from $20 to 40.) This year, for the first time, they’re launching a Columbia Gorge rosé.
“Kosher is 25 percent of our business,” Jones says of the New Zealand distribution. “That’s significant, but where we’re getting growth is in the non-kosher world. The wines are just as good, or better. There’s just no difference whether it’s kosher or non-kosher.”
While kashrut standards tend to be rigid, the kosher wine industry has benefited from innovations in mainstream viticulture, like flash pasteurization. Wine used to be boiled so a non-Jew could handle it, rendering the wine “mevushal.” But today mevushal wines are quickly brought up to a high temperature, barely affecting the taste. “Flash pasteurizing doesn’t hurt. It actually helps,” Jones says. “It actually brings out some of the aromatics.”
Pacifica, which sells about 1,500 cases a year and is competing with a multitude of local wineries as well as an increasingly competitive kosher market, is still finding its footing. “The kosher market has been very tough with the advent of Israeli wines,” Jones says. “They hit really big about five years ago. There’s just a huge amount of wineries there.”
Pacifica is producing sumptuous reds that have been racking up awards at the San Francisco Chronicle Show and Tasters Guild International, and it won Best New Kosher Wine at Kosherfest 2012. New Zealand’s Goose Bay continues to thrive, with markets as far-flung as Denmark, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Hong Kong, as well as in the vegan wine niche.
A veteran in the industry, Jones leans away from the idea of opening a tasting room or trying to expand. He’s hoping sales pick up organically, especially if Pacifica can hit more shelves branded as a good Northwest wine. “Outside of the Northwest, there’s not much of a market for [local] wines, period,” he says. “It’s an interesting ride we’re going through here. Are we going to grow? That just depends on the market.”