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L’Chaim! Mountain Man’s Kosher Wine a Toast to God

By: JTA

Producing wine atop a tranquil mountain in a remote area of northern California is quite a way to make a living. For Benyamin Cantz, whose one-man operation in the hills of Santa Cruz produces kosher wine from organic grapes, it’s also a calling.

“I just love making wine and the holy concept behind it, and I just want to share it with others,” Cantz told JTA in an interview on his vineyard, Four Gates Winery, one of the smallest kosher wineries in the country and of few which grows grapes organically.

“I feel so lucky that God has blessed me with the opportunity to do something that I love,” he adds.

Just getting up Cantz’s driveway is like an amusement park ride, which ends at a quaint sign greeting visitors in Hebrew.

Cantz, 65, arrived at this mountaintop 42 years ago for a summer job doing handiwork and never left. He becoming religiously observant with the help of a Chabad rabbi he met in town and later came to understand the spiritual transformation grapes undergo on their way from the vine to the Shabbat table.

“In a non-irrigated vineyard, the water literally comes down from the heaven as rain, and that rain goes through a whole spiritual journey just to give us our wine,” Cantz says. “From the sky, down to the earth, into the grapes, then crushed and bottled for our Friday night tables, it just reminded me of the whole enterprise of living. And I liked the idea of a physical voyage that manifests to find something physical to elevate God through.

Maintaining a vineyard is strenuous work, especially for someone working alone who doesn’t use pesticides and must tend his vines on a slope where tractor use is impossible. In the spring and summer, Cantz spends his days planting, sowing, pruning and watering. In the fall and winter, he lives in isolation in a slightly dilapidated yet charming shack made of plywood and cinderblock that he built himself.

There he crushes, presses, ferments, barrels, bottles, corks and labels his wine. While Cantz’s crop is certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers, his wine doesn’t qualify as organic because Cantz uses sulfur dioxide to prevent further aging — a practice European wineries consider organic but Americans do not.

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