Craig Winchell, Winemaker


My Jewish Odyssey

So how does a hedonist like me, a guy who loves good food and wine, a guy who enjoys all of the sensual pleasures of the "good" life, go from the freewheeling lifestyle of my youth to the more limited and socially valuable position of "mitzvah observant Jew"? In my case, the love of a fine woman definitely helped bring me around. It has been (as of Autumn of 2002) 18 years of living responsibly, and I must say, it's been great!

Growing up in Louisville, we were affiliated with a "midwest traditional" synagogue which associated with Orthodox Judaism, while not actually being an Orthodox synagogue. There was mixed seating and microphone use on Shabbos and holidays, and most of the congregants drove there. Of course we called ourselves Orthodox, and it was many years before I knew the true meaning of Orthodox.

My family was one of those which drove to synagogue, and my mother would lobby to have us attend almost every Shabbos and Yom Tov. Afterwards, we would go home and watch television, do lawn work, homework, go shopping, or perform a myriad of other pastimes. For some reason, my mother would never play cards on Shabbos, and would frown on my Friday night poker games with my (Bnai Brith Youth Organization) cronies. I thought that was a pretty old fashioned attitude. Later, in college, my sister became observant, and I started thinking of her as being pretty weird.

I almost always kept some semblance of kashrus. We would go to restaurants, but would never knowingly eat meat or shellfish. If our fish were garnished with scallops, for instance, we'd scrape them off to the side. Needless to say, we'd drink plenty of nonkosher wine and eat plenty of nonkosher cheese in our house, and for a long time, it was not unusual for Oreos and Twinkies and Jello to cross the threshold into our house. Later, we actually began reading ingredients labels on foods, but our dining habits in restaurants remained unchanged. In any case, when I left home, kashrus at our family level was more or less ingrained in me, and it was rare indeed for me to suspend those standards. It mostly happened when I was out of the country.

I was studying fermentation Science in U.C. Davis when I met my future wife, who wasn't Jewish at the time. It was a good relationship, not serious at all, because she knew and I knew that I would never marry her. I was wild enough in those days to value relationships like that, because there was never any need for responsibility. She had a definite affinity towards Jewishness, however, because many of her friends were Jewish and she liked what she saw of Jewishness, and because she didn't really belong to any religion, per se. Generic Christian Chinese, with proJewish leanings would have been a good way to describe her. Until one day, at a restaurant in Yakima, WA (near where I was working at the time) she remarked that she'd like to become Jewish and marry me. Well, I was of course flabbergasted, but we decided to do just that. Needless to say, my parents were flabbergasted as well, wondering where they had gone wrong, since my fiance was not Jewish. And much to my surprise, Jenny's parents were of exactly the same mind towards this matter, because I wasn't Chinese. My parents began sending Jenny numerous books on the subject of Judaism. Jenny's folks, however, never really snapped out of their shock in those early days.

After my having moved back to California, Jenny and I went to see my cousin, Avi Levine (a Reform rabbi in Berkeley at that time, now in Pomona, CA) about his converting her. To his credit, and with our lasting gratitude, he persuaded us to seek an Orthodox conversion instead. Which of course, is what we did. The course of this conversion changed our lives forever. Jenny began taking classes in order to learn in depth about Judaism, and I accompanied her. Jenny took it all very seriously, dedicated to master every nuance of Judaism. I, on the other hand, didn't know how I'd gotten myself into this mess. After all, I was comfortable with my family's level of Jewish observance, and considered this to be as weird as my sister who was observant (in other words, very weird indeed). Until the revelation, that is.

The revelation to which I'm referring is my sudden realization that Observant Judaism (or Orthodox, as it's called) is 100% internally consistent, very logical. Of course, Jenny always knew that, because she'd never been exposed to anything else. I'd always learned that the Synagogue was at the center of Judaism, that when one didn't live within walking distance of a synagogue, one drove there in order to participate in services on Shabbos. In my mind, therefore, internal consistency suggested that one could drive on Shabbos, and if one could drive, one could do other things on Shabbos as well, such as playing poker with my cronies. Therefore, where is the value of Shabbos, other than as a historical/cultural artifact? And if that's the case, then so are the laws of Kashrus, so that I can suspend my observance of them when I take a trip to Europe. But I learned that in fact, the home and the individual are of central importance in Judaism. Thus, it is incumbent upon the individual to follow the mitzvos (commandments) of the Torah even in the absence of other Jews. This means that if one can't walk to synagogue on Shabbos, one simply prays at home. It's more important to follow the mitzvos than to go to synagogue and pray with other Jews, if the only way to get to the synagogue is to break a commandment.

Needless to say, both Jenny and I found great meaning in what was taught in that class, and by the time she converted, we were both ready to accept the challenge of living halachically (by the precepts of Jewish Law) in the non-halachic world of Sonoma County, California. Yes, we got married and began living this wonderful lifestyle. However, there was still the matter of my boss and my job to worry about. I was making wine at Viņa Vista Winery in Geyserville at that time, a winery owned by an aerospace engineer who enjoyed coming up on weekends to tinker, and needed me to supervise his tinkering. Also, the crush was upon me, and that is normally a 7 day per week madhouse. I was able to escape working on Shabbos most of the time, but there was a refrigeration problem on Shabbos, and I received a frantic call to correct the problem of excessive pressure inside a tank (the tank was in danger of exploding because with such a vigorous fermentation going on due to hot temperatures caused by the refrigeration problem, skins had lodged in the pressure relief valve.) I felt extremely uncomfortable going in to work on Saturday, and longed for a way to escape this possibility in the future. I found my chance when the boss decided he wanted to decrease my salary because of financial difficulties he was having. I renegotiated my contract to state that I would not have to work on Shabbos or Yom Tov (major Jewish holidays). However, it didn't work out, and after a few months, I was terminated in favor of someone who would be available 7 days a week.

With nowhere else to go within the wine industry, and not wishing to change my career, I was lucky enough to have a family which could provide the capital to start GAN EDEN. So my last day of work in Viņa Vista was February 28, 1985, and Yayin Corp. was incorporated in March of that year.

Looking back on it, I wish I had had the foresight to change careers. Mind you, I love the wine industry. However, we are currently the only Orthodox residents of Sonoma County, an area devoid of an Orthodox community, and therefore educational opportunities for my kids. (Addendum 9/10/02: For the first time, a Chabad rabbi and his family moved to Santa Rosa about a month ago. There are now other, nontransient orthodox Jews in Sonoma County. Two of my children now learn with them after public school). At various times, they attended public school, and some of my kids still do, being tutored in Torah in San Francisco, around 1 1/2 hour's drive away, and now in Santa Rosa with the Wolvovskys, the new Lubavitch rabbi in Santa Rosa. For a few years, a yeshiva katana (under Chabad auspices) was available for them in Marin County (around 1 hour away), but it closed due to lack of operating capital. After that, we sent the children to public school for a year, then were able to place the children into an educational cooperative consisting of the children of the Marin Chabad rabbi and the children of several other families. They had an intensive Torah education, and we were able to home-school our kids in secular subjects. Unfortunately, the co-op was terminated after June of 2000, as the other families left, and the Chabad rabbi had an opportunity to educate his children in San Francisco. The childrens' education is the single most pressing problem we have, living in Sonoma County. We have 6 children at present, all in need of better Torah education than we can presently provide here. [Addendum 9/10/02: My oldest boy began learning this year at Mesivta of Greater Los Angeles (often called simply,"Calabasas" because of its location), and my oldest daughter began learning in Cleveland at Yavne, the girls' school of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland. At this point, she's only 12 1/2, and it's difficult for us to have her away from us this young, but it's what she wanted to do.]

So how would we characterize ourselves? Definitely, we are on the right wing of Orthodox Judaism. Some people might categorize us as "far right", but I know plenty of people to the right of us in their leanings. Like other Orthodox Jews, we believe that Torah True (Orthodox) Judaism is the only true form of Judaism, in that it is a historically and traditionally accurate representation of Judaism. However, we still have friends and relatives who espouse the opposite viewpoint, and we coexist without friction, although there have been some rather lively discussions which have ensued. Early on, we decided to avoid the (nonobservant) Jewish community in Sonoma County, so that we would not feel pressured by them to decrease our level of observance. Looking back on it, that strategy was probably the wrong one, as we could have been a resource in increasing observance within the Jewish community. We are only now beginning to try to increase our visibility in this regard. Only time will tell whether we will be able to sow the seeds of observance here. [Addendum 8/28/05: For the last few years, we have had difficulty identifying quality teachers for the children for Torah Studies. Therefore, we have sold the winery facility and are in the process of moving to the Los Angeles area. It is my hope that I can interest others in establishing another winery in the SoCal region. I retain the GAN EDEN brand name and what inventory is left, and the sales of this inventory will hopefully contribute cash to support us there. Unfortunately, our life in Sonoma County was ultimately doomed to failure because of lack of Jewish education. However, our 3 oldest children managed to acquire education adequate for their needs, even if not optimal. The 3 education of the 3 younger ones, however, was thwarted by the financial inflexibility of the northern California Jewish schools after the dot-com bust, and the elimination of many Jewish teaching positions within those schools, which affected the pool of available tutors. We hope that things improve in NoCal, but we must do what is necessary, and that means moving south.][Addendum 11/15/06: The relocation proved successful, and the 3 younger children are enjoying school in a Jewish environment, namely Los Angeles. Our older 3 are all being educated further east. Our youngest son is a 9th grader at Ner Israel in Baltimore, Our oldest son is in a small beis medrash in Lakewood, NJ, and our oldest daughter is finishing her 12th grade year in Yavne High School for Girls in Cleveland, OH.]