Joseph Herzog is walking toward my table while he gently pulls the cork out of a bottle of a 1996 cabernet sauvignon.
"Just look at that cork," Herzog says, handing it to me. "It's perfect."
So is the wine. Like silk. Rich, ruby-red silk.
"The wine is just great," Herzog softly remarks.
The wine is his. Well, it belongs to the Herzog Wine Cellars in, of all places, Oxnard, California. Herzog Wine Cellars (not to be confused and no relation to the Herzog Winery in New Zealand) is a kosher winery, one of two in California. The state of the art facilities in Oxnard, about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, are listed on the Ventura County Wine Trail map. The restaurant at the winery, Tierra Sur, also kosher, is on many of the area's lists of best restaurants. What is not so often noted is that Herzog Wine Cellars is cigar friendly.
After Joseph finishes his second pouring of the '96 cab into my glass, my dining companions and I study the menu. I ask the server whether he recommends the seared duck breast with confit of duck leg and red wine, fig and shallot sauce or the wood-grilled rib eye steak with onion gratin, almond bread crumbs and cabernet green peppercorn sauce.
Joseph interjects. "What do I always say?" he asks the waiter. "I recommend the rib eye," the waiter advises.
My guests choose the Cornish game hen and the wood-grilled organic salmon.
Before we can decide on an appetizer, a plate of house-made kosher chorizo and salami, accompanied by roasted red pepper and a green chickpea mash, is set on the table with thinly sliced French bread and English mustard. The restaurant makes all its own charcuterie, some out of lamb, like the "bacon." On other visits I've ordered the lamb sausage, which is really a version of a beautifully spiced merguez, a classic North African sausage.
After I take the final sip of the cabernet, I order a glass of the zinfandel. Great with the nicely cooked rib eye.
Dessert is all about chocolate. A molten, flourless chocolate cake is always on the menu and that is paired with a special Mexican chocolate cake this evening. We finish, and finally I am able to plan my cigar finish. I have my own with me, a Padron 80th Anniversary. I order another glass of zinfandel, a great mouth-watering wine that goes well with cigars.
I walk just outside the dining room and turn right and take a seat in the "gazebo." This was in the midst of remodeling.
Two weeks later, Joseph Herzog is telling a group of cigar and wine lovers, "The same way we approach wine, we approach cigars."
The group is gathered in a private dining room at the winery to enjoy a dinner of maple-cured, hot-smoked salmon, paired with a 2007 Herzog Russian River Special Reserve Chardonnay; Wagyu rib eye with a Herzog Alexander Valley Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon; and a decadent dessert of figs poached in zinfandel and chocolate pecan frozen custard with a warm chocolate brandy sauce and cacao beans. All this before the group of 20 step onto the newly-furnished patio to taste Macallan 18 and Highland Park 18 Scotch with cigars from Perdomo.
The dinner was held to introduce the Herzog Cigar & Wine Club. For $400 a year, subscribers will get four cigars and two bottles of wine every three months. This is part of Joseph Herzog's continuing education in the enjoyment of cigars.
"I really began smoking three years ago," Joseph said. "My father and grandfather used to smoke. You know, the language of wine and cigars is very similar."
Herzog, who lives in Los Angeles and commutes to Oxnard every day, got to know Albert Chrikjian, owner of the Old Oaks Cigar & Wine Co. in nearby Thousand Oaks.
"I started talking to Albert about a private line of Herzog cigars," Joseph explained. "But I thought it would be better to start slowly."
That was about three years ago, just after Joseph moved to California from New York to run the newly opened winery.
Among the cigars currently sold at the winery are the Padrón 3000, La Gloria Cubana Wavell, Perdomo Habano Robusto, Casa Magna Robusto, Partagas Spanish Rosado and C.A.O. Italia and Brazilia cigars. There are plans to expand the list.
We should make clear that Herzog's wine is not your father's Manischewitz or Mogen David, and nothing like what comes from the Concord grapes usually associated with kosher wines. Herzog is making cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot, zinfandel and pinot noir in red; and sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, among other varietals, in white. Still, the Herzog story is very different from many other California wine families.
Phillip Herzog began making wine in Slovakia more than a century ago. Back in the day, Herzog made both kosher and non-kosher wines. His product was so appreciated by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef that he gave Phillip the title of "Baron."
During World War II, Phillip's grandson Eugene hid his family from the Nazis in the Slovakian countryside. After the war, Eugene reclaimed the winery.
Just three years later, in 1948, the new communist Czech government drove the Herzog family away to Brooklyn. Eugene worked for a small kosher winery that produced the common Concord grape sweet wine. He was paid in shares.
Ten years later, Eugene and his sons, who had come to control the failing venture, renamed the winery Royal Wines. In 1985, the Herzogs expanded to California and in 2005, opened the new winery in Oxnard.
Today, after finishing a rich, delicious meal in the winery's restaurant, you can step out on the patio, sit in an overstuffed lounge chair, light up a great cigar and toast Baron Phillip and his extended family—I'd recommend the zinfandel—for keeping their eyes on the prize.
Herzog Wine Cellars & Tierra Sur Restaurant
3201 Camino Del Sol
Oxnard, CA 93030
About 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed Fridays at 5 p.m. and all day Saturday.
Lunch: Sunday—Thursday 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m., Friday (Summer) 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. (Winter) 11:30 a.m.- 2 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday—Thursday 5 - 9 p.m.
Tasting Room: Open when winery is open; self-guided tours available.