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Interview with Aaron Munk of Red Fern Cellars:

I had the pleasure of sitting with the gregarious Aaron Munk for a few hours back in August to discuss Red Fern Cellars, wine tasting, and his novel approach to kosher wine production in the United States.  As the only Kosher boutique winery (a winery that produces under 5,000 cases a year) in North America, and the only Kosher winery in New York’s Long Island, Red Fern Cellars has filled a much needed gap in the American Kosher wine market.  Instead of the mass-produced, over-extracted wines that have for so long dominated the American kosher wine market, Red fern Cellars provides the kosher drinking public with hand crafted wines that are soft, food friendly, and well-balanced.

Aaron Munk developed his passion for wine fairly recently. He was not brought up in a winemaking, or wine drinking family, but like so many city dwelling Americans he discovered the pleasures and the rewards of wine production only in his adult life. Aaron admits that until 1996 he had never actually drunk wine, but was more of a beer and scotch man.  After graduating from Johns Hopkins, moving back to New York, and settling into his professional career at Meryll Lynch about 10 years ago, Aaron Munk realized that he needed a hobby.  “I remembered that my brother, who is about 10 years older than me, made a wine back when I was a teenager. It was barely drinkable, but I guess that memory stuck in my head. So I started reading about wine, visiting wineries. I finally bought some oak and a steel tank. The first wine I produced I had 18 cases of it and it lasted only 6 months and then turned on me.”

In 1998, Aaron first began producing wines privately at home using grapes purchased from California’s prestigious Napa Valley.  These grapes were very expensive to transport and buy, and there were inevitably some halachic questions that came into play.  “The grapes needed to travel that whole distance and stay perfectly intact. If the grapes were crushed or injured at all along the way then you had kashrut issues to contend with.”  After two years of producing wine from Napa grapes, Aaron Munk decided that it was ridiculous to transport grapes from across the country when he was living in one of the largest grape producing areas in the country.  Aaron worked out an agreement in 2000 with Peconic Bay Winery owner Ray Blum to supply his burgeoning business with fresh grapes from Long Island. Ever since, Red Fern Cellars has been able to produce wines from fresh grapes, grown locally, and hopefully expressing some of the unique Long Island terroir.

As Red Fern Cellar’s case production continued to increase, Munk realized that they would be required by New York State law to obtain a winemaking license. In 2002 Red Fern Cellar received their official license and the winery was able to produce more than the 200 galloons annually it had been producing previously.  As this pet project turned into a more serious undertaking, additional staff was required to help manage the day to day operation of the winery.  Shortly thereafter, David Kaplan was hired as the new full time winemaker for Red Fern Cellars.  Kaplan is an optometrist by day, who became interested in wines back in 1978 when he worked for a vineyard at Kibbutz Sha’lvim. While working at Red Fern Cellars, Kaplan completed his enology training with the UC Davis on-line degree program to help hone his winemaking skills.

Despite the positive press Red Fern Cellar wines have received in recent years, Aaron Munk has no definite plans to expand further or to buy his own vineyard one day. “There is a saying in the industry, if your nuts to have a winery you are even more nuts to have a vineyard. Once you have a vineyard you are basically a farmer. I love the process of making wine, tasting it, seeing how it turns out and the changes it undergoes,” he explained.  Aaron’s true passion is clearly in the exciting molecular interactions that take place during fermentation and then again within the bottle. “Wine is a living and breathing entity that transforms dramatically over time,” he exclaimed. “It is more interesting for me to have crazy wine making stories and experiences than to make a standard bottling year after year. It is the mistakes and the accidents during the course of winemaking that produce an interesting and exciting bottle. That is what winemaking is all about.”

In many ways, Aaron sees Red Fern Cellars as a vehicle to help educate the kosher wine drinking public in the nuances of wine production.  “Without a basic understanding of how to make wine, how can the consumer know what to look for, or even what it is they like or dislike?”  He hopes that by sharing his winemaking passion and knowledge with others, they too will come to respect and appreciate wine on a higher level.