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The Other Side of the Cork - Winemaker Spotlight: Alicia Wilbur

Alicia Wilbur, Herzog Cellars
Herzog Cellars
Herzog Cellars

By Yael E. Geller, MPH

There are many types of friends that people acquire throughout their lives. Sometimes the comfort level with friends made during adulthood is more serious or formal.  I’ve known Alicia Wilbur for a bit over four years, and Alicia is the type of friend I feel like I have known my whole life. Our relationship started as a casual friendship, and over time we have come to laugh or cry together over many different stages of life including motherhood, recipe successes or failures, and sourdough starter tweaking. We may not see each other for periods of many months at a time, but somehow we always manage to pick up where we left off and enjoy a lovely bottle of wine or a meal together if time permits. This is truly the essence of Alicia Wilbur, assistant winemaker at Herzog Wine Cellars located in Oxnard, California.

Growing up in Northern California, Alicia was no stranger in the kitchen working with the freshest produce NorCal had to offer. As we all know wine and food are intrinsically connected since the wine aficionado is on the never-ending quest to experience as many variations of flavors to tantalize and expand their palate.  It is not uncommon for winemakers and wine lovers to have excellent cheffing skills and they are categorically considered gastronomes. Having wine on the table at dinner was second nature in Wilbur’s childhood home, although she had neutral feelings about it. Wilbur reminisces, “My first experience with an eye-opening wine showed me how much there was to learn as well as how broad the winemaking world is”. There was no intimidation or preconceived notions in Alicia's wine experiences which is a refreshing perspective.

Alicia’s next stop as a young adult was Paris as an au pair for a busy Parisian family. In this position, Alicia’s culinary horizons continued to expand, the pressure of pleasing the French palate of her host family was on. There was no choice but to make the best of the best for these experienced eaters. Once Alicia returned to the states she was exposed to some of the finest wines produced in California, working in a restaurant and it was also at this time where she started to explore her Jewish roots. Alicia concurrently took on a position with the local Hillel (Jewish college outreach group) on her college campus, having the awesome experience of crossing paths with Benyamin Cantz (fondly known as Benyo), of Four Gates Winery. I am pretty sure no one would ever argue with me if I stated as a fact that Benyo is one of the most unique kosher winemakers of our times. Benyo is the type of person who can easily make you believe anything about yourself with his calm demeanor and that familiar comforting twinkle in his blue eyes.  I am pretty certain if he told me I would visit the moon one day, I would believe him. After a brief interaction at a community event, Benyo complimented Alicia’s wine knowledge. It was in those critical moments that Alicia decided that she would pursue kosher winemaking as a career. Despite not knowing much about kosher or wine, she knew that the trajectory of her life had changed in so many ways from one interaction.

The next step of the journey was an obvious one, to find a way to study Enology or the science of wines. Originally Alicia had a pull to study winemaking in Australia, however, she was living in Sonoma County California and had a lot of exposure to the wine scene. Peers convinced her that studying Enology at California State University in Fresno was the right fit since it is the only university in the country with a bonded commercial winery with endless opportunities and possibilities for experimentation. After completing a degree in Enology with a minor in Chemistry, Alicia went on to study to become a Sommelier. A Sommelier is a trained wine professional, normally working in fine restaurants, who specializes in all aspects of serving wine and pairing it with food. It is considered a major accomplishment in the wine world and certainly rare one in the kosher wine world, and even rarer to become an Orthodox Jewish woman Sommelier. With this resume, Alicia had the education, technical skills and versatile personality to get a job at any winery in the world. After settling down and starting a family, Alicia was snatched up immediately by Herzog Wine Cellars and hired as a winemaker in 2013.

All wine starts in the earth with the soil and grapevines. Grapevines are a sturdy plant to grow and spread, they’re sensitive and respond to the environment. This description brings to mind two things, firstly it describes the Neshama or spiritual soul as it is referred to in Judaism, and secondly, this describes the essence of Alicia as a person. Wilbur explains, “The balance between the wild and untamed, strong heart of the grape and its nuanced, guided, nurtured expression is where the art and science of winemaking lives”. I'm fascinated by the intricate level of knowledge on a physical level Alicia describes but also on a spiritual level. At this point, I am positive that Alicia is one of the most accomplished Jewish women in the world, and I feel honored to call her my friend! Women have been making spectacular wines for decades, and while it’s rarer in the kosher world it is not as rare as one may think. Winemaking is a multifaceted profession with many different types of titles and potential careers that women have done for centuries. We do see many kosher female brewers, distillers, fermentistas of bread and pickles, and viticulturists; therefore it makes sense for this profession to be accessible to Jewish women as well.

Alicia has a very down to earth approach when it comes to her profession. “Wine is an agricultural product of the earth. It is also of people and their labor.  It is of seasons and, especially for me as a Jewish winemaker, it is by the will of Hashem (G-d)”, Wilbur dives in deeper into the intricacies of the major challenges faced by kosher winemakers. For example, most people don’t understand that Tishrei (the month of high holidays) is always during the grape harvesting season. The harvest is something that must happen within a specific window of time to produce the finest products.  At Herzog, they never receive grapes on a Friday morning, nor do any major movements on a Sunday that is also Erev Chag (eve of major holidays). Therefore it is entirely plausible that the entire team may be out of the winery for 3 or 4 consecutive days, sometimes for 2-3 weeks in a row, IN THE MIDDLE OF HARVEST.  This is utterly inconceivable to the non-kosher winemaker since general wineries will operate practically 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for weeks on end during harvest.  As with most parts of Judaism, Herzog Wine Cellars operates very differently as we like to say in Hebrew L’mala min hateva, or above what is natural to the world.  While it makes for logistical conundrums, more than a few headaches, and some surprises, ultimately it works out and is from the heavens Min hashamayim. “If there is a more visceral, direct way to surrender to the will of Hashem (G-d), I’m not sure what it is”, Alicia says.

Alicia is a very important asset to the Herzog team in practice but also symbolically making her mark in kosher winemaking as a woman. I love going to see her at the winery in Oxnard. I can spot her in the distance wearing her rubber wellies down in the cellar or donning her white lab coat and goggles in the winery’s lab using pipettes analyzing chemical components of wine. Currently, Alicia holds the title of assistant winemaker and heads up the winemaking of the beloved Jeunesse series as well as the   Variation series. It would be unusual to be a kosher consumer and have no familiarity with these two labels which make up around 70,000 cases of wine in the Herzog production! Each series continues to expand with every passing year to make sure that Herzog has offerings for every budget and palate. Alicia has been a major driving force to move into the usage of organic grapes. We can expect to see this project develop in the near future with some new organic wines.

It’s no secret that the kosher consumer is thirsty, literally and figuratively, for broader experiences, niche, lesser-known wine grapes, and wine styles.  Will they dominate the market?  Probably not, but the desire to experience these things is growing. Alicia shares that the most amazing thing about working at Herzog Wine Cellars is the ability to work with so many different grape varieties and wine styles. 

Stylistically, Alicia personally most enjoys dry, aromatic white wines with good acidity.  Bubbles are also appropriate with everything and they elevate the regular everyday meal. Alicia shares some tips about pairing for a holiday or Shabbat meals and relates an almost paradoxical thought. Opposites attract and like goes with like so it is appropriate to think about traditional food from your wine’s place of origin. For example, Beef Bourguignon goes well with an earthy Pinot Noir and Albariño is a beautiful wine to pair with white flaky fish. The best advice from Alicia is to drink what you like and to try lots of wines, paired with unexpected things which may surprise you. “I recently made an amazing pasta dish out of chicken baked with leeks, fennel, oregano, and wine, chopped it all up, added freshly squeezed lemon juice, more Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc, and artichoke hearts, tossed it with spaghetti, drizzled with olive oil. This recipe is simple and delicious and my whole family had seconds!”

Some of us see Alicia as a superstar working at her dream job, balancing her contributions to not only her community, husband and children, but to the kosher community as something to be intimidated by. Alicia takes it all with stride. “There is no way to do it all, no way to be a perfect anything, let alone everything”. So what is her secret? Living with intention and mindfulness. Winemaking is tremendously spiritual while the whole process is tied to the seasons, to the earth and knowing that people use something she’s involved in making to mark holy time is humbling and beautiful. Alicia hopes to inspire young women and girls to see science and winemaking as fun, exciting and spiritual with hopes to inspire their brothers, too! 

Artichoke chicken recipe for

3 lbs. boneless chicken cut 1/8ths
Olive oil for drizzling
3 lemons halved
2 leeks rinsed and sliced
1 fennel bulb rinsed and cubed
1 can Gefen * artichoke hearts
1 bottle Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc
1 tsp oregano
1 box of your favorite long flat pasta cooked such a pappardelle or fettuccine
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F
Cook pasta according to the instructions for al dente and drain
Arrange chicken in a baking dish, top with leeks and fennel, juice of one lemon, salt pepper and 2 cups of the white wine. Bake until the internal temperature reads 165 in the thickest parts of the chicken. Cube chicken and discard skin. Combine chicken and vegetables with pasta in a large sauté pan. Add in artichoke hearts on low flame and juice of remaining lemons, oregano and salt to taste. Drizzle with olive oil, garnish with fresh cilantro. Serve cold or warm in a bowl or on a plate, pair with a fruity white wine such as the Herzog Special Reserve Albariño or Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc. Enjoy!

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If anyone is near Oxnard, the winery is a great place to visit, including some time at the restaurant or tasting room. What makes the tasting room really unique is that since there are so many wines that they produce, the lineup is always changing, including both regular and premium wines. It never gets dull.