After a short[er] newsletter last week, this week’s missive details the wonders of another boutique California winery – Shirah and as a result, is once again [ever-so-slightly] longer than usual. Hopefully you will persevere as the story behind Weiss Brothers and their wines are well worthy of your attention.
My first encounter with the libations created by Gabriel and Shimon Weiss (a/k/a the “Weiss Brothers”) was five years ago and prior to the formal establishment of the Shirah Winery. Way back in 2010 I had the opportunity to taste their second and third wines, both from the 2008 vintage –One Two Punch and Syraph. These wines made it into my “California Dreaming” newsletter which [very] briefly covered a number of the exciting boutique/garagiste wineries, showcasing the potential embedded in a number of these talented winemakers. The first wine the brothers released was that single barrel of 2005 Syrah about which I wrote a few weeks ago when I covered Jonathan Hajdu and his wines, as he helped Gabe and Shimon make it (which also happens to be the only wine produced by the Weiss Brothers which I have not [yet] had the opportunity to try – hint hint).
Regardless of the fact that those first releases pre-dated the founding of Shirah Winery and weren’t “official” or “commercial” releases (whatever that means), hindsight has shown them to have been accurate predictors of what was to come and clear indicators of the winemaking path Gabe and Shimon had set out on. While they have since (and continue to) honed their winemaking abilities and gained experience and expertise over the years, their focus on Syrah, use of high-end grapes well-known vineyards, creative blends, high alcohol yet controlled-fruit driven wines and of course awesome labels were all evident in those early days and showcased in the aforementioned two wines. But I am skipping a bit ahead, so first some background and history.
The collective reference to Gabriel and Shimon as the “Weiss Brothers” is certainly appropriate with Shirah Wine a true team effort between the two brothers (with a little help from their sister – more on that below). While taking slightly different roads from their native Cleveland to California wine country, thankfully they ended up in the same place. As children, the brothers were moved from their native Cincinnati to Brooklyn in search of a more Orthodox environment (apparently Brooklyn was supposed to be a stop en route to Israel where they had extended family). After embarking on a life trajectory that included yeshiva stints in Monsey and Israel and night classes in transportation design but had nothing to do with wine (despite being very “into” wine since turning 21), Gabe decided to try and make a career out of wine. In yet another sign of siyata d’shmaya, Jonathan Hajdu’s brother was attending the same yeshiva and connected him with Jonathan who in turn put in a good word with the Herzog family who ended up hiring Gabe as a cellar rat in 2004. After packing his bags and moving to the West Coast (leaving younger brother Shimon behind), it wasn’t long before Gabe (together with Jonathan and another buddy – Yoni) had the opportunity to make the aforementioned inaugural “Weiss Wine”. While not yet a “Shirah” or even a “Weiss Brothers” wine (Shimon was still living in New York and didn’t participate), it was the wine that set the stage for all the good things to come. An extra room in Gabe’s apartment served as the fermentation room and Yoni’s garage was where the barrel was aged (a legitimate California “garagiste wine”). However by the time bottling time came around both Yoni and Jon were in Israel, leaving all the work and naming rights to Gabe. A local Kabbalist suggested the Shirah name and with the Syrah/Shirah play on words, the name fit (and stuck when the official winery was launched). The label was designed by Yael Miller, co-founder of brand agency Miller Creative and a “Weiss Sister”, who has designed all of their labels since and is the brains behind some of the most uniquely cool labels a kosher wine has ever seen. After that initial success and obviously being bitten by the winemaking bug, it took a few more years before he was able to try his hand again and in the interim, continued to work hard at Herzog, learning anything and everything he could about winemaking (he also assisted in a few Covenant harvests, during the time they were housed at Herzog’s facility).
It wasn’t until three years later that Shimon finally woke up and heeded wine’s siren call. After a number of years working in construction, Shimon realized that he needed to be the master of his own domain. Debating between staying in Monsey to build a construction business and joining his siblings in California ended up being a pretty simple decision and in 2007 Shimon packed his bags and headed west. After spending nearly a year resisting and working in cabinetry, he finally acquiesced and joined Herzog to assist with the 2008 harvest. With the Weiss Brothers back together again and the seeds planted for what was to become Shirah, the brothers joined forces that year with Jack Levin and acquired Syrah and Grenache grapes from which they made four barrels of two different wines (“One Two Punch” and “Syraph” – see the notes and additional details in the tasting notes below). Using space in Oreana, Winery (a cooperative non-kosher winery owned by a friend) the brothers made the wine and fermented and aged it in a friend’s garage (once again literally making “garagiste” wine). Shimon’s carpentry skills came in handy when they needed a way to keep the wines separate from everyone else in the non-kosher winery to ensure that they remained kosher (following in the steps of other California boutiques, they initially opted for “Cal Kosher” supervision before obtaining a more conventional hashgacha which would be acceptable to the discerning masses they were targeting. Showcasing some of the creativity evident in many of Shirah’s wines, he concocted special lockboxes to house the wine.
Following the critical acclaim and sold out harvest, the brothers decided it was time to forge ahead and take control of their own destiny and thus Shirah Winery was officially born for the 2009 vintage. Continuing the focus on Syrah, they sourced Syrah from two different vineyards in Santa Barbara (Thompson and McGinley) and blended them together while fermenting the wine with 2% Viognier in classic Rhone style. The wine was made at Central Coast Wine Services (“CCWS”), a custom crush facility located in Santa Maria. They named the resulting powerhouse of a wine Power to the People, wrapped it in one of the most incredible labels ever and let it loose on an unsuspecting market to instant adoration and much critical acclaim (including taking top spot on the Jewish Week’s 2011 Annual Wine Guide). They also bottled each of the Syrah wines individually as single vineyard wines (sansthe Viognier); with their inaugural commercial harvest yielding approximately 3,000 bottles, across all three wines. With Santa Maria nearly a three-hour drive from Los Angeles and very little money in the bank, the brothers spent the entire busy 2009 harvest camped out in a tent on nearby Pismo beach.
One successful vintage, regardless of how well received (and especially as small as Shirah’s was) may mean fame but certainly not fortune. With money tight and Shirah subsisting funded on a “family and friends” shoestring budget, Gabe and Shimon took jobs in 2010 with Agua Dulce winery that had recently been acquired by a Jewish businessman who wanted to turn it into a kosher winery. Joining Craig Winchell (of Gan Eden fame) who signed on as (and remains) head winemaker, the brothers worked at Agua Dulce for nearly three years while making their wines onsite. As you can imagine, with a day job of manual labor one has to make a choice between sleeping and making wine. Thankfully for us wine lovers, Gabe and Shimon made the “right” choice, persevered and continued to produce wines for Shirah while working their Agua Dulce day jobs. Following the 2012 vintage, production levels had grown to levels that no longer made sense for Agua Dulce and provided sufficient income for the brothers to feel comfortable striking out on their own (once again).
Starting with the 2013 vintage and after making wine in four different facilities, Shirah has finally settled down in Santa Maria where they are once again making wine at CCSW. While having their own place is certainly an improvement and a huge step towards maintaining the quality control and consistency necessary to create a future for the winery, the nearly three hour drives from their respective Los Angeles residences makes for a very long commute. In order to maintain sanity and get a few hours of sleep as well, they rent an apartment in the area for the harvest and during winemaking season, each spend weekdays at the winery as well (although they did attempt the tent in Pismo beach for the 2013 vintage before capitulating after harvest was over). While being away from their young families is difficult (Gabe has three little kids at home), we certainly appreciate the sacrifice (and enjoy the fruits of their labors). While both brothers work on all aspects of the winery, Gabe is the “official” winemaker who also handles logistics while Shimon is the official “cellar master” who handles most of the business oriented aspects of the winery including marketing, sales and the fun administrative parts. Alex Rubin recently joined the team as a harvest intern.
Starting with approximately 3,000 bottles and three different wines for their first commercial launch from the 2009 vintage, they nearly doubled production to 5,500 bottles for the 2010 vintage (when they made four different wines), maintained that production level for the 2011 vintage (when they made four wines) and again doubled production for the 2012 vintage to just over 10,000 bottles (when they produced six wines plus a n.v. wine that combined juice from the 2011 and 2012 vintages, including their first white wine and first rosé). The 2013 vintage saw yet another massive production increase of 250% to almost 27,000 bottles spread across 12(!) different wines, three of which have not yet been released. The same level of production was kept for the 2014 harvest as well but the brothers are currently contemplating reducing production by 25% for the 2015 harvest which will enable them better focus on the 10-12 different wines they want to stick with and enhancing their brand. 20,000 bottles is certainly a very respectable number and a few years of consistency and brand building will certainly position them well for their continued success.
With no vineyards of their own, the brothers are free to roam California wine country in search of premium grapes from well-known and high-quality vineyards. Despite their tendency to make many different wines in relatively small quantities, with at least four official harvests released (at least three additional wines are still unreleased from the 2013 vintage and only their whites and Rosé have been released so far from the 2014 vintage) a pattern has evolved over the years for the various “series”. The way I see it, perennial wines include a rosé and two white wines (the Viognier-based “Vintage Whites” and the new and very much welcome Grüner Veltliner). The red wines include their two unique red blends – the spicy and aromatic Coalition and Bordeaux-blend Bro.Deux. The repertoire includes a slate of [mostly single-vineyard] Syrah wines and their “flagship” wine is the Power to the People (produced in 2009, 2012, 2013 [not yet released] and likely 2014). In addition to those wines, they try their hand with as many interesting [primarily but not exclusively Rhone based] varietals which to date has included Mourvèdre, Aglianico, Tannat and Zinfandel (both coming soon) and Pinot Noir. These in addition to Touriga Nacional (in the Coalition) and Grenache. As more varietals become “mainstream” within the kosher world, I expect them to continue pushing the envelope while exploring more and more esoteric varietals. In addition to the Shirah slate of wines, the bothers have a collaborative venture with their distributor (the River), producing a series of popularly priced mevushal wines.
With no formal education, the brothers have learned winemaking the hard wine – by experience and hard work while enjoying some high quality mentoring along the way (Jeff Morgan, Jonathan Hajdu and Craig Winchell being three prominent examples). An obvious hedonistic bent drives much of the winemaking decisions and yields hedonistic wines bursting with fruit, flavors and character. Beyond their winemaking, the pleasure seeking is evident in their obsession with beer, coffee and food. With a focus on small lots of wine sourced from high-end vineyards, Shirah wines are certainly not for everyone. Despite the relatively high prices (driven at least in part by the high quality of fruit and small production levels for each wine), Shirah’s wines are built for the short-term and not extended aging. For many kosher consumers who have become accustomed to high prices for wines that are either French, recipients of high scores from the Wine Enthusiast or Mark Squires or that will age for a decade or longer, paying over $50 for big ripe wines made for early consumption by a winery they have barely heard of can sometimes be too much of a hurdle. That said, they have clearly found a willing market for their wines, focusing on discerning customers who are looking for something different and are willing to pay. They also have the advantage of mass appeal. You are bound to like their wines whether you are a snobby and elitist wine snob or someone just getting into wine. A Shirah wine has something for everyone – mass appeal despite the non-populist price tag and esoteric varietal focus. While determining whether a wine is “worth it” is a highly subjective matter, at this point the Weiss Brothers clearly aren’t going for the QPR market but rather focusing on creating special and unique wines – a goal they continue to surpass with every vintage.
Set forth below are tasting notes for 31 of the 32 Shirah wines I believe have released to date (soon-to-be-released wines from the 2013 vintage include a GSM blend, a new Power to the People and a varietal Tannat). With only white and rosé wines released for 2014, the coming list of 2014 red wines includes some additional surprises as well. Despite not necessarily being built for long-term aging the vast majority of their wines benefit greatly from serious airtime. Generally speaking, always decant their wines or at least open them a few hours in advance of drinking them, which will benefit them greatly. While many of these wines are past their peak and/or no longer available, they have all been tasted [relatively] recently and are included in order to give you a comprehensive view of the winery’s evolution.
Shirah, Vintage Whites, 2014: Once again toying with the blend while remaining in the Rhone and completing the Northern Rhone trifecta of white wines by adding Marsanne to the mix. This year’s version was comprised of 75% Viognier from White Hawk, 12.5% Marsanne and 12.5% Roussanne from Santa Barbara. Once again a complex and layered white wine with plenty of character and the delightful streak of bitterness keeping everyone on their toes. A rich and expressive nose has plenty of tropical fruit, honeysuckle, lavender and summer stone fruits from the Viognier but these are matched with earthy minerals, garrigue, orange pith and almond notes from the other two varietals. The viscous and near full-bodied palate is loaded with bracing acidity that integrates the flavors and keeps everything honest. Treat this more like a red wine, allow it to open and appreciate its complexities (or do it at least once while enjoying its refreshing crispness the rest of the time).
Shirah, Grüner Veltliner, John Sebastiano Vineyard, 2014: Desiring another white wine to add to their repertoire, the brothers followed their hearts in a search for a varietal not common in the kosher wine world. This time around the search took them away from their usual Rhone tendencies all the way to Austria where they settled on one of the most food-friendly varietals out there which has recently become quite popular in a number of California AVAs, including the Santa Ynez valley from where this wine was sourced (along with the 2013 Pinot Noir reviewed below). I was so taken aback by the crisp and refreshing uniqueness of this wine, my stock was depleted far sooner than I expected as I drank the wine with nearly everything, in addition to enjoying it often on its own. Dominated by subtle notes of honeysuckle, minerals and spices are backed up by tart green apples, quince, subtle tropical fruit and black tea along with plenty of crisp acidity and plenty of mouth-watering citrus notes. Really a lovely and complex wine that deserves more attention than it gets based on its sheer deliciousness.
Shirah, Rosé, 2014: After the phenomenal inaugural success with Rosé enjoyed by the Weiss brothers’ 2012 release, expectations were running [way too] high for its successor. Despite falling a tad short in that department, the wine is delightful and should not be penalized for falling short of any unrealistic expectations that may have been set by the incredible 2012 version. Once again using saignée Grenache (with 20% Pinot Noir blended in this time – also saignée from the 2014 JSV Pinot Noir), the wine contains a bit more residual sugar that its predecessor which will be enjoyed by many (including those who prefer dryer versions). A bountiful nose with plenty of near-sweet strawberries, tons of red grapefruit, candied cherries and raspberries and a bit of blueberries along with flinty minerals, slate and a touch of salinity that is a bit hard to pick up on. The medium bodied palate has plenty of rich and ripe red sweet fruits, great acidity, more mouth-watering citrus and some warm spices that provide a nice complexity to this refreshing and delicious wine. Load up and enjoy.
Shirah, Vintage Whites, 2013: Departing from the highly successful blend of Viognier and Roussanne that comprised the equally delicious 2012 vintage, this wine is a blend of Viognier (70%) and the Grenache Blanc (30%) of Hajdu fame. The rich nose loaded with tropical notes of pineapple, white peach, melon, heather, floral and earthy minerals is one that I could lose myself in forever. The nose evolved as the wine opened and warmed up a bit in my glass revealing new aromas with every passing minute. A medium bodied and slightly viscous palate is lean and stripped down with 14% AbV, loaded with mouth-watering acidity that bucks up the rich fruit, honeydew, citrus and warm spices, allowing the wine to present in a clear manner despite the many notes seemingly pulling it in many directions (similarly to their delightful red coalition) and ending in a slightly bitter finish reminiscent of almond aftertaste. Somehow it works and works well.
Shirah, Counter Punch, 2013: Once again blending Grenache (75%) and Syrah (25%), both from Santa Ynez, yielding the winery’s usual fun loving and fruit filled easy-drinking wine that remains sufficiently complex to avoid being considered a “quaffer” (and justifying the over quaffer pricing). With lovely notes of rich and slightly tart red fruit, blueberries, minerals, roasted herbs, bramble and hints of chocolate, toasty oak and more spice on the lingering finish, this medium bodied wine has bracing acidity, plenty of fruit and a good tannic structure holding it all together . Drink now or over the next 12 months.
Shirah, Bro.Deux, 2013: Ditching the non-Bordeaux Syrah and sticking to straight Bordeaux varietals this time (all from Happy Canyon), the blend is comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon (65%), Merlot (23%) and Petit Verdot (12%) which grants the wine some added oomph requiring us to take it slightly more seriously than its predecessors. The rich black and ripe red fruit matched by green olives and herbal notes on the nose along with a hint of minerals are met with a full bodied palate redolent of extracted and near-sweet fruit, accompanied by well-worm saddle leather, more earthy minerals, some smoky oak and backed by gripping tannins and culminating in a lingering and caressing finish with more tobacco, espresso and chocolate notes. I’d give the wine six months before opening and then enjoy through 2019.
Shirah, Pinot Noir, John Sebastiano Vineyard, 2013: When thinking about the “typical” characteristics of Pinot Noir (check out you would be hard pressed to find a lot of commonality with the traits of Shirah but that didn’t (and shouldn’t have) stop Gabe from tackling the most finicky of grapes and placing his own stamp on it. Sourcing the grapes from the cooler Saint Rita Hills (from the same vineyards as the 2014 Grüner Veltliner) the wine is far more reminiscent of an Israeli Pinot Noir than Burgundian, while retaining the controlled structure that allows Shirah to continuously push the envelope with rich and ripe fruit. The wine opens with a near sweet nose of red cherries, ripe black plums and crushed rose petals that are joined by substantial garrigue and herbal notes which serve to tame the sweet fruit. The medium bodied palate is loaded with more rich fruit and herbal notes that are joined by hints of summer fruits and a mineral nuance that pleases and leads into a caressing finish tinged with mocha and was seemed like buttery vanilla. Drink now through 2017.
Shirah, Mourvèdre, Har HaMoriah, 2013: After first experimenting with the varietal in their 2010 Thompson Vineyard Syrah (which contained 25% Mourvèdre), the brothers tried their hands at a varietal wine blending together two batches of Mourvèdre sourced from Santa Ynez and Paso Robles (once again combining grapes from cooler and warmer climates for intriguing results). Very different from the only other kosher varietal Mourvèdre produced by Recanati, this is somewhat wild wine that seems to have been tamed against its will and is pulling at the proverbial leash begging for release. Another varietal that yearns for hot and dry climates due to its tendency to ripen relatively late, the wine has gripping tannins that need some serious time to integrate before they will be ready for prime time. While California is one of the rare wine growing regions in which varietal Mourvèdre proliferates, its more typical use as a strength-building blending agent, one shouldn’t be surprised by the powerhouse of a wine despite its elegant label. With a lovely perfumed nose packed with plenty of cherries, plums, meaty notes and more herbal nuances that I would have liked (which should integrate over the next 6-12 months), the wine demands the attention it so richly deserves. An eclectic and very full-bodied palate is wrapped in a highly robust tannic structure that hid much of the flavors in the wine for hours until it receded just enough to reveal robust and savory meaty flavors alongside violets, spicy black pepper, sage, cinnamon, a hint of “gaminess” and sweet black and red fruit. Wait at least nine months before opening and then follow its development through 2018, likely longer.
Shirah, Syrah, 2013: While easily one of the least Shirah-like Shirah wines, this wine was a quiet and contemplative delight, maybe a result of the six(!) different vineyards from which it was sourced while having a little too much oak nuance for my personal tastes. A highly aromatic nose of raspberries, dark cherries, ripe plums and a touch of blueberries is accompanied by deep flavors of grilled meat, earthy minerals and a pleasing salinity. The medium to full bodied palate has plenty of near-sweet black and blue fruit that is tamed and tempered by loamy dirt and sweet spices alongside some slightly smoky oak and more minerals culminating in a medium finish with more sweet fruit and minerals backed by oak and rich chocolate notes.
Shirah, Syrah, the Saint and the Barbarian, 2013: With three different Syrah wines released for the 2013 vintage (and some of it in the Counter Punch too), Shirah keeps exhibiting proficiency with their core varietal while continuing to tinker and learn what the varietal can do for them. Combining some cool(er)-climate Syrah sourced from the Saint Rita Hills with warmer Happy Canyon fruit allowed Gabe to try and extract the best of both worlds while [mostly] taming the negative characteristics of each. A huge nose followed by a more restrained and elegant medium to full-bodied palate makes for a delightful oenophilic experience, albeit one that comes at a price. A rich and expressive nose leaps at you as soon as you pull the cork screaming Shirah all the way out of the bottle’s narrow neck. With the extracted black and red fruit taking a back seat to the herbal green, earthy minerals, toast and smoky oak and grilled meat along with lead pencil and freshly rolled cigars, I spent considerable time enjoying the evolution of the nose (not something you want to be doing in pubic by the way) before experiencing the medium to full-bodied palate with more of the same. Gripping tannins still need plenty of time to integrate and a lingering and expressive finish tantalize as you finish the bottle and wonder where it disappeared to. Give this one six more months to settle down and then enjoy through 2017.
Shirah, Syrah, Sawyer Lindquist, 2013: This highly extracted and rich Syrah was sourced from the biodynamic Sawyer Lindquist vineyard located in the cool(er) Edna Valley (I’d be interested in tasting a Pinot Noir sourced from this vineyard). A big, rich and mostly red Syrah with plenty of roasted meat and graphite alongside the extracted fruit (with some blueberry and plum notes). With loamy earth and a mineral streak joined by dark chocolate and an overlay of toasty oak, this is an intriguing and full-bodied wine that will continue to evolve and improve over the next 12 months after which it should be enjoyable though 2018, maybe longer.
Shirah, Aglianico, 2013: After “discovering” Italy in their 2012 Coalition, the brothers continue to forge ahead determined to expose the kosher wine-loving world to as many varietals that they can comfortably source at a high-enough quality and another Italian grape – Aglianico – was their next target, sourcing the grapes from the acclaimed Paso Robles AVA. While my first experience with the varietal, it is instantly recognizable as a Shirah wine and reminiscent of some of their older humongous favorites. With an impenetrable inky dark color, the wine [finally] opens up to reveal a highly expressive nose of plums, blueberry, tart cranberries, rich floral notes, earthy minerals, smoke, rich chocolate and plenty of spices. The full bodied [yet surprisingly light] palate has plenty more extracted fruit alongside near-sweet herbs and menthol, anise, more chocolate and gripping tannins that still need time to integrate and play nice. A finish laden with more tannins and tart fruit lingers nicely. Even more than usual for Shirah, at this point give it the time it deserves to open up before enjoying it. I’d wait at least a year before opening and then enjoy its development through 2018, maybe longer (with no prior experience with the varietal – better safe than sorry in this case). As an aside, given the grapes trait as an acid-laden and sun-loving varietal, I’d be interested in exploring how the varietal might do in the hands of a few of my favorite Israeli winemakers.
Shirah, Vintage Whites, 2012: After making only red wines for many years, the brothers decided to incorporate some white in their life and obviously started with the two classic white Rhone varietals – Viognier and Roussanne. Blending 90% Viognier from White Hawk with 10% Roussanne from Stolpman yielding a unique and refreshing wine that got in your face instead of trying to be a simple quaffer. An aromatic nose loaded with honey, floral notes, white peaches, guava along with Mayer lemons, lemon pith and some vanilla notes from the natural oak in which it spent some time. After the enticing palate one would be forgiven from being surprised by the bitter notes on the medium bodied and slightly viscous palate (I enjoyed them but not everyone will – they dissipate as the wine warms up) that accompany the tropical fruits, spices, saline minerals that tantalize along with the sweet fruit and citrus notes before yielding to a lingering finish where the bitterness once again takes center stage and reminds you that this is a wine that demands your attention. Big enough to match many food and sufficiently different and intriguing for anyone to try, this is another love it or hate it wine – hopefully you come out on the same loving side as I did.
Shirah, Rosé, 2012: Parallel to the path towards white wines, 2012 saw the first rosé wine produced by Shirah which was utterly delicious and a rousing success (and unfortunately made in too little quantities). Utilizing the saignée method and runoff from the Grenache used for the n.v One Two punch reviewed below, the juice was barrel fermented yielding a wine with an incredible combination of high acidity and dollops of ripe red summer fruit. The added complexity showcased by a slid mineral undertone, herbal notes and garrigue was just the icing on top of what became my “go to” Rosé that year.
Shirah, Coalition, 2012: Once again Gabe reached back into his alchemist tendencies and poured a ton of creativity (or insanity – take your pick) into this “everything wine”, attempting to utilize grape varietals less common in the kosher wine world. The 2012 Coalition is a blend of Sangiovese (50%),Dolcetto (20%), Zinfandel (20%) and Merlot (10%) (with the Zinfandel and Merlot sourced from the Agua Dulce vineyards – a souvenir of their three vintages). At release the wine opened up a little ripe and with some alcohol notes on the nose that were off-putting. After ½ an hour or so they blew off and at this point have pretty much dissipated into the wine that is currently showcasing loads of mostly red fruit on both the nose and palate along with a plethora of warm spices, some toasty oak and rich chocolate along with some green notes. With a steady hand, Gabe has tamed the array of aromas and flavors with a solid tannic structure that allows the fruit to dominate while keeping things upright and honest. That said the wine remains a little too fruit forward and dominated by sweet fruit for my own tastes while others will enjoy it.
Shirah, Bro.Deux, 2012: While I enjoyed the prior two Bro.Deux vintages, I thought this one was really special. Straightforward, sophisticated, well made and delicious. A full bodied blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot (both from Happy Canyon) it’s a classic Bordeaux blend with a riper California twist. The wine showcases loads of rich and extracted dark fruit on both the nose and palate joined with sweet red fruit, the spice rack you expect from the brothers, slate minerals, cured tobacco leaf, a green herbal nuance and rich dark chocolate while being supported by sufficient tannic structure to hold everything together without being overbearing. A luscious and mouth-coating finish lingers nicely. Drink now through 2017.
Shirah, Syrah, Power to the People, 2012: Following the resounding success of the inaugural 2009 Power to the People, there were two “quiet” years in which the Thompson fruit was bottled only as a single vineyard wine. For 2012 the Syrah blend was given an encore (albeit without the Viognier or accompanying delightful summer notes). The 2012 wine was a blend of 65% Syrah (30% Thompson and 35% from Stolpman Vineyard located in Ballard Canyon) and 35% Petite Syrah from Stolpman as well. Instead of the 2009 velvet-like label, the wine is sheathed in a fake leather label. The opens with a pretty closed nose and none of the typical Shirah exuberance but give it some time (or violent decanting) and you will be rewarded with rich and expressive black fruit, cherries, notes of blueberries, loads of meaty undertones, cedar box tobacco, spice and violet. The full bodied and caressing palate is wrapped in gripping tannins that need plenty of time to integrate but give it some time as they are hiding multiple layers of complex flavors including tart raspberries, summer strawberry fruit, hints of graphite and saddle leather along with saline minerals and Oriental spices. Take your time with this wine as there is a lot going on – and you don’t want to miss any of it. Alternatively, let it decant a point and simply enjoy the plush and mouth filling deliciousness of this well-made treat. Enjoyable now with some serious air time but will be at its best in 6-12 months from now and then enjoy through 2018, maybe longer.
Shirah, Syrah, White Hawk Vineyard, 2012: The Weiss brothers certainly hit it out of the park with this rich, ripe and delicious Syrah which manages to be juicy and powerful while remaining controlled at the same time – muscular, supple and layered – this may be the best wine they ever produced. Blended with 2% Viognier (similarly to their 2009 Power) and utilizing Santa Barbara Syrah from White Hawk vineyard, the wine shows an rich and ripe nose of mostly black fruit with a tinge of red creeping in after a bit of air alongside white peach, apricot and some blueberry notes and a hint of lychee, along with freshly paved asphalt, grilled meat, black pepper, spicy oak, plenty of freshly blooming flowers, a hint of chocolate and slightly toasty oak with much of the same on the viscous palate that delights. With earthy minerals, spices, slightly sweet cedar, cigar box cedar and rich chocolate providing additional mesmerizing notes, the wine has years of improvement and aging ahead of it (make sure to give it significant air time before even trying it). Aged for 15 months in a combination of French and Hungarian [%?] oak, the wine is powerful, elegant and beautiful – all in one package with the sticker price the only thing preventing me from stocking up (the Achilles Heel of many boutique wineries with bills to pay). That said, don’t let the price tag prevent you from at least tasting this amazing wine – it’s worth it.
Shirah, One Two Punch, n.v: With 2012 being one of California’s Central Coast’s best vintage in recent memory, the high-end Grenache the brothers harvested from Alisos Canyon was too intense even for Shirah so Gabe decided to “tone down” [a bit] the 75% Grenache (I wonder if the winery walls trembled when those words were uttered) with 25% of a 50/50 blend of Grenache and Syrah from the colder (and weaker) 2011 vintage sourced from Thompson. While not my favorite Shirah wine (and I’d have loved to see it blended with just a tad of 2012 White Hawk Syrah instead for a wine that would likely have blown my socks off), it retains the characteristically fun personality and is loaded with rich red summer fruit, bracing acidity, a good tannic structure that is now nicely integrated and keeps the abundant fruit in check. Not so much complex but more of a serious and fun quaffer that doesn’t require much thought. Drink now and over the next 12-18 months.
Shirah, Coalition, 2011: The second year the Weiss bothers produced this unique blend and, while another successful year and maintaining the characteristically near-insane magnificent uniqueness of the Coalition, there is a distinct change in style from the 2010 vintage as one would expect from the different blend comprising the wine. A blend this year of 60% Zinfandel, 12% each of Cabernet Franc and Merlot and 8% each of Touriga Nacional and Souza which results in a very different and intriguing wine that I enjoyed very much but may not be to everyone’s tastes. A ripe and aromatic nose is loaded with strawberries, watermelon, tart cranberry, summer fruit, bell pepper, eucalyptus, cigar box, espresso, spicy oak, loads of black peppery notes and cloves. On the full bodied, rich and extracted palate there is more oak, near-sweet tannins, more red summer fruit and a ton of spicy notes and a streak of herbal bitterness that pleases; all backed up by an awesome core of acidity that keeps things lively. A lingering finish with more spicy wood and minty baker’s chocolate finishes up this wine. The wine isn’t going to get any better, so finish up any bottles you may have over the next 6-12 months.
Shirah, Syrah, Thompson, 2011: The wine showcases the quality of the vineyard which even in a relatively problematic (and colder) year manages to retain the muscular intensity we have come to expect from the AVA (while still being toned down from earlier vintage years and lacking the depth and aging ability that would have otherwise likely been part and parcel of this single vineyard offering. With classically Shirah, Thompson and Syrah notes of rich crushed black fruit, high extraction, gripping tannins and rich baker’s chocolate tinted with a minty undertone alongside toasty oak, a hint of freshly roasted meat, freshly paved pavement and faint hints of earthy minerals, this is a big and bold wine that is softer than usual and should be enjoyed sooner than later.
Shirah, Syrah, Alder Springs, 2011: Shirah’s second single vineyard Syrah for 2011 replaces the 2009 McGinley version and hails from Alder Springs in Mendocino (Hajdu sources grapes from this location as well). A luxurious wine that, like its McGinley predecessor showcases more elegance and approachability than its elder Thompson brother (I would have loved to have barrel-tasted a blend of these two wines – the ad hoc blend of finished wines I tried didn’t quite get me there) and showcases a “normal” 13% AbV (which is quite abnormal for Shirah) primarily the result of one of California’s tougher and colder) vintage years. The nose is clearly a Weiss Brother creation with explosive notes of ripe rich fruit including black currants, juicy blackberries, strawberries and other bright red fruit, hints of blue fruit, a subtle spiciness that tantalizes with faint notes of asphalt and lead pencil in the background. The medium bodied palate opens up to reveal more deep dark fruit, some tart red fruit, asphalt, some grilled meat, fresh cracked black pepper which are all encased in gripping tannins that are finally integrating nicely. A somewhat short finish of near-sweet and mostly dark fruit, slate minerals, rich baker’s minty chocolate, cigar box notes and more spice lingers gently. Drink now through 2017.
Shirah, Counter Punch, Vogelzang Vineyard, 2010: The follow up wine to the initial 2008 One Two Punch and a wine that has remained in Shirah’s arsenal since (although never quite reaching the same level as that inaugural wine). Comprised of the same blend of Syrah (50%) and Grenache (50%) as the One Two Punch (albeit from different vineyards located in the Happy Canyon AVA), the wine continues to supply the intriguingly intoxicating nose of red summer and tropical fruit combined with deep and extracted notes of pomegranate, grilled meat, cracked black pepper, blueberry, warm spices and earthy minerals while remaining fun and relatively light on the palate protected by a subtle backbone of mouth-coating tannins that are now fully integrated culminating in a lush and mouth-filling finish. Another wine that while still good, is at the end of its proverbial road and should be polished off sooner than later.
Shirah, Coalition, 2010: Together with the Bro.Deux reviewed below, the Coalition is a new wine for the 2010 vintage that managed to stick around and become a regular part of Shirah’s portfolio (the delightfully imaginative label styled after America’s constitution doesn’t hurt). Similar to the Grenache utilized for their first 2008 wines, Gabe and Shimon incorporated a well-known (outside of kosher wine circles) Portuguese grape – Touriga Nacional – into a crazy expressive wine continuing their trend-setting status for mainstreaming esoteric grape varietals in the kosher wine world (a number of additional kosher wineries are now using the varietal including the Golan Heights Winery and Domaine Netofa). A blend of Touriga Nacional (45%), Syrah (30% which was co-fermented with 4% Viognier) and Petit Verdot (25%) sourced from three different Central Coast vineyards, the wine clocks in at 14.5% AbV – low alcohol by Shirah’s initial standards. With the majority of their wines crowd-pleasers, this is a divisive one – you are either going to love it or hate – very seldom is there going to be a middle ground. With rich sweet red and summer fruit including watermelon and ripe pomegranate and tropical notes on the aromatic nose accompanied by citrusy overtones, loads of warm spices and green herbaceousness and a medium bodied palate redolent of somewhat incongruous summer and tropical fruit and with a plethora of (mostly warm) spices and slightly toasty oak backed by a solid structure and well-built and nicely integrating silky tannins, I came firmly down on the loving side of this one. Drink now – recent bottles have shown some bottle variation.
Shirah, Syrah, Thompson, 2010: Once again using the high-end Syrah grapes from Thompson but this time blended with 25% Mourvèdre (also from Thompson) in an attempt to class up the wine like the McGinley did for the 2009 Power. The wine spent two years aging in French oak which resulted in an intensely dark and brooding wine with a ripe nose of blackberries, plums, blackcurrants, notes of blueberries, sweet notes of cherries, a hint of tropical fruit along with a plethora of spices and a tinge of green that lead into an extracted and full-bodied palate with more rich red and black sweet fruit, spices, rich baker’s chocolate and an mind-boggling array of mostly warm spices which are held together by gripping tannins and an acidic backbone that are now nicely integrated. Forgo the usual Shirah-required decanting and allow the wine to open in your glass while you wonder at the layers of aromatic complexity it yields. Enjoy now through 2017.
Shirah, Bro.Deux, n.v: The first year Shirah introduced this wine, not a perennial part of their portfolio. A [more or less] Bordeaux blend plus the winery’s main squeeze – Syrah. Cabernet Sauvignon (36%), Malbec (18%), Cabernet Franc (18%) and Petit Verdot (18%) all from the 2010 vintage were blended with Syrah (10%) from the 2009 vintage. The wine landed at a barely noticeable 15% AbV which it handled with aplomb. A delicious and exceptionally well-made wine which was aged in 45% new French oak taming the rich fruit with a hint of toastiness. With a rich and expressive nose of mostly red fruit, tobacco leaf, slate minerals, freshly turned earth and plenty of green notes of bell pepper setting up the medium to full-bodied palate with much of the same along with toasty oak, some well-worn leather, anise, near-sweet fruit and plenty of warm spices leading into a caressing finish of luscious fruit on a bed of silky and well-integrated tannins with plenty of rich chocolate and earthy minerals lingering, seemingly forever. Drink now through 2016.
Shirah, Power to the People, Syrah, 2009: The first official release of Shirah Winery, founded by the now famous “Weiss Brothers” whose 2008 One Two punch and Syraph were an incredible and welcome jolt to the kosher wine world. At the risk of taking away from the sheer deliciousness of the bottle’s contents, the label on this wine was among the most unique I had ever seen and bodes well for the winery is there is any truth to the adage that most wines are chosen by their label. Thankfully the wine itself more than does the label justice. Sourcing the Syrah from two Happy Canyon vineyards – Thompson and McGinley (each of which provided a single vineyard bottling as well) and co-fermenting the wine with 2% of Viognier that contributed to the wine’s character far more than you might have expected (apricot and peach take center stage). If the descriptor for their inaugural One Two Punch was “fun”, this wine’s would have to be “delicious”. A ripe, rich and layered California Syrah with plenty of depth, complexity and nuance to satisfy even the most discerning wine lover (while some will find fault with the high alcohol and sweet fruit – I say “bah humbug”). Both the nose and medium to full-bodied palate were dominated by freshly picked white peaches, apricot, guava and floral notes that slowly open up to reveal plums, cherries, ripe tart raspberry and blueberries, accompanied by plenty of smoky wood, meaty undertones, some warm spice, dark chocolate, anise all wrapped in well integrated tannins and delivering a round, mouth filling and delicious wine with a finish of subtle fresh-cured tobacco leaf and minty dark chocolate. Plenty of acid and a robust tannic backbone (now fully integrated) keep the mounds of aromatics in check, yielding a wine that is pure pleasure. While the fruit has receded somewhat the sheer deliciousness of the wine is still shining through and the wine should be enjoyed over the next 12 months or so.
Shirah, Syrah, Thompson, 2009: Following the near-instant success for their Power to the People Syrah, the winery released two single vineyard wines, each utilizing one of the two Syrah harvests (the Thompson didn’t have any Viognier while McGinley was blended with 4%) that went into the Power, with this wine from the acclaimed Thompson vineyard being the more powerful and interesting of the two. Located in the Alisos Canyon – considered perfect terroir for growing Rhone varietals, the brothers sourced from 30 year-old vines at a relatively low yield of 1.5 tons per acre, the wine was slightly more herbaceous than I would have expected (especially after almost no such notes on the Power). The coolest part of tasting the three 2009 wines side-by-side was the ability to discern the contributions each of the two vineyards and the Viognier had on the wine and the obvious fact that in this case – the sum was far greater than the parts. Dark and brimming with nearly unrestrained muscularity, the wine has since settled down nicely, showcasing rich dark fruit with plenty of blueberry and plum nuances, rich cassis, lead pencil, slightly smoky oak, some green vegetal notes (which waiver between pleasing and nagging) and plenty of spiciness, all held together by an extracted tannic backbone that has now completely integrated leaving behind sufficient heft to carry the fruit and wood. A lingering finish with sweet fruit, herbal notes, more green notes of mostly saline olives and chocolate notes round out this wine. Past its peak, I suggest happily polishing off any remaining bottles sooner than later.
Shirah, Syrah, McGinley, 2009: Sourced from a higher yielding vineyard that its Thompson sibling, the Happy Canyon AVA McGinley Vineyard Syrah brought finesse and elegance along with 4% Viognier blended in. While lacking in power, especially when contrasted to its fellow 2009 brethren, the wine is simply beautiful. The wine has captivating nose of bright red fruit, lavender and floral notes along with cinnamon, cloves and other warm spices; a full-bodied palate loaded with rich dark fruit, more spices, slightly toasty [American] oak and a rich and spicy lingering finish of more rich fruit and freshly baked cake that pleases. Cross your fingers and drink up any remaining bottles.
Shirah, One Two Punch, 2008: Together with the Syraph reviewed below, this wine instantly put the Weiss Brothers on the radar screen of every self-respecting oenophile (who was lucky enough to get their hands on one of the approximately 600 bottles). Sporting a characteristically awesomelycreative label based on vintage concert posters created by Miller Creative (the branding agency co-founded by Yael Miller (the “Weiss Sister”) and her husband Reuben), the wines uniqueness continues with the unorthodox blend of 50% Syrah and 50% Grenache that was aged on its lees and sourced from two different AVAs in San Luis Obispo County (the same grapes were used for the Syraph’s 85% Syrah and 15% Grenache blend). These days Grenache is pretty well known but back in 2010 there were very few kosher wines using Grenache (including 2007 varietal versions from Brobdingnagian and Capcanes and Rhone based Domaine St. Benoit and Capcanes utilizing the grape in blends). With 15.83% AbV, “Punch” was certainly an appropriate moniker for this wine whose best descriptor is simply “fun”. The wine opens with a highly aromatic and expressive nose loaded with crushed and near-sweet black forest berries, candied red fruit, tart raspberries, floral and lavender, some grilled meat, warm herbs, plenty of roasted espresso, literally the entire spice rack and heavy notes of vanilla from the toasted oak barrels most of which is present on the medium-bodied palate where a lovely tannic structure and bracing acid core keep the plethora of notes together. With a rich and luscious lingering finish of bright fruit, acid, chocolate and a hint of slightly bitter black tea, the wine was an unmitigated pleasure from start to finish. At this point the wine is well past its peak and showing significant bottle variation so open any bottles you may have left and enjoy (be sure to invite me to join)!
Shirah, Syraph, 2008: I recently had the pleasure of opening my second to last bottle of this unique and pleasurable wine (which was made in an extremely limited run of 400 bottles). Using the same grapes as the One Two Punch but with a bigger emphasis on Syrah (85% Syrah and 15% Grenache) and forecasting the coming focus the brothers were going to have with the varietal. Fermented for 45 days and clocking in at 16.85% AbV this muscular wine is a beast in every sense of the word. The nose on this heavily extracted wine is loading with juicy black fruit, plenty of blueberry notes and backed by a bold tannic structure that has long since integrated but was imposing in its day and allowed the wine to age nicely for longer than it deserved on the basis of the stratospheric alcohol levels. Along with roasted meet, freshly laid asphalt, freshly cracked black pepper, rich chocolate, rich notes of grilled meat, freshly rolled cigars and sweet cedar, the nose sets up the full bodied palate to showcase more of the rich deep fruit, toasted and slightly smoky oak along with spiciness that are the calling card of this wine. An insurmountable blockbuster in its day, the wine is still enjoyable but past its peak at this point and any remaining bottles should be opened and enjoyed sooner than later.
As mentioned above, this is the only wine produced by a Weiss boy I have not yet tasted – hopefully something that will change in the near future :-)!