The Young Turks Of Kosher Wine
Thu, 03/03/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
The Weiss Brothers, Shimon, left, and Gabriel, of the Shirah Wine Company.
The Weiss Brothers, Shimon, left, and Gabriel, of the Shirah Wine Company.

At one time the two-word phrase “kosher wine” was synonymous with the sweet, sacramental wines that were found in Jewish homes everywhere. Then in the late 1970s, a handful of wineries in Israel, Europe and California started producing minute quantities of quality kosher table wines, and so began the kosher wine revolution.

Today that revolution is still going strong, and the number and quality of kosher wines continue to rise. In the last decade alone, more than 200 kosher wine producers have opened all over the world, from Cyprus to Soho.

One of the most interesting recent developments in this revolution seems to be shaping up in California, were a few young garagistes (micro-wine producers) — Jonathan Hajdu and brothers Gabriel and Shimon Weiss — are making some of the most kosher interesting wines.

Jonathan Hajdu, a 31-year-old native of Long Island, came to the wine world through a very circuitous route. He first fell in love with wine while studying archaeology at SUNY Albany. “It was really boring [in Albany]. ... So I started going to wine bars.” After graduating Hajdu moved to Israel to study at a yeshiva and while there started dating an Australian girl. When she returned home he decided it would be a good time to visit Australia. Soon he was studying viticulture at Australia’s Swinburne University and working at vineyards in the Yarra Valley.

In 2003 Hajdu returned to the U.S. to work for Herzog Wine Cellars. “It was a nice working for a kosher winery for a change [and] to be able to drink the wine I was making ... [but] working at a large winery [like Herzog] is not really the direction I want to go in the future.” So in 2006 he left Herzog, and went to work at Carmel’s boutique winery in Israel.

In 2007 Hajdu returned stateside. At the time he was not working for any winery, but decided “around harvest time that I was not going to let the harvest slip away without doing something myself. ... So I flew out to California, and spent two months [there] and lined up some really great vineyards, and got some really great fruit. That’s when I started Brobdingnagian.”

Brobdingnagian is Hajdu’s line of wines. The wines are named for the giants in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” and that seems appropriate, as all of the wines released by Hajdu have been “giant” full-bodied wines with lots of fruit and alcohol.

It did not take long for the Hajdu’s wine to catch critical notice, and indeed Brobdingnagian’s 2007 Syrah was the No. 3-ranked wine in The Jewish Week’s Fruit of the Vine “Best wines of 2010” column.

However, at this point Brobdingnagian is merely a sideline for Hajdu, who is primarily employed as the associate winemaker for Covenant Wines, a kosher boutique winery located in the Napa Valley. “I feel very fortunate that Jeff [Morgan, the proprietor/head winemaker of Covenant Wines] allows me to make my own wines.”

Gabriel Weiss, 32, started his love affair with wine while living in Lakewood, N.J. “We [my brother Shimon and I] just started tasting wine, we thought it tasted good, and it got us all fired up.” In 2004 Gabriel moved to California, after Jonathan Hajdu’s brother, a friend, “suggested that I should go and work for Herzog.” Weiss worked at the Herzog Wine Cellars for three years, before briefly leaving the wine trade to work at Prime Grill restaurant’s Los Angeles branch. His brother Shimon, age 29, whose background is in construction, followed Gabriel to California 2005.

It was in 2005, while still working at Herzog, that Weiss, with the assistance of Jonathan Hajdu, made his first wine. “It was an amazing [abundant] harvest. ... In November we contacted this vineyard in San Luis Obispo [Calif.], and they [having a lot of un-harvested Syrah grapes left on the vine] said if you want it come pick it.”

Weiss ended up making his wine that year in a gutted former-lavatory that he and Shimon converted into a temporary winery. “It’s a pretty good wine. I think we have about three bottles of it left.”

The Weiss brothers, who today are both employed at Agua Dolce Vineyards in Los Angeles County, have yet to release their first commercial vintage, but their Shirah Wine Company already has a good reputation and an eager following among kosher oenophiles.

The secret behind the success of both Brobdingnagian and the Shirah Wine Company lies not merely in the fact that both companies are headed by talented winemakers. It’s also that, being located in California, both winemakers are able to source the small quantities of grapes that they need for their “micro-sized” productions from world-class vineyards.

Both Hajdu and Weiss strive to make unique and individualized wines. “The one thing I can promise you that we won’t be doing is making just another kosher Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Weiss. According to Hajdu, his goal with Brobdingnagian is merely “to make the kind of wines I want to drink.”