This past week I finally got the chance to put together the kosher Syrah tasting that I have been craving. I have been stockpiling Syrah for some time and now we finally had the chance to try them all at the same time. I have been at all of the kosher California wineries; Herzog Cellars, Four Gates Winery, Agua Dulce Winery, Shirah Winery, Covenant Winery and the Brobdingnagian Winery, and I have caught the bug of cool weather Syrah. This is not a myth; this is a real change in the manner of which the Syrah expresses itself.
The Syrah tasting consisted of a bunch of kosher California Syrah, along with one from Australia and Israel in the following order. The 2009 Harkham Aziza Shiraz, Preservative Free (not tasting as great as when I had it in Sydney), 2009 Shirah Power to the People, 2003 Four Gates Syrah, 2008 Syraph Syrah/Grenache, 2007 Brobdingnagian Syrah, and the 2004 Yarden Ortal Syrah. The first five are cool weather Syrah, while the Yarden Ortal is an example of hot weather Syrah. The 2007 Brobdingnagian was Jonathan Hajdu’s inaugural release and since than he has gone on to become the associate winemaker at Covenant Winery, while also making more of his Brob wine. The 2008 Syraph was essentially the first release by the Weiss Brothers, though they did make a smaller batch of wine in 2005 as well. The story of Jonathan and the Weiss brothers can be found in a lovely written article by Gamliel Kronemer here.
In cool weather climates, the Syrah grape is very happy to show expressions of smoked meat, black pepper, tobacco, and leather around their core of blue-black fruit. They also have nice acidity, which helps to brighten the mouth and balance out the wine’s palate. The clear note here is that the grape expresses blueberry and watermelon in ways that will astound you. The bright sweet blueberry along with rich black fruit make for a wine that is unique and truly flavorful. The blue fruit may not always appear at first, but a trademark of the cooler climates, in Australian and California, was that they all exhibited rich blueberry fruit intertwined with some lovely black and sometimes watermelon along with spice. In warm climate regions, characteristic Syrah flavors tend toward dark fruits, cherry, white pepper and earthy notes, though leather and tar are sure to also make a guest appearance.
This past week saw me hanging out with Benyo at his house for his yearly Carlebach Shabbaton. For some 15 or more years Benyamin Cantz has very kindly offered his home and space to some 40 or so souls who wish to spend time with each other and Rabbi Naftali Citron (who is currently the Rabbi of the Carlebach Shul in NY). Starting in the mid nineties, Benyamin kindly agreed to host a group of Rabbi Citron’s follower’s for a shabbaton – Carlebach Style.
This year many of the old timers were there, along with many new faces, like my own. This was a spiritual experience for me personally. Many of you who know me, know I am a religious person, but still this rustic setting, surrounded by 40 Jews who just want to get closer to God, friends, and the Rabbi, made it that much more special.
It all started on Friday day when I arrived at the winery to help prepare for the upcoming shabbos. Normally a shabbos meal is a breeze for me and /or my wife. However, 40 guests descending upon the hilltop in the middle of nowhere is not quite a normal shabbos. Along with the fact that the housing surrounding the winery and Benyamin’s house made Yosemite’s outback look like small. For as far as your eye could see around the winery there were tents upon tents. As we were preparing folks started showing up looking for a good place to drop their wares and tent. The old timers knew the best nooks, while the newbies, well they were left to fare with the second run spots. Still a hilltop surrounded by a winery, vineyard, friends, and an awesome Jewish experience is hard to call a second run spot. People would kill to be able to just park themselves down and relax among the picture perfect nature that surrounds you. The soaring Redwoods provide shade, the sounds of nature abound around you, the farm life walks about you, including horses (that show up like clockwork during the prayer service), goats, and chickens, along with the wild life as well. The feeling permeates you, no matter what you are doing. Whether I was chopping vegetables, slaving over my vegetarian lasagna, cleaning up whatever was not physically moving, implementing traffic control within the house, managing to catch a glimpse of the whitesox losing to the Orioles, it did not matter. No matter what – it was a ball and there was this palpable level of suspense and awe around the shabbos that was fast approaching. It held so much promise, mystery, and lore, that it was sure to be a grand time.
Of course Benyamin did not just wake up on Friday and start getting ready for the event. As usual, Benyamin is the cog that runs the event, but it was nice to see many step up and pitch in. As night fall quickly approached the window that overlooked the land around the winery was filled with the hustle and bustle of classic Jewish life on a Friday evening. Except here it held itself to an almost different rhythm and cadence, one filled with unbridled enthusiasm of what the wonderful shabbos held in store for them all. Ladies helped check and clean the vegetables of bugs, my most hated task in the entire world. Others made the fish or the myriads of salads that later graced the tables that evening and the following lunch and sholesh seudot.
Finally, shabbos arrived and everyone’s pulse calmed to a stillness that is reticent of a person lying on a beach in the evening watching a meteor shower. True calm and relaxation coupled with awe and excitement, waiting for the next starburst or streak of light in the sky. Things started a bit later as people arranged their lives outside. Soon we prayed the afternoon prayers and started the Kaballat Shabbat. It was at this time that I had my first real glimpse of Rabbi Citron. Until this moment I was either working, getting dressed, or leading the prayers. However, as the shabbos came into fold Rabbi Citron lit up the sky with his relaxed pace and delivery, glistening eyes, and calm and soothing voice laying out how the evening prayers would progress, culminating with a single file walk in the pitch black darkness to the overlook of the vineyard and Santa Cruz below from the peak of the hilltop, to shepherd in the Shabbos Queen, during the completion of Sholom Alechem.
The davening was led by Rabbi Citron using many Carlebach famous melodies, while also masterly weaving in some current ones as well. Once evening prayers were completed, the room transformed into what can only be explained as a version of musical chairs, except utilizing chairs, tables, partitions, and humans, all moving in a wonderful fluid dance, choreographed and masterfully managed by Benyamin and a few very nice old timers.
The meal was quickly laid out on the tables, a bounty of food, wine, and beverages. The meal started with Kiddush over a yet to be released Four Gates red wine blend. It was followed by blessing over challah. Soon, we were served an almond/carrot bisque, seasoned with a unique set of spices and flavors, including fennel/anise. This was paired with a never released 2002 Chardonnay, which is screaming with characteristics easily associated with the Meyrieux barrels the wine was aged in. The main course consisted of caper roasted salmon (awesome recipe), with the capers infusing the very flesh of the salmon, fantastic. This was accompanied by a myriad of salads and side dishes that I have honestly forgotten, there were so many! The main course was paired with a wine that I had not tasted up to that point called the 1-2 punch, a 50/50 GS mix of Grenache and Syrah. The wine was so fun, original in styling, flavor, and structure. I do not remember ever tasting a 50/50 kosher GS, so that was cool. The wine was made by Shimon & Gavriel Weiss, who started a garage winery in 2008, and have since moved a couple of times but have expanded their wines and bottle count. I hope to do a more complete write-up on them both very soon – God Willing.
The next day the day started late with a 10 AM start to prayers (give or take a bunch of minutes). The Rabbi started with a short but extremely powerful discussion of theology and the Torah portion from Rav Nachman of Breslov. The words were deep and hit home hard and often, truly wonderful. The prayers carried on for 3 plus hours, and throughout the entire service, there was a cacophony of chopping noise coming out of the kitchen, as the ladies chopped their way to the finish line, with the only proof left over being a compost bin full of vegetable carcasses and massive bowls of fresh green salad and a bunch of assorted salads, just crazy. Mega kudos go to the ladies who did all the checking and cleaning of the vegetables. However, once again it cannot be underestimated the huge round of applause that Benyamin deserves. If you can imagine a bunch of strangers showing up at our doorstep, chasing you out of your home, and setting up shop in your kitchen chopping, cutting, cooking, and cleaning, while you stood by helpless. Now I am not, God Forbid, calling the people who helped this past shabbos thugs, heaven forbid, but to Benyamin having that many people in his kitchen without being able to manage and overlook the work being done, it causes him to be uneasy and some anxiousness, both of which are not fun. Anyone in his shoes would feel the same, essentially giving over the keys to his kitchen, home, land, and sanity for an entire weekend, would drive any many batty. Yet Benyo was the consummate gentleman and host throughout the weekend, so many thanks to you my friend!
Once again the room did a quick change from prayer hall to lunch room! Once again the partitions removed, tables added, chair placements reset, and tables set with eating utensils and loaded high with food. My lasagna was served along with a lovely trout and mounds of salads and dips. The food was paired with more 2002 Chardonnay, the 2004 Yatir mix, a bottle of 2006 Four Gates Merlot, a bottle of the 2005 Red Fern Merlot, and a crazy bottle of Syraph made by the Weiss brothers. This may well have been the highlight of the day for me when everyone around the tables went around and all said a quick word on the Torah portion, or told us history of the event, or just introduced themselves. Either way it was clearly a situation where all the participants opened themselves to the group, making them openly vulnerable by allowing us to see them all in a different light. Once again Rabbi Citron orchestrated the turns, allowing us all to partake and make it a memorable part of the shabbaton.
There was even a clandestine meat cholent after lunch served outside on paper plates of course. The cholent was constructed by Gavriel before shabbos, and I helped a bit cutting the vegetables up. However, he brought the meat and stuffing – it was a killer cholent! The Weiss brothers kindly poured a bottle of 1-2 punch and it was awesome again.
After the meals and the cholent it was time for a pair of classes from Rabbi Citron and they were wonderful. The first parlayed off my daily Daf Yomi studies, while the second was more teachings from Rav Nachman of Breslov. That was followed by Mincha services and are you kidding me – more food!!!! Yep, sholesh seudot! I could barely eat. I ate my requisite slice or two of bread, so no wine consumed.
Finally, the evening came to an end with a lovely havdalah service, once again led by Rabbi Citron. My personal take aways from it all was the warmth, the openness, the nature and the slow pace, the lovely voice and davening of Ra bi Citron, his classes, and all the awesome food. It was a wonderful event and one that I hope will continue so that I can lend a hand again and partake of it powerful messages.
Normally I give notes for wine I taste, but this time, I can only state a few take aways and score for each of the wines. So with my disclaimers stated the wine notes follow below:
2008 One Two Punch (Grenache/Syrah 50%/50% Blend) – Score: A-
The nose on this blue to purple colored wine is screaming with either chocolate malt or espresso coffee (different nose between two bottles), sweet oak, crushed herbs, and lovely red fruit. A medium bodied wine that plays into a bigger wine in your mouth from its mouthfeel of integrating tannins, oak, and chocolate malt/espresso coffee. The fruit peeks out in the mid palate along with acidity that is slightly unbalanced. The finish is long with herbs, more malt/coffee, and oak. The tannins are nicely integrating creating a more plush mouthfeel.
2005 Red Fern Cabernet – Score: Drink up
This wine is in a world of hurt and needs to be drunk now. Not memorable in any way.
2005 Red Fern Merlot – Score: B to B+
After the Cabernet debacle I was not expecting anything from this wine. However, it was barely alive showing nice mouthfeel, along with oak, black plum, and raspberry. Not bad, drink up.
2004 Yatir Blend (40% Cab/40% merlot/20% Shiraz) – Score: A-
The nose on this purple to black colored wine is screaming with tobacco, oak, spice, blackberry, and plum. The mouth on this full-bodied wine is packed with blackberry and nicely integrating tannins. The mid palate is balanced with oak and acidity. The finish is super long with tobacco, spicy oak, blackberry, and plum.
2008 Syraph (85% Syrah and 15% Grenache) – Score A-
The nose on this screaming eagle of a wine is packed with tar, oak, blackberry, plum, pepper, malt chocolate, and spice. The mouth follows the nose with crazy concentration of tar, blackberry, and oak. The mid palate is balanced with oak, nice tannins, and chocolate malt. The finish is super long and elegant with more tar, blackberry, chocolate malt, and pepper. Quite a nice bottle.
For those interested in buying some of the Syraph wine or the 1-2 (One Two) Punch wine please post a comment to get Shimon Weiss email address. I do not want to post it here, as it would just mean more spam for Shimon. I receive ZERO from their business. I am not affiliated or in business with them in anyway. I will reply to your comment via email with Shimon’s email address.