The gig: Gabriel Weiss is a winemaker with a distinct specialty, kosher wine. He owns the Shirah Wine Co. in Santa Barbara County with brother Shimon Weiss, who handles the business side. Kosher wine can't contain ingredients from animals that aren't kosher — that is, not killed according to Jewish law. In addition, the making and handling of the wine has to be conducted by Jews who observe the Sabbath, the kosher dietary laws and follow other Jewish observances.
Cracking the biz: Gabriel Weiss wanted to move from New Jersey to Southern California to use previous training in industrial design to crack into the entertainment business. Through an acquaintance, he took a job as a "cellar rat" at the big Herzog kosher winery in Oxnard. Along the way, he discovered a love of wine. "It is a really beautiful beverage," Weiss said. "It has such great aromatics and flavors. It is such a great experience, drinking wine."
A cellar rat: "I did any sort of physical work with the wine," Weiss said. It was rigorous work that included cleaning out the big stainless-steel tanks where the grape juice is inoculated with yeast and ferments into wine. He sanitized hoses that move wine from tank to tank or to oak barrels for aging. Weiss would set up lines between tanks and top off the barrels to replace wine that had evaporated through the porous wood. Weiss would fetch samples for the winemakers and drag barrels around the building. "It made my hands like sandpaper and it turned them black from the dark pigment of the grapes," Weiss said. "A winery is a very wet environment."
First vintage: "There was a huge crop back in 2005. At the end of the harvest a couple of my friends who also worked at Herzog and I thought we could get some grapes and make our own wine," Weiss said. A vineyard had surplus grapes it couldn't sell and offered to let Weiss and his buddies come early one morning and pick the fruit. "We got a half ton of Syrah out of a vineyard in San Luis Obispo County. We aged it nine months in a barrel," Weiss said. "We got 288 bottles out of it and split it three ways. I still have two bottles."
Garage wine: That's what Weiss called the vintage because it was aged in a friend's garage in Los Angeles. They called the wine Shirah, the Hebrew word for song, and also a play on Shiraz, one of the names that Syrah wine goes by. It would become the name of the wine company. Weiss, his brother Shimon and a friend made wine after the 2008 harvest. But this time they paid for Syrah and Grenache from two vineyards to be picked and delivered. "We were so excited about how the wine turned out," Weiss said. "It inspired us." It also convinced the brothers to strike out on their own in 2009. "If we had stayed at the Herzog winery there was no way we could have started our own wine label," Weiss said.
Funding the dream: The brothers obtained start-up funds from family members and friends who liked their wine. "They invested a minimal amount, maybe it all came to $10,000, but it was enough to hold the project together," Weiss said. By 2012, the brothers were producing and selling 900 cases of wine. That more than doubled last year, and Weiss expects more growth this year. "Except for the reserve stuff, everything else is sold out," Weiss said.
Tough schedule: A Sherman Oaks resident, Weiss drives up to the Santa Maria winery where they rent space most Mondays and stays over until Wednesday or Thursday before returning to his family. During harvest he stays there Sunday through Friday, returning home before sunset for the start of the Jewish Sabbath. To save money when they were first starting out, the brothers would camp on a nearby beach on the days they were in Santa Maria. Now they stay at a Holiday Inn. Getting an apartment in the area is in the plans.
Where sold: Shirah wine can be ordered directly from ShirahWine.com and is sold at the Cask wine store on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Personal: Weiss, 35, is married to Ariella. He has a young stepdaughter and baby son. The Cincinnati native is a bit of a foodie. He likes meat dishes, especially exotic cuts from elk, goat and even goose, animals that are hard to find at kosher butchers. He also brews his own beer and roasts his own coffee beans. Weiss holds no formal degrees. He studied at a yeshiva, or religious school, in Israel, where he also took courses at a technical college.
Big dream: "My dream is to make kosher wine all over the world, to make high-end wines from different varieties of great grapes," Weiss said, "the type of wines that most kosher consumers have not experienced."