Startup Winery is a Labor of Love
Courtesy Camuna Cellars
Husband and wife team produce a kosher wine that’s down to earth
Husband and wife team produce a kosher wine that’s down to earth
One of the newest producers to enter the domestic kosher wine market is Camuna Cellars out of Berkeley, California. While Camuna is brand new to the scene, the folks behind it are not. More of an avocation than a strictly entrepreneurial endeavor, Camuna Cellars is, as their website puts it, “a collaboration between an artist and a winemaker.”
Camuna is a passion project from Eli Silins, Cellar Master at the famed kosher Covenant Winery, and his wife Molly Nadav, an artist and also Covenant’s Project Director.
While I’d briefly met Silins at various wine tasting events, I had my first chance to really speak with him over the phone recently.
A Chicago-area native, Silins chalks his involvement in wine up to “hashgachoh pratit” (divine providence). “I was living with kinda hippies in a sort of commune around Chicago,” he tells me, “and I came out to California [in late 2012] with some friends” more or less on a lark. “I usually joke that I was in my ‘retirement’—from doing a little bit of everything, or maybe a little bit of nothing—working in some kitchens, a little construction work, a little [Torah] learning here and there,” he said.
Silins had previously been interested in agriculture and winemaking, and had even “worked on a vineyard here and there, in California and actually also in Australia,” but hadn’t ever really pursued it further. Once in California again, things just sort of fell into place.
“It’s kind of a convoluted story,” he tells me. “I knew somebody [a friend], who knew somebody [a kosher caterer], who knew somebody [a kosher supervisor] that was aware that Covenant was looking for a harvest intern for 2013,” he explained, “And they thought I might be good for that job,” and so it just sort of came together.
Covenant was still operating in Napa that year, but moved to Berkeley as it expanded in 2014; Silins was already living in Berkeley by then. He meshed well with the Covenant folks, and he quickly transitioned from harvest intern to team member.
At around this same time [summer of 2014], Silins met his future wife, Molly Nadav. A Philadelphia-area native, Nadav succinctly summarized this stage of the story in a recent Covenant Winery blog entry: “I did the Urban Adamah fellowship here in Berkeley. Urban Adamah is an urban farm dedicated to education, social justice, and earth-based Judaism. And it happens to be located across the street from Covenant Winery...I met Eli at an event [there]. We got married two years after we met [in 2016]. And I started working at Covenant a year before the wedding.” Together, they decided to launch Camuna Cellars.
“I’m mostly in the cellar making the wine,” says Silins, “And Molly designs the labels, and is really more than half of the business; really everything else is all her, and all because of her; it wouldn’t exist without her.”
They are still in discovery mode and haven’t necessarily settled on exactly what they want Camuna Cellars to be. Their wines are kosher (OU supervision), but they are not geared particularly to the kosher market.
“In terms of the wine, we are exploring with what I see [in the marketplace],” he says. “My non-kosher peers [in California] are moving towards a lighter style, less intervention, kinda of the ‘new California’ approach – so, it’s still fruity, but not as ‘big’—that’s what we’re sort of exploring. I’m not trying to make ‘huge’ wine typically. Something that’s just a little bit more light and fun. I’m working with varietals that I think are going to be suited to my style and that are also interesting and that will be, you know, wines I want to drink; interesting, fun and food-friendly-that’s really what we are going for.”
“I’m not ‘designing’ a wine or trying to impose anything in particular on the wines I make,” he was quick to note. “I’m trying not to mess around with the quality or character of the fruit we get,” he adds. He makes clear that he’s “not really very business-savvy,” but they are striving to make honest, fun, approachable, and interesting table wines for themselves, and for people like them. Nothing too expensive either.
For this first official release, they made one barrel of Barbera rosé [25 cases, or 300 bottles], one barrel of “ancient wine” Carignan, and three barrels of Nebbiolo [75 cases, or 900 bottles]. For the 2018 vintage they will have four wines, another Barbera rosé (“different vineyard though”), a white field blend, and two reds—a Sangiovese and a “Mission grape,” a varietal introduced to California by Spanish missionaries around 1760.
Silins and Nadav source their grapes exclusively from “sustainable and/or organic vineyards,” and they “intervene minimally to deliver a product true to its essence,” using only “native yeasts” and “minimal sulfur added at bottling.” They also refrained from fining or filtering their reds. All three of the current Camuna wines are honest, interesting, fun, and—most importantly—a pleasure to imbibe. Their wines are available exclusively through their website. Without further ado:
Camuna Cellars, Barbera Rosé, Clarksburg, California, 2017 ($20): With wonderful balance, sporting clean, vibrant, dry, and tart fruit notes of strawberry, cherry and under-ripe pear, this is fun and interesting, with an earthy, minerally quality. Very easy to glug, yet both merits and rewards contemplative sipping. Really lovely.
Camuna Cellars, High Vibes Nebbiolo, Clarksburg, California, 2017 ($26): This is light, but oh, so delicious. With great acidity and tannic structure; aromas and flavors of cranberry, cherry, rose petals, violets, cherry blossoms, and tar. The bouquet kept drawing me back into the glass, while the taste delighted, refreshed, and satiated my palate. Great for pizza and similarly lighter fare or even just on its own; this is a fun and tasty anytime type wine. Deeply satisfying.
Camuna Cellars, Carignan, Ancient Vine, Contra Costa County, California, 2017 ($36): Made from grapes grown in the historic, sandy, Del Barba Vineyard in Oakley, east of San Francisco Bay, surrounded now by mostly residential neighborhoods. This 55 acre gem of a vineyard is populated by mostly “ancient vines,” planted in the early 1910s by the Del Barba family (which still farms its); the vineyard is planted to Carignan, Mourvèdre (Mataro), and Zinfandel. Due to the sandy soil, the roots of the Del Barba vineyard’s non-irrigated, gnarly looking, head pruned, 120-plus year old vines—they typically look like something out of an Edward Gorey illustration or a Tim Burton film—stretch way down to the water table for sustenance, which can be as far as 20 feet below the surface. Even though temps in this region regularly hit triple digits in the summer, the grapes’ acidity is preserved by the cool evenings. The resulting fruit makes for distinctive wines.
This red wine is a unique, beautiful, and entirely delicious expression of California Carignan. Offering bright and juicy yet controlled notes of cherry, red plum, and black currant fruits, with a touch of flint and earth. This smooth, lightly tannic, medium-bodied wine exhibits beautiful balance between the fruit, acidity, tannins, earth, and floral notes. Terrific now, but will reward some ageing.