Sagie Kleinlerer, general manager of Covenant Wines, has his own label now and two varietals.
Sagie Kleinlerer, general manager of Covenant Wines, has his own label now and two varietals.

Covenant manager branches out and grows his own (non-kosher) wine label

Sagie Kleinlerer was destined to make his own wine, that much is clear. What wasn’t as clear at the outset, though, is that his product would be good enough right out of the gate for a local Michelin starred-restaurant, Commis in Oakland, to put the wine on its by-the-glass list. Same goes for Berkeley’s Agrodolce Osteria and a few other local restaurants.

Kleinlerer, 44, is the general manager of Covenant, Berkeley’s kosher winery. He jokes that his is “the greatest nonkosher wine being made at a kosher winery in the world.”

The reason why his wine is not kosher, even though it’s technically made at a kosher winery, is because Kleinlerer is not observant, and only observant people can handle wine for it to be certified kosher. His wines are produced and stored in an area separate from Covenant’s certified-kosher production cellar.

The Kleinlerer Wines label has two varietals thus far: a “skin contact” chenin blanc (which means the grape skins are not removed as they usually are with white wine) and a pinot noir. Both are made from grapes grown in sustainable vineyards, which is important to Kleinlerer.

Kleinlerer was born and raised in New York City; his father was a Polish Holocaust survivor, and his mother was Israeli. His father spoke to him in English, his mother in Hebrew; hence he speaks Hebrew like a native. Although they were not observant, they sent him to Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva, because they felt it was important for him to “know who you are.”

Sagie Kleinlerer's new line of wines
Sagie Kleinlerer’s new line of wines

While his parents enjoyed a glass of wine now and then and allowed him a taste, it wasn’t until he was in college (and of age, of course) that he began appreciating wine, and started working at a wine shop that offered a five-session course where 30 bottles were tasted per session.

“I fell in love discovering regions I never knew of,” he said. “It opened my eyes to what’s out there.”

While it became a passion, it wasn’t a career at first. He went to law school, met his wife there, moved to California and practiced law for nine years. But he wasn’t happy.

“Not to put down lawyers, but you seek one out when things are going wrong,” he said. “So you deal with people who are unhappy and fighting. I need a warm, friendly environment.”

About a decade ago, he took his first steps toward what most inspired him, signing up for a class about careers in the wine business offered at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. Its instructor was Jeff Morgan, owner of Covenant.

“On the first day of class, he looked at my name and asked, what kind of name is that?” Kleinlerer recalled, joking that he quickly became “teacher’s pet.”

Sagie Kleinlerer, general manager of Covenant Wines, has his own label now and two varietals.
Sagie Kleinlerer with his grapes

It was sometime after his father died in 2011 that he took some time to think about what he wanted to do with his life, and quit practicing law. One free day, he decided to go wine tasting and ended up at Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga. He was the only one in the room except for two other men, who were talking about the winery and marketing. Though Kleinlerer describes himself as an introvert, he joined their conversation. After an hour of chatting — “the more you drink, the more you talk,” he said — the men, who happened to be Larkmead’s general manager and head of sales, offered him a job.

Kleinlerer quickly was promoted from the tasting room to winery relations manager.

Just when he was feeling as if he could no longer commute from Oakland to Calistoga, Kleinlerer heard from Morgan out of the blue. Over dinner, before their drinks even arrived, Morgan asked if he had any interest in coming to work at Covenant. He’s now been there five years.

“When you open a bottle of wine, it just brings joy and togetherness and happiness,” said Kleinlerer, who released his first vintage last year when no one could gather in person. It ended up going to friends and others he knew, and that was OK. “When we couldn’t see people, I got great joy out of there being a part of me on their table.”

Kleinlerer has 35 cases of the chenin blanc and 45 of the pinot noir; see kleinlererwines.com for details.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."