Michael Kaye of Invei Wines. (Photo/Courtesy Invei Wines)
Michael Kaye of Invei Wines. (Photo/Courtesy Invei Wines)

In a home garage, two kosher winemakers are crushing it

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The Invei winery, in the Contra Costa County city of Brentwood, looks nothing like the fancy wineries of Napa Valley.

No rows of grapevines, no faux castles, no well-dressed sommelier ready to pour out a flight of reds in the tasting room.

Instead, Rabbi Dovber Berkowitz greets visitors in front of a garage in a dusty corner of the East Bay near the California Delta. There’s no signage indicating this is a winery, and no grapevines grow on the property (he buys his grapes from regional farmers). But in the driveway sits a hefty stainless-steel grape elevator that looks more like a Howitzer cannon than a tool for making wine.

The device is used to move grapes upward into a crusher. Before they acquired it, Berkowitz and his business partner, Berkeley winemaker Michael Kaye, had to hoist buckets of grapes into the crusher by the sweat of their brow.

All in a day’s work for Berkowitz and Kaye, who turned what could have been a one-time winemaking lark nine years ago into a full-fledged, kosher-certified enterprise. The two are building on years of steady growth, and now their “micro-boutique” winery, as Kaye calls it, is about to release two new wines just in time for Passover.

Invei is an upstart in Northern California’s burgeoning kosher wine industry.  Its name means “grapes of” in Hebrew.

Rabbi Dovber Berkowitz of Invei Wines. (Photo/Dan Pine)
Rabbi Dovber Berkowitz of Invei Wines. (Photo/Dan Pine)

With established labels such as Covenant Wines in Berkeley and Hagafen Cellars in Napa having made inroads with Jewish consumers in the broader wine market, Invei’s founders hope to join their ranks.

Berkowitz, 39, serves as rabbi for Chabad of Contra Costa in Walnut Creek. That’s a full-time job, and yet he embraces the challenges of becoming a better winemaker, step by meticulous step.

“We didn’t come [to winemaking] with degrees from UC Davis,” he said, “and we didn’t have a millionaire investor. We said we’re going to learn something new and figure it out.”

Added Kaye: “Every time you have a challenge, it makes you a better winemaker.”

Case in point: Last year, Berkowitz and Kaye were down to crushing their last half-ton of petite sirah grapes when the machine broke down. Unsure what to do, the pair impulsively hurled the remaining uncrushed grapes in with the ton of already crushed grapes. Turns out, that’s a thing.

“Putting in clusters of grapes is a better way of doing it,” Kaye said. “It’s called whole-cluster fermentation.”

Though much of winemaking was new to Berkowitz when he started, Kaye had years of experience in the industry. He worked at kosher wineries such as Hagafen and Four Gates Wine in Santa Cruz, completed a winemaking internship at Shiloh Winery in Israel, and worked for several years at E. & J. Gallo Winery. He now works full time with Invei.

Inside the garage, Berkowitz and Kaye check the progress of their 2022 gewurztraminer chilling inside one of three 500-gallon fermentation tanks. It’s almost ready for filtration and bottling in time for Passover on April 5, but for now, it comes out of the tap crisp and cloudy. The icy cold tank is kept at 40 degrees thanks to a temperature-control system the pair wired on their own.

Michael Kaye (left) and Rabbi Dovber Berkowitz (right) of Invei Wines. (Photo/Dan Pine)
Michael Kaye (left) and Rabbi Dovber Berkowitz (right) of Invei Wines. (Photo/Dan Pine)

They’ve come a long way as DIY winemakers. Berkowitz started in 2014 when a grape-growing acquaintance offered the rabbi a free ton of zinfandel grapes to try his hand at producing a kosher wine. He and Kaye gave it a shot, but given the 100-degree September heat in the garage, which was not insulated at the time, things went wonky. The wine failed.

However, they didn’t wave the white flag. Instead, they next made a white wine. To their astonishment and delight, Berkowitz and Kaye won a double-gold medal at the 2015 California State Fair for their 2014 malvasia bianca, the first of 10 gold, silver or bronze medals they’ve been awarded over the years.

“We were completely blown away,” Berkowitz said of that first gold medal. “So we said, let’s see if we can do something with more volume.”

They have since created and sold hundreds of cases of muscat and malbec rosé, with a petite sirah and gewurztraminer coming soon.

With success comes bureaucracy. The garage/winery is part of the house Montreal native Berkowitz and his wife, Chaya Berkowitz, bought after they moved to Contra Costa County in 2012 to launch their Chabad center. Eventually, the couple moved to Walnut Creek with their children (twins Shua and Chana, now 13), renting out the Brentwood home but keeping the garage for winemaking.

Berkowitz and Kaye incorporated in 2017, and then obtained a federal commercial winery license, as well as a license from the city of Brentwood in 2019. Over the years, they’ve acquired more and more equipment: pumps, crushers, presses and de-stemmers, much of it sourced from winemakers across the country.

The pair have had to be resourceful in other ways. They endured supply chain issues during the Covid pandemic, and recently faced a bottle shortage. Why? Ukraine had been one of the world’s largest suppliers of glass bottles, but the Russian invasion shut that down. “It took us six months to get bottles,” Berkowitz noted. “Costs doubled.”

It’s worth all the hassle, both men say.

“The advantage of making kosher wine is less competition,” Kaye said. “We’re not competing with the entire wine industry. Also, kosher wine consumers have a lot of reasons to choose kosher.”

Noting that the word “wine” occurs more than 2,500 times in the Torah and other sacred Jewish texts, Kaye said Judaism is “a wine-centric culture. We use wine to sanctify time. We do Kiddush on Shabbat, on holidays and when two people come together under the chuppah. Wine is a food that has been transformed. It turns sober people into happy people.”

For Berkowitz, who grew up in cities and whose work as a Chabad rabbi keeps him very busy, working in wine engenders unexpected benefits. To him, the winemaking process reveals “a beautiful potential.”

“A grape is sweet and wonderful,” he said. “Then you crush it, press it and ferment it, and along the line it changes form in many different ways and ultimately you reveal this hidden potential that was beneath the surface.”

This notion plays into core Jewish concepts, according to Berkowitz.

“One of the premises is that we shouldn’t accept things necessarily for the way they are,” he says. “We say in the Kiddush that God ‘created to make or to do.’ The commentaries say God created the raw materials and then says ‘Now run with it, create with it, beautify it.’ So, in a sense, the physical world reveals the potential within through sanctification, something deeper, something more.”

Running a wine startup such as Invei means both men must get out and sell. Berkowitz has done wine demonstrations and tastings locally, while Kaye is set for an extensive East Coast tour to conduct private tastings.

For now, their business model is selling bottles online and directly to consumers at around $30 a pop — along with introducing new wines and making friends wherever they can share their product.

Will Invei become the highly profitable venture both Berkowitz and Kaye anticipate?

Said Kaye: “We’re about to find out.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.