Camuna Cellars

#376 – May 16, 2019

Israel’s modern kosher wine revolution started in the early 1980s with the Golan Heights Winery, while initial glimmerings were evident a few years prior at Carmel Winery, whose 1976 and 1979 offerings showcased a quantum qualitative leap. In addition to forbearing the revolution, Carmel Winery was also the breeding ground for the vast majority of Israel’s quality winemaking (and industry) talent over the subsequent decades. A significant portion of winemakers and industry experts can trace their oenological history back to a stint at Carmel Winery while many members of the younger generation trained under these ex-Carmel individuals, continuing the tradition of mentoring from generation to generation.

Approaching the 50th anniversary of California’s kosher wine production, the number of different kosher wine producers (less than ten, depending on how/what is counted) remains substantially lower than Israel’s over 100 different kosher wineries, they showcase the same tradition of mentoring that has spawned so many of Israel’s wineries.

Intended as a riff on the word community (while also being the Hebrew word for commune), Camuna is the brainchild of husband and wife team Eli Silins and Molly Nadav, both of whom work at Covenant Wines as their day job (I first wrote about them last year on Yossie’s Corkboard’s Facebook page following my visit and tasting). Originally from Chicago, Eli moved to Arizona to study sustainable agriculture in Arizona and spent some time in Australia working at a biodynamic vineyard. However, his interest at that time was more in the agricultural aspects of the vineyard than the winemaking. He also briefly worked at another California winery before meandering his way to California in 2012. Towards the end of 2013 Eli found himself in Northern California and, after being introduced to the good folks at Covenant through a friend of a friend of a friend (talk about siyata d’shamaya (divine intervention)), he signed on as a harvest intern and discovered the wine bug. Still at Covenant after five years, Eli has slowly moved up the ranks and currently serves as Cellar Master and Associate Winemaker. Serious, humble with a fun-loving streak, he has been a great addition to the Covenant team whom I know are going to miss him (and Molly).

Much of Molly’s family lives in Israel but her Dad moved to the Philadelphia area after serving in the army and that was where Molly grew up. She attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where she studied Fine Arts and Art Theory. Sharing Eli’s spirituality and love of nature, she ended up in Covenant’s hometown of Berkeley to attend Urban Adamah’s fellowship (“conveniently” located across the street form Covenant). It was at one of the farm’s events that she met Eli, they began dating and Molly ended up spending a lot of time at Covenant with the entire crew, while learning more than she ever wanted to about wine – ultimately taking a job there as Project Director in 2015 (where she deals with everything other than winemaking).

Eli’s first winemaking experience was over a decade ago, however his experience wine from Concord grapes in his mom’s basement wasn’t the inspiration for Camuna – it was the experience at Covenant. A freewheeling yet professional environment coupled with talented winemaking and inspiring and overall terrific people deepened Eli’s creative juices and he ended up making some wine for the 2014 vintage with Jonathan Hajdu’s help. Together with Molly, they made an additional barrel of Teroldego wine for the 2016 vintage under the Zaftig name (the year they got married) before officially launching Camuna for the 2017 vintage (I was lucky enough to have tasted both the 2014 and 2016 unreleased wines, while missing out on Eli’s earlier Concord grape creation).

Camuna’s website labels the venture as a collaboration between an artist (Molly) and a winemaker (Eli), with Molly handling all non-wine aspects of the business (labels, photography, customer relations, etc.) while Eli makes the wine. Molly’s delightfully funky ceramic creations are also sold via the website.

Camuna is still in its infancy with an uncertain future ahead (more on that below), but Eli and Molly are already thinking about what kind of wine they want to be making – honest, fun and well-priced. While the wines aren’t quite “natural wines” (despite what Alice Feiring may think), they feel strongly about land stewardship (e.g. organic, biodynamic, sustainable) and try to source fruit from vineyards that support that. They aim for minimal intervention – trying not to add anything or take anything away from the wine, but intervening if the need arises (native yeast, minimal sulfur, no fining or filtering). Low key, food friendly and lighter-styled wines (especially when compared to the mothership wines of Covenant and Hajdu) are the goal here. They are also trying to keep their wines affordable for fellow millennials.

Both Molly and Eli view wine as a way to bring people together, a view myself and many other wine-loving individuals share. Together with the special kedusha wine carries as a way to connect to G-d, Camuna reflects a desire to elevate their creativity to something for the greater good. While I cannot speak as to their success sin that regards, I am a big fan of them personally and have thoroughly enjoyed the wines to date. For their inaugural 2017 vintage, Camuna made five barrels of three different wines – Rose (one barrel), Nebbiolo (three barrels) and Old Vine Carignan (one barrel). I loved the Rose and the Carignan made my list of Most Interesting Wines for 2018. For the 2018 harvest, they slightly increased production and made four different wines – Rose (also Barbera, but from a different vineyard), a white blend of Chardonnay and Malvasia, an indigenous California varietal – Mission and three barrels of Sangiovese (many of the grapes are shares with Jonathan Hajdu, yet the different winemaking styles result in vastly different wines and make for interesting comparisons). To date, the only repeat grape variety has been Barbera, as the high acidity and fresh flavors make for a great Rose and they are otherwise experimenting with different varietals to find what works best for them.

Off to a good start, Camuna’s future is currently unclear as Eli and Molly are planning to move back East to Philadelphia within a few months (leaving some open slots at Covenant if any of you are interested). They are planning to make some wine abroad and Camuna will likely continue in some format, the details of which aren’t currently being made public. Given the young couple’s passion, enthusiasm, creativity and good-naturedness – I very much look forward to the next iteration of Camuna and wish them the best of luck! ,

In the interim, the wines are available for sale on Camuna’s website and, given the limited production, will sell out quickly so get them while you can. While not yet released, I had the opportunity to barrel-taste the 2018 Mission and Sangiovese. The Mission was quite unique and I very much enjoyed the Mendocino Sangiovese which showed clean and juicy fruit, great acidity and good tannic structure and am looking forward to tasting the finished product soon.

Camuna Cellars, Barbera Rose, 2018: After utilizing the acidic Barbera grape so successfully for their inaugural 2017 Rosé, this year’s Rosé is once again 100% barrel-fermented Barbera, albeit from a different vineyard than the 2017 and pressed as whole clusters (the same fruit was utilized for Hajdu’s delicious Rosé). While enjoyable, I found it to be a step-down from last year’s wine showing a little less vibrant and slightly hollow on the mid-palate. That said, the wine is delicious with bright red summer fruits, subtle slate minerals, a little herbal nuance and good acidity backing it up. A little off-kilter on the mid-palate, the wine should be enjoyed well chilled and faithfully fulfills Camuna’s mission for fresh, young and honest wines. Drink now and over the next 12 months or so.

Camuna, High Times, White, 2018: The wine is a blend of Malvasia (54%) and Chardonnay (46%) both sourced from Contra Costa. The wine was co-fermented in neutral oak barrels, which added some enhancing subtle oak nuance. An aromatic nose has green apples, guava, pineapple and other tropical fruit along with floral notes, warm spices some chalky minerals and some nice citrus notes, much of which continues on the round and mouth filling, medium bodied palate that is slightly viscous. Good acidity carries the heft well while the near sweet fruit will be enjoyable by most. Drink now and over the next 9-12 months.

Camuna Cellars, Barbera Rose, 2017: An immensely pleasing Rosé, even more as Camuna’s first official released wines, on release the wine showed tart red fruit with some nuanced sweet notes, great citrus and some subtle bitter herbal notes that were augmented by a hint of chalky minerals. Well made with great balance between the lovely tart fruit, sweet notes, minerals and vibrant acidity, the wine bodes well for the future of this talented and passionate young man. Exhibiting plenty of the genre’s food-versatility, the wine was bright, vibrant and fun while showing some delightful funk, earthy and yeasty notes which, at this point are more dominating as the wine has slid past peak and is in Drink Up mode.

Camuna Cellars, Carignan, Ancient Vines, Contra Costa, 2017: 100% Carignan sourced from Oakley’s dry-farmed Del Barba Vineyard (the same vineyard as Hajdu’s offering), the over 100-year old vines yield intensely flavored wines with high acidity. Despite utilizing the same grapes, Camuna’s more natural-leaning winemaking philosophy resulted in a much lighter and more approachable wine (while Hajdu’s is darker, brooding, complex and more reminiscent of the other quality Carignan wines we have on the market). Rich notes of plums, tart red cherries, some blueberries and freshly plowed earth are back by lovely acidity and supple tannins and enhanced with subtle notes of flinty minerals and white flowers. Hints of sweet herbs and freshly rolled cigars add both nuance and complexity. Scrumptious with sufficient complexity, the medium bodied wine is loaded with juicy fruit and enjoyable out of the bottle (and isn’t meant for long term aging), and has evolved nicely, showing some added complexity and body at this point along with crème brûlée and some well-worn leather. Drink now through 2021).

Camuna Cellars, High Vibes Nebbiolo, 2017: My least favorite of Camuna’s first offerings, on release the wine showed sweeter fruit that seemed slightly out of balance with the acidity. However with air (and now with some time under its belt), the wine comes together and shows delicious tart red fruits which balance out the sweeter notes, backed by good acidity and elegant well-integrated tannins that provide a good core to the lovely fruit, floral notes, bramble, pepper and warm spices. Really fun and a great everyday wine that can be enjoyed with a wide array of lighter fare, while also providing satisfying pleasure on its own. Drink now through 2020, but make sure to decant or give the wine at least 20 minutes to open in your glass.