Kevin Danna, owner and operator of Allentown’s Binah Winery, is doing something unique in the wine world.
“There are no other kosher wineries specializing in East Coast wine,” he explains. “I don’t really advertise the fact that we’re kosher, except to the kosher market. [We’re] a premium boutique winery that happens to be kosher.”
Kosher wines are made under a specific set of rules; many observant Jews will only consume food and beverages that are certified kosher. The 35-year-old Penn State alum first began thinking seriously about wine seven years ago. His new hobby coincided with an increase in his own level of religious observance.
“I’m orthodox observant,” says Danna. “I keep the sabbath on Saturday. Growing up, I didn’t, [but] after college I was starting to get into that more.”
Thanks to the ritual of kiddush — a prayer made over wine — he began to drink more wine, cultivating an active interest in the ancient quaff.
After finishing a degree in architectural engineering, Danna started a career in lighting design at a firm in Alexandria, Virginia. But he “never liked the big city,” so he and his wife, a Pennsylvania native, moved to the Lehigh Valley. Their new house had a basement and she encouraged him to try his hand at home winemaking.
Danna got his first grapes from Keystone Homebrew in 2014. As his expertise grew, he decided to launch a kosher winery. Friends in the local community were supportive. He enrolled in a two-year online certification program and took an internship at Kutztown’s Pinnacle Ridge Winery in 2015. He was eventually hired on as an assistant winemaker there before leaving in 2019 to launch Binah.
In essence, there’s no difference between our wine and any other fine wine you’d get on the market. Taste, appearance, aroma — it’s all the same.Kevin Danna, Binah Winery
The first step for his new venture was leasing a vineyard near Easton.
“I didn’t have any money, so I had to go and fundraise myself,” he recalls. It was an educational but grueling season that ultimately yielded about 16 tons of grapes, harvested thanks to free labor from friends.
“That experience really pushed me to the edge,” says Danna. As a one-man operation, he knew he couldn’t maintain a vineyard as well as make wines.
In 2020, he took up residence at Allentown’s Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, renting an industrial space. He joins HiJinx Brewing, County Seat Spirits and Colony Meadery, adding to the incubator’s reputation as a craft beverage hub. Danna bottled Binah’s first wine there in May. Thanks to an avid social-media following of his vineyard venture, customers were ready as soon as the first vintage came off the line.
There are two major principles for kosher wine: all-kosher ingredients (for example, gelatin and certain kinds of yeast are not used) and the Jewish makers. Sabbath-observant Jews must handle the whole process, from crushing the grapes to corking the bottle.
“In essence, there’s no difference between our wine and any other fine wine you’d get on the market,” explains Danna. “Taste, appearance, aroma — it’s all the same.”
But that kosher distinction has quickly helped Binah attract buyers from all over the country, with shipments heading for Texas, California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and more.
Even though he doesn’t grow his own grapes, Danna is still focused on local sourcing. This year, he’s buying fruit from vineyards in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, honoring his East Coast ethos.
“It opens up East Coast wine and Pennsylvania wine to a national market,” he says, crediting the ardent niche market for kosher wine. That’s valuable exposure for what he calls the Lehigh Valley’s “blossoming” but under-the-radar wine region.
Binah is unique for many reasons. Danna is eschewing a “capital intensive” winery model: buying a piece of property or an old building and waiting years for a crop. He argues that his model — buying grapes and renting an industrial space to produce the wine — is actually hearkening back to an older time, when farming and winemaking were separate enterprises.
Binah also skipped the tasting room, a staple of most wineries. It’s a decision that some people questioned, but it’s a way to save space and money. Plus, the winery is closed on Saturdays, when most people show up for tastings.
Now the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered the tasting-room question moot. Binah is poised to operate as nimbly as possible, especially since the industry at large has been slow to adapt to the digital world.
“A lot of people who get into starting a winery are retired,” says Danna. He’s bringing a Millennial’s perspective to the wine business — which is, of course, a very old business. Thousands of years of history and a product that can happily sit for years means the industry may be better positioned than others to weather a pandemic.
“We are a business that is for certain looking at the future,” he concludes.
ALAINA JOHNS is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and the Editor-in-Chief of BroadStreetReview.com, Philly’s hub for arts, culture and commentary.