Viticulture, the art of growing grapes and making wine, isn’t new to the Lehigh Valley. The region’s first wineries planted their vineyards in the late 1960s and early 1970s and have been selling wine ever since. But it’s taken over 40 years for the region to catch on to a national trend with the opening of its first boutique Kosher winery.

Binah Winery is the newest client company of the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in Allentown. Binah (pronounced “Been-ah”) translates in Hebrew to mean “intuitive understanding,” and is a nod to the mystical aspects of Judaism.

Owner Kevin Danna started making wine in his home in 2014 as a hobby, developing his technique and learning the science of fermentation. The Penn State graduate with a degree in architectural lighting design said he knew from those early days of experimenting that he wanted to be a winemaker and one day own a winery. He leased a vineyard in Williams Township where he grew and harvested the grapes from which his wine was made. As he got better at making wine, he scaled up his production and was producing close to 1,000 cases by the end of his first year in business. He had originally intended to produce only 500 cases.

After completing a two-year online certificate program in winemaking, he did a required internship at Pinnacle Ridge winery in Kutztown during the summer and fall of 2015. There he perfected his skills and also learned how to make sparkling wine. He was then hired on as assistant winemaker until he left in 2019 to start Binah.

“You can’t just read a few books and know how to make wine. Winemaking is an art and a delicate process,” Danna said. “You need to be hands-on with it, to experiment in order to get it right. You need to make mistakes. That’s how you learn the process. And you need a good mentor, and Brad Knapp, the owner of Pinnacle Ridge, was that for me.”

Making Bridgeworks home

Danna had been introduced to Bridgeworks by business incubation client company owners Greg Heller-LaBelle of The Colony Meadery and Tara Sommerfield of MTS Ventures. They both recommended Bridgeworks because it had manufacturing space that was just the size he was looking for. Danna reached out to Allentown Economic Development Corporation’s Program Manager David Dunn to inquire about available space and met with him for a tour of the facility a week later.

“I had outgrown the production space I had been using, so it was time to expand,” Danna explained. “It’s hard to find manufacturing space that is only 2,000-3,000 square feet in this region,” said Danna. “Most spaces are much larger than that and I wasn’t ready to go that large, nor could I afford it. So, Bridgeworks really was the perfect fit, and at the right time, too.”

Suite 131 was a 3,100 sq. ft. empty shell which required minimal setup, such as some basic plumbing and electrical work, in order for the winery to move in and start production. Unlike most wineries, Binah doesn’t have a tasting room for the public. That meant he could get started faster in the new space since he wouldn’t be spending time and financial resources building that out. Danna applied to join the business incubation program and met with the Bridgeworks Advisory Committee, who recommended his application to the AEDC board of directors which accepted Binah Winery into the program.

“The fact that Bridgeworks was already home to three other successful alcohol manufacturing businesses gave me the confidence that it was the right place for my winery to set up shop,” said Danna. “Use of the building’s shared facilities such as meeting and conference rooms, and a loading dock with forklift were definitely key selling points.”

In late-February he carefully moved in his full stainless-steel wine storage tanks and set up his lab area. His largest tanks hold 300 gallons of wine, while several smaller ones are between 50 and 150 gallons. There’s also a multipurpose space where he presses the grapes he buys.

Binah Winery also received financial support in the form of $165,000 in low-interest loans from the Allentown Enterprise Zone and the Allentown Revolving Loan Fund, programs that are part of AEDC’s Urban Made initiative. He’s using that money for things like leaseholder improvements to his space, purchasing equipment, buying inventory and raw materials, and other items that are helping him to scale-up production. As part of his loan agreement he will also hire additional staff in the years to come.

When starting a business, Danna says it’s important to learn from everyone you work with, including other small business owners. That’s something he hopes will come out of his residency as a startup at Bridgeworks where he is surrounded by other entrepreneurs.

The differences in Kosher wine

Because the wine is Kosher, its manufacturing follows strict guidelines which require that only Sabbath-observant Jews handle the wine. The Lehigh Valley Kashrut Commission oversees the production process in order to certify the wine meets Kosher standards. These requirements also mean that he is limited as to who he may hire to work in the winery with him. So right now, he does all of the production work himself.

“It’s nearly impossible to buy Kosher grape juice anywhere, and what I can purchase is expensive,” he explained. “And since growing the grapes at a local vineyard was time consuming and subject to the weather, it is more cost effective for me to buy grapes from vineyards in the region and bring them to my facility to be pressed.” He currently contracts with grape growers in New Jersey, Long Island and Harrisburg.

While some people might think of Manischewitz when they think of Kosher wine, the industry has enjoyed a Golden Age since the 1990s when it started seeing a resurgence of specialty wineries that started in California and then spreading across the country. Boutique Kosher wineries now dot the country making upscale wines and providing consumers with a much wider offering.

Since the Jewish community is relatively small, the news of Binah’s high-end Kosher wines has spread like wildfire throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and even nationally, leading Danna to ship wine all over the country. “It is a well-connected community. When we find something we love, we tell everyone we know!” he said. “It’s really helped to elevate my reputation as I grow my brand.”

Binah Winery’s current offerings include white wines Celeste, Stella, Muscat, Chardonnay and Viognier, and a Rose wine, also. It offers online ordering with curbside pickup for local residents.

“I am really focused on and committed to the quality of the wine, to elevating the Kosher wine experience in the region,” Danna concluded.

Looking ahead he would eventually like to have enough production capacity to sell through PLCB stores and also through local grocery stores with wine sections. And in time he would like to have his product on wine lists in restaurants as he expands sales beyond the Kosher community.