On the first floor of a warehouse in Northeast Philadelphia is one of the most trailblazing wineries in the United States — seriously. The tiny operation is Camuna Cellars, a two-room urban winery founded by Eli Silins, a former California cellar master. He’s doing things a bit differently than he did at his West Coast day job, though. How differently? In his office, there’s a stainless steel tank with a wine/cider/berry/mead hybrid waiting to be bottled, or not.
While cellar master at Covenant Winery in Berkeley, Silins started Camuna as a side hustle to stretch his creativity, explore wine grapes and lighter styles, and do so in a kosher context. He re-launched the project when he moved to Pennsylvania. His goal for Camuna, which has produced about 350 cases of wine using locally sourced fruit like Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin in Philadelphia so far, is to highlight what wines produced from local grapes and other fruits—plus other additions such as honey—can be. Sustainability is key so he’s always on the hunt for what he can source locally that doesn’t need chemical intervention.
This brings us back to that hybrid, an example of the exploration Silins is doing. It’s a blend of Chambourcin, aronia berries, mead, cider apples, crab apples, and local ornamental pears. It is…. interesting. He doesn’t know if it will ever make it into a commercial bottling, but he’s excited about the opportunity to experiment while supporting local agriculture.
While he hasn’t bottled that blend, what he has bottled from his first East Coast vintage in 2020–wines like carbonic Chambourcin with grapes sourced from NJ and Grüner Veltliner with grapes sourced from PA–has been well received by the Philadelphia region wine community, gracing the shelves of some of the city’s most respected bottle shops such as Bloomsday Cafe, Martha, and Di Bruno Bros.
I sat down with Silins at his warehouse winery to taste his wines and talk about how he wants to “expand and blow up what we’re drinking.”
Robin Shreeves: Talk about your winemaking philosophy.
Eli Silins: I don’t want to drink Cab or Pinot from the East Coast just because you can make it happen. What if wine was just your local agricultural beverage? I want to support local agriculture and use as organically grown fruit as possible. I’m not opposed to vinifera, but I am opposed to growing it here by any means necessary. There’s a lot of room to explore what varieties grow well here. Eventually, I’d like to have my own vineyards. I want to make something interesting in and from this place, a place that is still looking for its voice. I use minimal intervention and native fermentation, although I always have commercial yeast in my back pocket to threaten my ferments with. I use minimal sulfites, a maximum 40ppm if something is giving me problems and I’m worried about it.
This project is also kosher, although it’s under an alternative certification. The kosher wine world is pretty small, and there’s not a ton of variety. In California, I was making kosher wine with grapes with varieties that are uncommon in the kosher world like Carignan and Mission, particularly in the styles I was making them in. I’m continuing that here.
RS: How did you launch Camuna in Philadelphia?
ES: My partner and I were living and working in California and thinking about what the future looked like. We decided to have a kid and move back to where she’s from. Coming here had nothing to do with me wanting to make wine here specifically. That being said, it’s an interesting place, and it’s growing on me.
We moved here just before the pandemic, and I lost my job when it hit. My in-laws lease the warehouse I’m in now, and my brother-in-law asked if there was anything I could do with some empty space they had. So I relaunched Camuna. I’ve taken some inspiration from other East Coast producers like Fable Farm Fermentory in Vermont and Wild Arc Farm in New York. They are the vanguard edge of the wine world, exploring wine in all the ways it can be. That’s what I’m trying to do, too, using fruit the land wants to support.
RS: What’s exciting about the Philly scene?
ES: I’m excited about the Philly wine scene. I also think it’s a pivotal time in wine. People are more interested in regionality and sustainability. People are more willing to explore lesser-known varieties that have personality, that speak of place, and that aren’t trying to impose something on the place. I’m interested in thinking outside the box, if you will, and trying to explore that. It’s a very young scene here in Philadelphia and the East Coast to some extent.
Philly has a serious food scene, but it’s not like New York, which is so close. There’s less pretension. For the most part, people are here because they want to be, not because they think it’s the place to be. People are excited to be here and excited about what they’re doing. Philadelphians have been super friendly and welcoming and excited about this project that I sometimes doubt, frankly. And because of the *PLCB’s hold for so long and then opening up, it’s like people who haven’t had that much experience are excited to explore wine and explore beyond wine.
RS: Do you have any favorite bottle shops or restaurants in Philadelphia?
ES: Since we moved here just before the pandemic, so we haven’t gotten out much at all. I love Bloomsday, but I don’t want to really pick favorites. What I’m seeing here is that there are people who are willing to look beyond Europe and California, and I think there’s a bunch of stuff tied into it. For me, I think in Philly, people are looking to support things, whether it’s a winery or a farm or a restaurant, and looking for connection to a place, to each other. I think wine is a powerful tool for that. The name Camuna is a riff on community with people and with the natural world, the divine. Wine is a powerful tool that connects heaven and earth and people, and the Philly wine scene seems to be connected to that, too.
*The PLCB is the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Until 2016, wine to go could be sold only through PLCB shops, but a new law permitted the creation of independent bottle shops that could bring in wines that weren’t sold through the PLCB, expanding the wine drinking buying and drinking options of Pennsylvanians. Since then, many small bottle shops, several of them focusing on more natural wines, have opened in Philadelphia.