Josh Fleet is the “cellar scribe” at Covenant in Berkeley, where he lives with his wife, Dorielle, and their son, Maayan. A graduate of the school of journalism at the University of Florida, Josh also studied at Yeshivat Sulam Yaakov and the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.
You grew up in Florida and eventually became a journalist in Israel. What kind of writing did you specialize in as a journalist?
In college, I held every staff position at our student newspaper called, The Shpiel. That paper started as an outlet for Jews who didn’t have a communal space they felt comfortable in but still wanted to express their Jewish identity. It turned into a community in and of itself. A very creative community. Eventually, there were people of other faiths involved, too, and this led me to the Huffington Post, where I was an editor for religion. At HuffPost, I was able to publish voices of spirituality and faith from around the world on a positive platform. The goal was learning from each other in a spirit of coexistence and harmony. My focus was always on spirituality—through music, Jewish tradition, communal life and beyond. Later, in Israel, I worked as a reporter covering the political situation in the Middle East, but I very quickly realized that I would not be able to bring peace to the region through journalism. So I pivoted and spent a couple years learning Jewish texts with a particular focus on the Hebrew scribal tradition.
What brought you back to the USA?
My wife is a Jewish educator. She got job offers at several Jewish day schools in the U.S. Ultimately, we chose Berkeley because of the vibrant, dynamic Jewish community here.
Did you have any special relationship to wine prior to working at Covenant?
I guess fate wanted me to work in wine. I had doubts about journalism in Israel and then a winemaker friend asked me to help at his winery for harvest in Israel. Acquiring the proper work visa was an ordeal. Israeli bureaucracy made me wait so long that harvest was over and I missed the opportunity to work at the winery. In the meantime, I attended the Jerusalem Wine Festival and made an effort to try a new Israeli wine every Shabbat that I was in Israel. Then, I got my second chance by working a harvest for Covenant.
How did you come to work at Covenant?
A friend from New York heard we were moving to the Bay Area. He asked me if I’d be interested in working at a winery. That was Eli Silins, Covenant’s Cellar Master. I told him I didn’t have much experience but that I was willing to work hard. Like I said, it must have been beshert!
What exactly do you do at Covenant?
During harvest, I work full time in the cellar, helping to turn grapes into wine. During the rest of the year I split my time between climbing barrels and composing emails for the winery’s marketing efforts. And I combined my interest in Hebrew scribal work with my time in the cellar by designing special one-of-a-kind labels for each barrel of wine. So, I guess that makes me the Cellar Scribe.
What do you think are the greatest challenges to making kosher wine?
The Jewish calendar (including Shabbat, holidays, fast days, etc.) creates many obstacles to making fine wine. The High Holidays always happen during harvest. So even when the grapes are fermenting, if it’s a three-day chag-and-Shabbat marathon we have to leave it up to God and have faith that everything will be OK in the cellar without us. We overcome these challenges in the spirit of Jewish tradition, law and general wine quality—all of which are important at Covenant.
Has working at a winery changed the way you perceive wine as part of daily life?
Wine has become an essential and deeply meaningful element of both my day-to-day life and the more exalted spiritual moments throughout the year. Wine is about enhancing mealtime as well as making Kiddush—sanctifying the Sabbath. To have a hand in making the wine that I then hold in my hand and bless on Shabbat is very powerful.
You recently became a father. Covenant Winery was honored to be the location for your son’s bris. What prompted you to have the bris at the winery?
Though I’m a member of a local synagogue and love all the people there, the core of my community here in Berkeley is Covenant Winery. I wanted to be surrounded by that familial sentiment and hopefully strengthen it by having the ceremony here. Obviously, I also liked the wordplay of having a “brit”—which means covenant—at Covenant.
Five years ago, if someone had told you that you’d become a winemaker in California, what would you have said?
L’chaim? I would have laughed in disbelief.
And how do you feel about it now?
It feels like the most natural fit. I’m excited to go work (most days).