It’s been written that a journey begins with a single step. But you don’t necessarily have to be home to take that first step.
Cynthia Craig and Curt Friehs, co-owners of Chosen Wine, the new kosher wine store located in Dormont, began their journey while visiting Israel. They visited the Jewish state in both 2016 and 2018 and were impressed by the wine they sampled, so different than the Manischewitz the couple associated with kosher wine.
“We were blown away by how good the wine was, particularly at the Dalton Winery. We went up to the vineyards, and it was just out of sight,” Friehs said.
Craig credited that trip to the winery, which they went to on a whim, as providing the two with inspiration to get into the business.
While the idea of opening a kosher wine store might not seem that peculiar, the prelude to the partners’ business venture has enough zigs and zags for a binge worthy Netflix series.
The two met 15 years ago while working as librarians at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas. Both consider Pittsburgh home, but neither were born in the city — Craig was born and raised in Eastern Ohio, about an hour from Pittsburgh and has lived in Florida for the last decade, and Friehs was born in Lawrence, Kansas, but grew up in Pennsylvania.
Craig was raised Presbyterian, but said she felt disconnected from organized religion before going to Israel, which stoked a deep interest in Judaism.
“The first time I went to Israel, I went to the Western Wall and I felt a really spiritual connection I wasn’t expecting,” she said. “I felt the presence of God, I felt something special that I hadn’t felt.”
Upon returning home, she started to attend Shabbat services and other activities at a Reform congregation in Gainesville, Florida.
Friehs said he grew up “confused,” referencing both his Jewish heritage and Catholic background. He credited the Hillel at the University of Pittsburgh where he attended college as helping to strengthen his Jewish faith. He eventually found a home at North Country Reform Temple in Glen Cove, New York, where he served on the board of the trustees.
A recent car accident and appendectomy caused him to reevaluate his life and find something more fulfilling than what he had been doing.
“Curt and I spent a long time in higher ed as educators and librarians,” Craig said. “I think we’re both ready for something different. We’ve already been successful, we both attained tenure and promotion in our respective institutions. It felt like there’s got to be something else.”
The South Hills is home to about 20% of Pittsburgh Jewish households. While the majority of area Jews live in Squirrel Hill and adjacent neighborhoods, the decision to open a kosher wine store in Dormont makes perfect sense to Craig and Friehs.
“Nobody else is doing what we’re doing here,” said Friehs.
Thinking like true Pittsburghers, they realized that the various bridges and tunnels might prove a challenge to some South Hills Jewish community members that would like kosher wine but don’t want to make the journey to Squirrel Hill.
“A local business owner told us that people in Pittsburgh live in quadrants,” Craig said. “We’re set up in a different quadrant [than Squirrel Hill].”
Craig and Friehs aren’t willing to concede the kosher wine market to strictly observant Jews.
They believe that another untapped source of customers are non-Jews who support Israel and want to experience some of what the country’s vineyards have to offer. Friehs recounted a story about someone he met on a recent trip to a UPMC urgent care facility. When the employee found out about the store, he told Friehs of his affection for the country.
“He said, ‘I love Israel. My wife loves Israel. We go to church, but is it OK to come to the store? We want to support Israel.’”
The store currently stocks selection from Israel’s Dalton Wines, Lanzur Wines from Chile, Bordeaux wines from Pavillon de La Rotonde and Palais de L’Ombrière, Chianti made by Borgo Bella and Cantina Giuliano, sparkling wines by En Fuego and Borgo Reale Prosecco Brut, as well as a few U.S. wines, including from Kedem and Baron Herzog.
Friehs said he and Craig spent a long time thinking of what to name the new store.
“I thought, ‘What name is going to be welcoming?’ They call it audacious hospitality in Reform Judaism. I wanted to make everyone feel welcome. I thought ‘Chosen’ is select, and we are God’s chosen people.”
Taking a cue from a story he heard about the Pizza Hut chain, Friehs wanted a short name that would fit easily on a sign. Chosen Wine hit all the right marks.
The partners are confident that this is the right time to open the store.
“We’re so glad things are opening back up after the pandemic,” Craig said. “I think people are just hungry for social interaction again. There’s a pent-up demand.”
Chosen Wine, located at 1517 Potomac Ave., is open 12-8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and Sundays from 12-5 p.m. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.