The entrance to Enat Winery is just past Coliseum BART, on the same street as the old jumbo red sign for Sunshine Biscuits (which is now home to rows of U-Haul trucks). When Debritu Gebeyehu and Herb Houston moved in 15 years ago to formalize their backyard business, theirs was one of the only companies in a gated complex of small warehouses. Now the building is at capacity, and predictably, Gebeyehu and Houston are cozied up with two coffee roasters. But despite the quiet resurgence of manufacturers in this part of town, it's safe to say Enat's got the Bay Area honey wine market locked down.
Ethiopian honey wine, or tej, is not actually wine. Like mead, it's an age-old fermented spirit made mostly from honey and water. Tej's sweetness is slightly tempered by a twiggy plant called gesho, which is native to Africa and functions like a hop. In Ethiopia, it's typically made and enjoyed at home, or poured from vase-shaped pitchers called bereles at tej houses.
Inside Enat's showroom, clusters of Haile Selassie posters, Ethiopian nature scenes, and family photos line the walls. Nearby, blue buckets of tej sit, awaiting the filtering process. Enat doesn't use any sulfites or preservatives, allowing a few months' time, air, and gesho to complete the fermentation.
Houston shows me a family photo sitting on a piano and points out his late mother-in-law, Enat.Just as she did in Ethiopia, Enat made her own honey wine in the back of the couple's home in the Oakland hills for special occasions and for gifts.
“It's a festive drink in Ethiopia, it used to be enjoyed by nobility and still is relatively a luxurious drink brought out for special occasions and feasts,” says Gebeyehu.
In 2000, after Houston retired from running the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, the couple saw a niche and decided to commercialize the business.
The winery uses two types of honey: orange blossom and wildflower, both from California. Gebeyehu cracks a few jokes about how drunk she got testing the first rounds of the product, and I can see how the nectar-like taste disguises the 12 percent alcohol content. I'm not sure I'd take it over a cold beer, but Houston says it's a good complement to spicy food like Mexican and some Ethiopian dishes. (The orange is citrusy and pungently sweet, while the wildflower has a little more tartness.)
After 40 years in the Bay Area, Gebeyehu said it's the tight-knit Ethiopian community that allowed the business to start with a strong base of customers.If you've dined at one of the many Ethiopian restaurants in North Oakland, your wine has likely come from Enat, which sells about 450 cases each year across the U.S., mostly to restaurants, although you can spot cases of it at Rainbow Grocery, too.