Del Mar couple’s entrepreneurial spirit: Chervona Vodka
The hand-crafted red vodka is infused with real cranberries, crafted and bottled at a San Marcos distillery with no artificial flavors, additives or sweeteners. The Dicksteins promise a taste that is smooth, clean and unique.
“Chervona Vodka is based on winter French wheat cranberry-infused vodka, with nothing but fresh berries that give its color and taste,” Sergei said. “We discard 15 percent of the batch in order to deliver a sippable vodka with no bite or unpleasant taste. We don't filter the problem, we eliminate it.”
Sergei’s passion for infusions began with his grandfather’s recipe that is more than 100 years old. He started by making batches to share with family and friends, served up in mason jars. Chervona comes in a range of alcohol percentages called “seasons”: Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer. Winter is the heaviest at 90 proof, Summer the lightest at 60 proof. Meant to be a sipping vodka, it does not need to be kept frozen. Sergei most enjoys it straight-up but it also mixes well in spritzers, martinis and mules—the company’s Instagram is filled with inspiration for all manner of red-tinted cocktails.
Chervona can be found online and locally in Del Mar Liquor and Deli, L’Auberge Del Mar, Mar Vista Liquor in Cardiff and the Keg N Bottle mini-chain of stores.
The vodka’s name Chervona, the Ukrainian word for red, pays homage to the couple’s roots. The Dicksteins are immigrants of Ukraine, coming to Northern California in 1995 carrying very little besides their hope to build a new life.
“We came to America with four forks and three knives,” said Natasha.
They worked their way up from the very bottom, sometimes working as many as five jobs. Sergei worked stints as a security guard, which he credits with helping him learn English, and as a newspaper delivery man. He smiles at the memory of delivering papers by rollerblade to make his route go faster. Sergei even got a job as a pipe organ builder—he had zero experience but had been a power engineer who designed nuclear power plants in Ukraine, “If I can lay out the pipes of a nuclear plant, I can do an organ.” He built several organs, including one of the country’s largest in Washington DC.
Natasha babysat and went to school, “The most efficient way to learn a culture is through education,” said Natasha, who was determined to immerse herself fully in American culture and pursued her studies in communication and art.
Chervona’s “seasons” represent the sharp turns their lives took together: They became parents; they made a big move to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1997 for an engineering job opportunity for Sergei; Natasha earned her degree; they became parents again and moved back to California in 2004, choosing Del Mar as their new hometown.
The pair settled into their lives in Del Mar, both had good jobs and their two sons attended Torrey Pines High School. About five years ago, Natasha started to think seriously about what their lives would be like as empty nesters.
“It was very scary and boring and predictable what was going to happen in the next 10 to 15 years,” Natasha said.
“It wasn’t like we were unhappy, but it was not the fulfillment of why we came to America,” Sergei supplied.
“I could already predict the future and it was nothing special. I didn’t think I could be happy. We came here for a little bit more,” Natasha said.
Natasha asked Sergei the question she always does: “What’s next?”
The Dicksteins were ready for something new and were willing to start from scratch again with Sergei’s infusions. Sergei launched into research as there were a lot of logistics to get a handle on, relating to everything from liquor licensing to cranberry resources—the berry is only harvested once a year exclusively in the Northern hemisphere.
It took three-and-a-half years to perfect the chemistry of craft batch vodka and its distilling process, figure out how to source the cranberries, find a distillery, find investors, complete the licensing and market their product. They officially launched in October 2017.
The pair do not want to give the impression that it was easy.
“It’s not for everyone,” said Natasha, wincing as she remembered the very stressful season of their lives where they put everything they had on their dream, worrying that they might lose it all. There were many sleepless nights navigating an industry they knew nothing about with no connections.
They relied a lot on the support of their children, now 21-year-old Sergei and 17-year-old Alec, who both worked part-time while in school and helped their parents. The Dicksteins had to tap into the “survivor spirit” they had when they first came to this country.
“We were crazy enough to believe we could fulfill our dreams,” Sergei said.
Both are grateful for the “amazing” board of advisors they curated, which helped them with legal issues, sales and marketing. The advisors included Matt Knapp, the vice president of creative for Dollar Shave Club, and Casey Miles, the founder of the California Spirits Company who founded his own distillery. With a solid team of experts behind them, they found the confidence to forge ahead—Natasha said she learned so much about herself and grew stronger throughout the process, especially after hearing a lot of people say ‘no’ and seeing so many doors close. They both believed that the high quality and uniqueness of their product would sooner or later lead to more people saying “yes” than “no” and acceptance in the industry.
Perseverance paid off and Holiday Wine Cellar in Escondido was the first store to carry all seasons and over the past year they have landed in multiple restaurants and liquor stores in San Diego and branched out to Palm Springs and Los Angeles—the vodka is served in the red booths of the legendary Musso and Frank Grill in Hollywood. Holiday now handles their online distribution and the Dicksteins are in the process of making a deal with Sam’s Club stores.
Sergei believes the potential for Chervona is endless as it offers something no other vodka does with the different alcohol contents. Most vodkas are 80 proof and flavored vodkas are 70 proof— Chervona’s seasons range from 60 to 90 proof which allows people to pick their preference. While people can pick their preference, the Dicksteins encourage people to experience all four seasons— Sergei said every tastebud tastes each season differently and it’s fun to watch people experiment and be surprised, “You create the taste”.
“The vodka is about our heritage, our seasons,” Natasha said. “We try to live our best season and now we want to give people a chance to try our seasons, find their best one and constantly live their best season.”