Wine Talk: California dreamer

A former journalist, New Yorker Jeff Morgan set out to prove to the world that kosher wine could be world class.

Covenant wine 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Covenant wine 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Jeff Morgan is a New Yorker, born and bred. Though Jewish, he was not religious or even faintly traditional. However, at a certain stage he had a dream of making a world-class kosher wine. His journey took him to the peak of wine and food journalism, where he firmed up his vision to make a quality, highly individual kosher wine. He ended up in California, making one of the finest kosher wines in the world.
I am told he was first exposed to the world of food and wine in the 1980, when he was in the South of France. Music and jazz were his main interests then.
He first became involved in wine on a practical level when he had an interest in a small winery in Long Island. As soon as he started writing about wine, he was snapped up by Wine Spectator, America’s most famous wine magazine, and started writing for it in 1992. In 1995 he became the magazine’s West Coast editor.
This is when I first came across him. In addition to his other duties, he was given the task of writing about kosher wine for Wine Spectator, usually before Passover. It used to frustrate me that he didn’t write more about the quality wines coming out of Israel, but he obviously was not that impressed with kosher wines he tasted from around the world. Certainly, though, I was impressed by his writing. Not only did he write well, but his knowledge and passion for wine and food shone through. He also wrote a number of food and wine books, which only underlined his professionalism.
A meeting with Leslie Rudd was the catalyst. Rudd, who was chairman of the prestigious gourmet retailer Dean & DeLuca, asked him why there were not more quality kosher wines. This set Morgan thinking. He understood wine production, and the more he thought about it, he could not think of one reason why a kosher wine should be of lesser quality than a non-kosher wine. It could be made from the same quality Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, harvested from the same quality vineyard and produced with the same technology as any non-kosher wine. He realized that a kosher wine could be world class, and he set out to prove it.
In 2006 he launched his first wine, the Covenant 2003. The wine was rare and expensive, but Robert Parker, the most influential wine critic on the planet, liked it. He gave it 93 points and wrote: “Covenant may be the finest kosher wine made in the United States.”
It was a pretty good start.
Rudd has become a very valued partner. He is the owner of Rudd Winery, located in the Oakville appellation of Napa Valley. Crucially, Morgan now has access to Rudd’s highly prestigious vineyards. He also has an experienced team, including the highly thoughtof Jonathan Hajdu, who is the associate winemaker.
The name Covenant recalls the covenant of the Jewish people from Abraham onwards and the special connection between the Jewish people and wine. It also represents the covenant between winemaker and viticulturist, winery and vineyard. The attractive label is a painting by a Napa artist inspired by a stained-glass window. It features the blowing of a shofar when Moses returned with the covenant of the Ten Commandments. There is a candle for each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
The second label is the cleverly named Red C. (This is a play on letters, rather than a play on words.) The label is both minimalist and striking. A large red C is shown on a plain black background.
Today, Covenant will comfortably fit on any wine list alongside other California wines on the basis of quality alone. (Ironically, the only place where you certainly won’t find it is in kosher restaurants in the United States, which only accept mevushal, or flash pasteurized wines).
Jeff Morgan set out on a journey, and his dream came true. He has created a boutique, handcrafted wine of the highest quality that may be enjoyed by wine connoisseurs and kosher consumers alike.
Covenant 2008 A 100% Cabernet Sauvignon made from grapes grown in the Larkmead vineyard in the Napa Valley. It is aged in small French oak barrels for 18 to 20 months. I tasted the previous vintage, which was very deeply colored, rich, opulent, with aromas of blackcurrant, maybe with a hint of tobacco and a long, lingering finish.
Covenant Solomon 2008 Lot 70 This is a luxury blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from Leslie Rudd’s vineyards on Mount Veeder and the Oakville corridor. Shlomo (Solomon) is Rudd’s Hebrew name. So far, this wine has only been released once. I have not tasted it, but Robert Parker gave it a tentative but impressive 92 to 94 points.
Covenant Lavan 2009 A 100% Chardonnay from the Bacigalupi vineyard in California’s Russian River Valley. The wine is fermented and matured in small French oak barrels. This was the first vintage of Covenant’s Lavan (which means “white” in Hebrew). The wine is medium to full bodied, with some tropical fruit notes and a creamy, oaky finish.
Red C 2008 Second label wine, made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from a Napa Valley vineyard. It sometimes includes fruit declassified from the Covenant. Not in the same league as Covenant, but it certainly represents better value. Tends to be more fruit forward than the Covenant.
Red C Sauvignon Blanc 2010 This is the latest new addition to the portfolio, from Northern California.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine for Israeli and international publications.