From whim to winery


I’m a northern California native, so I love that region’s wines. And one of my favorite winemakers is Jeff Morgan, the owner of Berkeley, Calif.,-based Covenant Winery.

Jeff, with his wife, Jodie, grew up without religion (a “bagel and lox Jew”) in New York, later dropping out of college and moving at age 19 to Europe to pursue his music interests. He studied music at the French National Conservatory, and eventually played saxophone, sang, danced and led the band at the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo.

Growing fed up of the scene, he decided on a whim to pursue another love: wine. So he returned to New York, and found work at a Long Island winery first working the vineyard (before the winery was actually built) and then as a “cellar rat” or all-around schlepper in the winery. He began occasionally writing about wines on the side, too.

In 1992, he took an assignment to write about kosher wines, a subject he knew nothing about. He soon got more writing assignments and moved to California in 1995 when he became the West Coast editor for Wine Spectator magazine.

In 2000, he quit to pursue winemaking and became the wine director for specialty food purveyor Dean & DeLuca. Through that association, he eventually began writing cookbooks. In 2002, at a tasting of the wines from Israel’s Domaine du Castel, Morgan and Leslie Rudd, who was then the owner of the Dean & DeLuca chain, and the well-regarded Rudd Oakville Estate Winery, decided to make the “greatest kosher wine in 5,000 years.” Covenant Winery was born.

Morgan oversees every aspect of the wine production, from the vineyards to the bottling, but he is not allowed to touch any of it, as he is not Shabbat-observant. Only Shabbat-observant Jews are allowed to be involved in the process for the wine to be certified kosher. Since beginning the Covenant Winery, however, Jeff and Jodie and business partner Rudd have formed a new and meaningful relationship with their Jewish heritage, as well as with Israel, where they have also recently begun making wine. They even relocated from Napa, their home of 20 years, to Berkeley, to be near a more vibrant, local Jewish community.

Covenant’s first vintage was a critical and consumer triumph. He credits a large part of his subsequent success to his relationship with his religiously observant associate winemaker, the hugely talented Jonathan Hajdu. Morgan and Hajdu are together establishing a new standard for California kosher wines, marked by consistent quality, innovation and creativity.

So despite last week’s wintry weather, I’ve been enjoying one of his awesome summery whites: Covenant, Lavan, Chardonnay, Sonoma Mountain, California 2013 ($38) — sourced from the Scopus Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain, this brilliant, young yet refined, big, tight, rich and creamy wine begins floral and rather fruity on the nose, leading into a more Burgundian frame yet without abandoning its clearly California sensibility, with flavor notes of citrus, apple, and pear, brioche toast, a touch of fig and toasted almond, and loaded with minerals. L’Chaim!

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