Jeff Morgan grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Before Saturday afternoon in Central Park required a skirt or kippah and before there was a kosher restaurant on every block. Jeff never had a Bar-Mitzvah, he did not celebrate Shabbat and he never kept kosher. But somehow along the way he learned to make the finest kosher wine in America.
Jeff began his career as a musician and spent several years playing music in France. He returned from the French Riviera with a love of wine and he needed a job. He found work among the vineyards of Long Island and learned how to make wine. Jeff also began writing freelance wine and food articles for a variety of national publications. In 1992, Jeff was asked to write the annual Passover wine article for the Wine Spectator. When asked why he was chosen for this assignment, Jeff replied, “if you are going to be critical about kosher wine in a major publication, it helps to be Jewish.” This was Jeff Morgan’s first introduction to kosher wines and he wasn’t impressed.
In 1995, the Wine Spectator tapped Jeff to be their West Coast editor and he moved to San Francisco. In 1999, Jeff moved to the Napa Valley to be the wine director for Dean & DeLuca, one of the best known gourmet specialty stores in America. As wine director, Jeff got to know Leslie Rudd, a “member of the tribe” and Chairman of Dean & DeLuca.
Jeff may have been disappointed with the overall quality of kosher wines available, but he had tasted a few standout varieties to realize that they did not have to be bad. Along with his day job, Jeff was also experimenting with winemaking himself, and his non-kosher Solo Rosa Rosé had been well received. At a synagogue fundraiser, Jeff found himself at a tasting with Leslie Rudd, who is well known in the Valley for producing high-end, non-kosher wines at Rudd Winery. Leslie asked Jeff why there weren’t more great kosher wines. Jeff replied that with the right grapes he thought he could make a great kosher wine. Leslie was open to giving it a try.
Covenant was born.
Jeff desperately wanted to use Leslie’s grapes, but Rudd did not want his grapes associated with a subpar wine, kosher or not. So Jeff had to source his own grapes and find a place to make kosher wine. Jeff sought out the Herzog family who he had gotten to know a little bit from his wine writing. The Herzogs warmly opened their doors to allow Jeff to experiment with kosher winemaking in their state of the art facility south of Santa Barbara, in the town of Oxnard. They also exposed Jeff to a side of observant Judaism that he had never experienced firsthand. “As I got to know the Herzog family I saw that they understand a Judaism that I could relate to,” Jeff explains, “I experienced daily prayers, tefillin, Shabbat and it was beautiful.”
Inspired by the rekindling of his faith and determined to produce great California wine that just happens to be kosher, Jeff and his partner Leslie Rudd began work on Covenant. It didn’t take long for Covenant to make its mark on the kosher wine world. Their first vintage, a 2003 Cabernet released in 2006, caused Robert Parker to gush, “Covenant may be the finest kosher wine made in the United States.” A score of 93 caught the attention of wine lovers everywhere and Jeff has spent the past several years upholding the exceptionally high standards that he had set. He added a highly regarded second label Cabernet, Red C, and this year Covenant released their first white wine, the 2008 Chardonnay Lavan, which has earned plaudits from critics all over the world.
After six years producing extraordinary kosher wine, Leslie Rudd was ready to allow Jeff to use his grapes. The result is what Jeff considers to be his finest effort yet, the 2008 Covenant Solomon (Leslie’s Hebrew name is “Shlomo”).
Jeff is part of a fraternity of Jewish winemakers in the Valley, only a few of whom make kosher wine. It is hard to make good wine, even harder to make great wine and next to impossible to make kosher wine when half of September, the time of the annual grape harvest, is a Jewish holiday. You have to really love what you are doing and it is clear Jeff loves to make wine.
A few years ago, Jeff recalls, “a Chabad Rabbi moved to Napa, I taught him about wine, he taught me about yiddishkeit and now we have mezuzahs on our doors and we celebrate Shabbat. We are not Sabbath observant, but we do a lot more than we ever did before.”
Great wines are complex. They change in the bottle and they change in the glass. With each taste you discover something new. Something you didn’t notice, even though it was there all the time. Covenant means something more to Jeff and his family now. More than a great score from Robert Parker, although that helps too. It means more to Leslie Rudd. Leslie donated the grapes and put his name on the bottle. Jeff made the wine that is inside. “The wine has served as a true covenant for us, to our culture, our roots and where we come from. That is the most important thing that has happened.”