Jeff Morgan once worked as a journalist covering the wine industry, but after accepting a dare from established Napa Valley vintner Leslie Rudd to make an unparalleled kosher wine, he gave up his day job and joined the fun.
The result was Covenant, a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. Its quality not only impressed Rudd, who became Morgan’s business partner, but was so good that legendary wine critic Robert Parker named it “the greatest kosher wine on Planet Earth.”
Starting at $100 per bottle, the vintage consistently rates among the world’s leading wines. In fact, in 2013, The New York Times named it No. 4 on its top 10 list of all Napa Valley Cabernets.
“I’m grateful to know that people are enjoying the fruits of our labor,” says Morgan, now in his early 60s.
These days, Jeff and his wife Jodie operate the Covenant winery in Berkeley, California, where they are active in the Jewish community. Although Jeff grew up unaffiliated and only had his bar mitzvah at the age of 54, the two now belong to a modern Orthodox synagogue.
As their connection to Jewish communal life has grown, so has their wine list. Starting at $20, wines with names such as “The Tribe” and “Mensch” are available throughout the US, Canada, Europe, Latin America and Israel. And then, of course there are the cookbooks. The author of nine, Morgan’s latest – “The Covenant Cookbook: Food and Wine for the New Jewish Table” — is co-authored with Jodie.
To usher in 2016 with a robust “l’chaim,” The Times of Israel sat down with Morgan to learn more about his celebrated kosher wines.
How did you get started in the industry?
I got the wine bug back in my early 20s living in southern France as a musician. By the time I was 34, I was ready to change careers and follow my passion for wine. At the time, I was living in New York. So I went out to the Long Island wine country and knocked on winery doors until someone hired me to work in the cellar. I stayed there for two years learning the trade.
Why are you so passionate about wine making?
I’m really more passionate about wine drinking. And to make great wine worthy of great drinking, you need to be passionate about the end product. Wine is, for me, the ultimate art form. We can see its beauty in the glass and we can also smell it and taste it. It’s a very multidimensional aesthetic experience, one that has inspired and changed my life. In addition, there is the culture of wine. It graces our meals, promotes social interaction and also helps us sanctify spiritual moments, as in saying Kiddush (the Jewish blessing over the wine). It also connects us, through agriculture to the land, and through tradition, to our heritage. It’s an honor to be a part of this tradition. I never get tired of it.
Why did you relocate from the renowned wine-making capital of Napa Valley to Berkeley?
We have a kosher winery and our shomer Shabbat (observant) production crew needs to live in an Orthodox community. For six years, Covenant associate winemaker Jonathan Hajdu commuted from Oakland to Napa on a daily basis — adding two to three hours to his work day. I also felt the need to live in a more observant Jewish community. So, we found an urban warehouse that we transformed into an urban winery in the “Yiddishkeit” capital of Berkeley, only about 35 miles away from our nearest vineyards in southern Napa Valley.
What is one of your greatest wine-making moments?
There are many. But if I had to focus on one moment that really touched me, it was the day back in 2002 when my business partner, Leslie Rudd, and I tasted a bottle of Castel Grand Vin from Israel. That was the day that I realized I wanted to make a Jewish, kosher wine. And it also served as an inspiration for our more recent Covenant Israel project. In retrospect, that tasting was a turning point in my life.
How significant is Leslie Rudd’s involvement?
Without Leslie Rudd, there would be no Covenant. Leslie provided the financial backing we needed to get started and continues to provide us with expertise in the realm of business that is far beyond my skill set. For more than a decade he has also given me the kind of emotional support and encouragement that I could only ask from a true friend.
What are your expansion plans?
It’s no secret that I’d like to build a Covenant Winery in Israel, but we currently have no firm plans. We started making wine in 2013 at the Jezreel Valley Winery with a whopping 100 cases. We make over 6,000 cases of wine in California every year. We are expanding our Israeli production this coming harvest to about 1,000 cases .
What distinguishes Covenant?
There are, happily, an ever-growing number of high-quality kosher wines. We strive to be among the best. All our wines are native-yeast fermented and many are neither filtered nor fined. This gives us, perhaps, a more “natural” perspective on the quality coming in from the vineyards. Additionally, as a former wine critic for Wine Spectator magazine, where I worked for eight years, I had the good fortune to taste more exceptional wines than most people can dream of tasting in a lifetime. That experience honed my palate and gave me the tools to produce wines on a par with my favorites worldwide.
Are there any special varietals that you most enjoy?
Cabernet Sauvignon is our flagship wine. But I have also grown quite fond of Syrah. Ultimately, what I’m eating generally dictates my choice of varietal.
How is your family involved?
My wife, Jodie, basically runs the business. She has the big office for a reason. Jodie coordinates our sales and other financials, manages our (Landsman) wine club and website, and also serves as the “gatekeeper” at the winery. Our youngest daughter, Zoe, made aliyah last year and serves as a roving ambassador for Covenant in Israel. Our older daughter, Skye, works for a large PR and marketing agency in New York that specializes in wine and spirits. She serves as my unofficial advisor on promotional strategy.
How much time do you spend in Israel?
We are in Israel three to four times per year, but this is increasing as we begin to make more wine there. Much of our visits revolve around trips to the Golan and Galilee vineyards where we source grapes or to the winery. In Israel, we work closely with our associate winemaker, Ari Erle. But we also stay in Tel Aviv, which is where our wine distributor is based, and where we sell many of our wines. I do love Israel. It’s a place where my dreams seem to coalesce.
Lamb and tangine dreams
A recipe from the Morgan’s “The Covenant Cookbook: Food and Wine for the New Jewish Table”
Spiced Lamb Tagine with Currants and Israeli Couscous
(serves 4 to 6)
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
⅛ teaspoon saffron threads
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 pounds lamb shoulder, cut into 1½-inch cubes
½ cup dried currants
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons plus 2½ cups water
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
5 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch lengths
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 cups chicken stock, or store-bought low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups Israeli couscous
½ cup minced fresh cilantro
In a small bowl, combine the cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, cayenne, saffron, and ½ teaspoon salt. Mix thoroughly. Place the lamb on a large plate and sprinkle the spice mixture over it. Place the seasoned lamb in a zip-seal plastic bag, close the bag, and massage the lamb to evenly to coat the meat with the spices. Refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours. Remove the lamb from the refrigerator 15 minutes prior to cooking.
Place the currants in a small bowl and cover with warm water. Set aside.
In a Dutch oven or heavy-duty pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches if necessary, sear the lamb on all sides, about 2 minutes per side. Remove the seared meat from the pot and set aside on a plate. Add 2 tablespoons water to the pot and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits that have formed or might be sticking on the surface. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the carrots, stir to coat with the onion mixture, and cook for 2 minutes.
Drain the water from the currants and add them to the pot. Stir in the tomato paste. Add the chicken broth and stir to mix well. Return the lamb to the pot, add 1 teaspoon salt, and mix well. Increase the heat to high, bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and partially cover the pot, leaving a small sliver of space open at the top. Simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Uncover and simmer for another 30 minutes to thicken the sauce. In a medium pot, lightly salt 2½ cups water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the Israeli couscous, stir, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook until all the water is absorbed, about 8 minutes.
To serve, place ½ cup couscous in a wide, shallow soup bowl. Top with the lamb, the carrots, and a generous portion of sauce from the pot. Garnish with cilantro and pepper.
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