March 16, 2010
Maker of Kosher Wine Takes His Covenant Seriously
A friend came over to dinner the other night with a bottle of wine that he described as “interesting.”
“Interesting” is one of those loaded words that can mean different things depending on the context. It can be an affirmation that someone is on the right track, as in, “He’s doing interesting things with pinot noir up in Sonoma.” Or “interesting” can mean the equivalent of a movie that you don’t really understand. On this night, the wine was a white from Italy, made by nuns in the Montefalco region, an area known for its idiosyncratic indigenous grapes. After swirling, sniffing and slurping this “interesting” little wine, I told my friend that, while I appreciated what Our Ladies of the Vineyard had concocted, I’ve recently come to appreciate a different kind of wine.
“What kind is that?” he asked.
“Good wine,” I said.
Jeff Morgan is making good wine in Napa Valley. Very good wine that just happens to be kosher. There is little disagreement that he is making the best kosher wine in America. His
Covenant brand is our national entry in the kosher wine Olympics.
Robert Parker Jr., the uber-wine critic says, “Jeff Morgan continues to fashion what may be the world’s finest kosher wines,” but that’s not what Morgan is after. His approach is to make the finest small-production (only 500 cases of Covenant) wines under rabbinical supervision — not just their best version of a kosher wine. As the old ad slogan used to say,
“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye.”
Covenant’s wines are all kosher for Passover, and Morgan said Passover also tends to be when Jews interested in both fine wine and tradition discover his wines. This year, Wolfgang Puck will pour Covenant at the seder he holds annually at Spago in Beverly Hills. And the wines are available year-round on the Spago wine list, as they are at French Laundry in Napa.
“People don’t order them because they’re kosher,” said Morgan. “They order them because they’re good.”
The one place where diners can’t order Covenant wine? In kosher restaurants. Because Morgan’s wines are not mevushal, meaning cooked or flash-pasteurized, kosher eateries and caterers cannot serve them. (In Israel and Europe, kosher authorities interpret the laws differently and allow restaurants to serve non-mevushal wines).
Morgan’s path to making wine was unusual. He was a bandleader and saxophonist at the Grand Casino Monte Carlo, “playing shlock,” he says. He’d grown to appreciate wine while he was in Europe and eventually came back to New York to work at a Long Island winery. At the same time, his freelance writing for The New York Times caught the attention of the Wine Spectator, which hired him as its West Coast editor to write about, among other topics, kosher wine.
“It was essentially the same story every year,” he said. So he moved to Napa, and started making a rosé wine called SolaRosa. There he met Leslie Rudd, a noted winemaker and the chairman of Dean & DeLuca gourmet shops. With Rudd as his partner, he set out to make fine kosher cabernet sauvignon.
Covenant has consistently received ratings of 90-94 points from wine authority Robert Parker, with reviews that would make you think his mother was writing them. The panoply of adjectives Parker has lavished on Covenant’s wines over the years include “classic,” “beautiful,” “lovely” and “top-flight.” Parker’s mouthwatering paean to the 2008: “(It) demonstrates Morgan’s nice touch with tannin, as they are velvety and supple rather than astringent. The wine possesses plenty of dark berry fruit, spice box, black currant and cedary notes presented in a lush, round, generous, full-bodied format.” He suggests drinking it over the next 10 to 15 years, which is high praise, indeed, to say a kosher wine has that kind of staying power.
Covenant is not cheap, and Morgan isn’t apologizing for it. They are in a prestigious appellation, on some of the best vineyard sites. The grapes come from a three-acre parcel of Larkmead Vineyard, just a stone’s throw down the Silverado Trail from such notables as Dalla Valle and Screaming Eagle. The winemaking process is as rigorous as you’ll find anywhere. That means things like pressing whole cluster grapes, barrel fermenting with natural yeast, and full malolactic fermentation. The wine is aged in 50 percent new French barrels. Morgan points out that there are additional costs to making kosher wine you probably wouldn’t even consider, including bringing in their own pumps, which they put on timers for Shabbat during fermentation, and special kosher labor brought in for harvest and each stage of winemaking.
Their latest offering is, at $150, a luxury-priced kosher cuvee called Solomon. The first vintage, 2008, from a barrel tasting, has garnered Parker’s highest-ever rating for a kosher wine of 1992-94.
Covenant also just introduced a chardonnay called Lavan, (it means “white” in Hebrew), with grapes sourced from the famed Bacigalupi Vineyard, where his friend and winemaking consultant David Ramey has been turning out noteworthy wines for years. Only 250 cases were made in 2008. Israeli wine critic Daniel Rogov says it has a “distinctive personality,” but it is unmistakably a California wine, richly textured with bright acidity, fashioned after superstar wines like Kistler and Kongsgaard.
Morgan reminds me of meeting Robert Mondavi. He is an animated, chatty guy whose enthusiasm for what he’s doing is infectious and makes you just want to love the wines. “I’m blessed with great friends, a great associate winemaker” — Jonathan Hajdu, whose track record includes the highly regarded nonkosher Copain — “and great vineyard sources. I’ve got good dirt.”
Morgan is not himself Shabbat observant, but there is no mistaking that there is a spiritual component to winemaking that he embraces. He says he has reconnected with his Jewish roots through the process of making and selling the wine. On the night we met, Morgan was on his way out to shul and Shabbat dinner with Joseph Herzog, the dean of California kosher wines.
Shabbat shalom and Happy Passover!
Jeff Smith is the owner of Carte du Vin, a wine cellar management company, and the author of “The Best Cellar” (Volt Press, 2006).