Vail Wine Ink column: Keeping kosher, a California winemaker’s journey
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
2014 Covenant Israel Syrah — This month, there was a cover story in Wine Spectator on the emerging wine scene in Israel. I have not had a chance to taste this Israeli Syrah from the Golan Heights region, but I took the following tasting notes from Jeff Morgan. He has written a few in his time: “2014 Covenant Israel Syrah is full-bodied and ripe, with rich plum, black cherry and blackberry flavors at the fore. The wine also has a spicy, anise-like undercurrent that adds interest. It’s all framed in soft, silky tannins that give good structure but are extremely accessible, even in the wine’s youth.”
Monday marks the observance of the first full day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Many Jews will celebrate, as they have for centuries, with a glass or two of kosher wine, drinking only those wines that have been made in accordance with Kashrut, the laws that dictate how kosher foods and wines can be made.
Fittingly this year, the joyous holiday coincides with the birth date of a California winemaker who is committed to the production of the world’s finest kosher wines. Jeff Morgan is perhaps best known for the plethora of features and articles he penned as West Coast editor of Wine Spectator in the 1990s. But for the past 14 years, he has devoted himself to making great kosher wines under the Covenant label.
Covenant sources grapes from iconic Napa and Sonoma vineyards and then makes wines using “Sabbath observant hands” that meet the strict requirements for the kosher designation. But not only are they kosher, they are also extraordinary California wines reflecting the terroir of vineyards, such as Block 4 of the Rudd Oakville Vineyard and Scopus, high atop Sonoma Mountain. It is a combination of quality sourcing, contemporary winemaking practices and an ancient spiritual tradition that make the wines from Covenant distinct.
A SPIRITED JOURNEY
Morgan’s path to his current calling had serendipitous beginnings.
“The first piece I ever wrote for the Spectator in 1992 was on kosher wines,” Morgan recalls with irony. “Tom Mathews (now editor of Wine Spectator) had seen a piece I had written in the New York Times on agriculture. He knew I was working at a Long Island winery — and knew I was Jewish — so he put the three parts together and said ‘here’s your chance, kid.’
“I didn’t know anything about kosher wines, and I was not a very observant Jew at the time. But I made a few calls and the story came out as a five-page spread. Just in time for Passover.”
That led to an eight-year stint in San Francisco with the Spectator, where he profiled the growth of Napa cult wines and the emergence of star winemakers, all while immersing himself in the industry. Now, nearly a quarter century later, Morgan is in partnership with noted Napa wine, food and spirits entrepreneur (and Aspen resident) Leslie Rudd, producing nearly 7,000 cases of 18 different kosher California wines and launching a new venture in Israel to make wines for the American market.
“I worked for Les (as he calls his partner) at Dean & DeLuca (the gourmet food and wine shops that Rudd owned) as wine director. We would occasionally have an informal tasting session with some friends who are Jewish and pour some kosher wines,” he remembered. “That’s when I had what I call a ‘chutzpah’ moment. ‘What if we could make the greatest kosher wine in 5,000 years of kosher wine?’ I asked.”
While Rudd would not provide fruit from his esteemed vineyards at the start, he liked the concept enough to invest and a covenant was formed. And in 2003, the first kosher Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon was released.
WHAT MAKES KOSHER KOSHER?
On the one hand, the wines that Morgan produces at Covenant are no different from the myriad wines that are made by other high-end California winemakers. He begins by finding the best possible grapes for the label’s single-varietal and blended wines. He initiates the same protocols he would use if he were making non-kosher wines, including his personal penchants for native yeasts, no filtration or fining and a preference for single vineyards.
But to receive the tiny, nearly imperceptible kosher symbol that appears on the back of each bottle, the wines must be made only by individuals who are certified as Shabbat-observant Jews. Once the grapes arrive at the winery and the crush process begins, the wine can only be touched by those who have the appropriate designation. This means that Morgan himself cannot touch the wine, the juice, the machinery, even the buttons that control the machinery in the winemaking process. That work is left to a small, specialized and certified team that works with the wines to Morgan’s exact specifications.
“There is great symbolism in making wines this way, and I believe that the spiritual nature does have an effect on what is in the bottle,” Morgan said. “This is the oldest continuous winemaking tradition on earth, and it is one that gives the wines something special, something unique.”
Morgan’s quest has taken him beyond the vineyards and wineries to a place of more inspired personal spirituality.
“I watched the people who made the wines. Saw how they prayed. How in touch they were with the process and their religion,” he shares.
While he was born Jewish, Morgan was never bar mitzvahed. That will change on Nov. 5, when a 63-year-old California winemaker comes of age.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.