Le'chaim! America's Best Kosher Wine Is About to Make Aliyah

Kosher winemaker Jeff Morgan has traveled a long way from the time he was playing sax in a Monte Carlo casino to his latest project: reproducing the success of his California ‘Covenant’ wine in Israel. But he feels like he’s coming home.

Jeff Morgan makes what is probably the best kosher wine in the world. You don’t have to take my word for it, though I have tasted his wines and cannot remember an Israeli or other kosher wine that quite compares. The professional wine-press corps, including much-feared wine critic Robert Parker, consistently award vintages from Morgan’s Covenant Wines scores in the 90-plus region. But proving that he could create fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley, the heart of California’s wine country, was one thing. Now he is planning to prove he can do the same in Israel.

On a visit here last month, Morgan was shown a section of a vineyard on the Golan Heights that he was considering using. “I saw that the field next to the vineyard was all burned, and I asked them what had happened. It turned out that a Syrian shell had fallen there the day before.”

Welcome to Israeli winemaking, not that it seems to have fazed the 60-year-old Morgan, who has been on his personal journey in Jewish winemaking for the last decade. For him, making wine here − a project still in its preliminary stages − is just the next logical stop on the way.

Some of the best Israeli wines have been coming out of the Golan for three decades now, but Morgan is confident that it’s the place where he can repeat his Californian achievements in this country. Or as he says in his understated yet competitive way − “It’s not about making better wine than my colleagues, but making wine that is as good as my favorite wines in every region.”

He may be Manhattan-born and have spent much of his life in France, but Morgan − with his healthy, bronzed look, sun-streaked hair and beard, pinky ring, easy mannerisms and talk of “surfing buddies” − is exactly how you would picture a Californian winemaker. Even the rediscovery of his Jewish roots seems to fit into a familiar narrative of middle-aged spiritual awakening. But going to the trouble of actually making kosher wine? He doesn’t observe Shabbat or kashrut himself, so why embark on a venture where the restrictions imposed by the religious certification authorities mean he personally is not even allowed to touch the wine during the crucial stages of fermentation and aging?

By profession a saxophone player, Morgan – after many years in France – realized he loved wine more than anything else not only drinking it, but making it and writing about it. He left Monte Carlo, where he worked in the mid-1980s as a bandleader at the Grand Casino, and returned home to New York. He lived a dual existence, working by day in whatever Long Island winery would have him as a “cellar slave,” making $7 an hour, and nights in Manhattan’s top jazz venues, often making 200 times that in a single gig. After a couple of years, an exhausted Morgan packed in the double life, and tried his hand at writing wine reviews for various local newspapers, including The New York Times.

‘No Yiddishkeit’

In 1992, Morgan got his big break and also experienced a reintroduction to Jewish life: The Wine Spectator, the oenophiles’ bible, commissioned him to write its annual feature on kosher wines for Passover. “I didn’t have any idea,” he recalls. “I had no Yiddishkeit, I wouldn’t even have known then what the word means, but the editor told me he wanted a Jewish writer to do the feature because the previous year they had given kosher wines bad reviews, and a few readers had accused them of anti-Semitism.”

Morgan spent a few weeks researching the feature, discovered that since the dimly remembered Manischewitz sweet red of his youth, a few drinkable kosher vintages had entered the market, and filed his story. “I ended up writing that Passover feature every year for the next eight years,” he laughs. After three years of freelancing for The Wine Spectator, he was offered the magazine’s plum position of West Coast editor. He happily relocated, and spent the next five years touring California’s vineyards and writing up its wines.

But Morgan’s old dream of making his own wine wouldn’t go away. Like so many other journalists, he didn’t want to remain a spectator all his life, and in 2001 gave up the writing and editing job and went back to winemaking, this time as a winery owner. Always unorthodox, Morgan opened Solo Rosa, the first American winery devoted solely to rosé, the pink wines often sneered at by wine snobs. He claims to have “reinvented rosé in America,” and even wrote a book about it, “The World’s Most Versatile Wine.” After a few years, and a series of star reviews and trade prizes, however, he was bored again, especially as the small handful of rosé producers in the U.S. had ballooned to more than 400.

Morgan drifted into a new job, managing the wine division of the upscale grocery store chain Dean & Deluca, and together with investor Leslie Rudd − the owner of Dean & Deluca and also of the elite Rudd Estate winery − Morgan and other friends set up a small club they called “the Jewish vintners of Napa Valley.”

By this time, Morgan was on his own personal, Jewish journey, teaching himself Hebrew and trying to introduce a few, mainly wine-connected customs, such as making Kiddush on Friday night at home, along with his wife Jodie and their two daughters, Skye and Zoe.

One evening he heard that Eli Ben Zaken − founder and owner of the Domaine du Castel winery in the Jerusalem Hills, one of the first internationally renowned wineries in Israel − was in town: “I invited him over to the Jewish vintners, and he brought some of his wine. Rudd, who knows his wine but hadn’t tasted kosher stuff for 40 years, said, ‘Wow, this is not Manischewitz.’ I said to him, ‘I wrote that story eight times: You can make great kosher wine.’ And on the spot I said we should go into a partnership and make the best kosher wine in 5,000 years, with his Napa grapes.” Rudd at first was hesitant, he said he didn’t want his grapes to go into the “worst kosher wine in 5,000 years,” but agreed to the partnership with Morgan in the new venture, as long as the grapes came from somewhere else.

Finding high-quality Cabernet grapes in Napa was the easy part; it was the kashrut requirements that constituted a much higher hurdle. Orthodox rabbinical law mandates that only religiously observant Jews can touch kosher wine during production: Morgan, as winemaker, could direct the process, but he would have to hire a shomer Shabbat ‏(Sabbath-observant‏) crew to do the manual work. That seemed financially impossible for a small start-up winery.

Thanks to his reporting on kosher wines, he had a good relationship with the Herzog Wine Cellars, and reached an agreement with them whereby they would have distribution rights for his new wine on the East Coast, while he would use their kashrut-authorized winery in southern California. That meant shipping his Napa grapes more than 600 kilometers overland, in a refrigerated truck, to the Herzog facility in Oxnard.

That is how Morgan’s first vintage was made in 2003. As his work at the winery expanded, a production facility was built in Napa, with a former Herzog employee as associate winemaker and a local Lubavitcher rabbi as mashgiach ‏(kashrut supervisor‏).

‘The holy beverage’

Many secular Jewish winemakers are frustrated by dietary restrictions that forbid them from touching their wine, but Morgan feels differently. “If you’re committed to this, you can make great wine, but it won’t be Jewish wine, because it’s not part of the historical context. I’m not shomer Shabbat, but when we make wine I think about our people, who we are, where we came from and the place of the holy beverage in our culture and our history. It doesn’t make the wine better, but it makes it different, a wine that honors our heritage. I don’t make the rules, but I follow because I respect our people and who we are. If our wine wasn’t kosher, it wouldn’t be so inspiring to my audience.”

The name for the winery − Covenant − came out of this desire to make not just a wine, but something that would connect with its audience. Winemakers always say their product is much more than just a beverage, and Morgan feels that as well, as someone who has only recently reconnected with his roots.

Morgan: “Before I began making kosher wine, I just wanted to share with other people a good and healthy lifestyle, connected with the land. Now I wanted to create a covenant and a bond that would bring all of us together, a connection with Jews and their wine culture. And I can’t do that without the wine being kosher.”

He doesn’t mind the restrictions, he adds, because at his age, “I’ve been a cellar slave and the hands-on is not that important. I’m in the vineyards all the time, tasting the grapes and the production is done according to my protocols. But actually working with the hoses [which are used to clean the tanks], most winemakers my age don’t do any more.”

Not all Israeli wines, of course, have kashrut certification, but Morgan feels that, “all wines from Israel are Jewish wines because this is where we started and this is where winemaking started. I know that Israeli wine has come a long way in recent years, but coming from California, it still feels like pioneer time in Israel. I know it sounds corny, but I want to make wine here because I feel at home here and to be more connected by making wine in the land of my ancestors. Thirty years ago people laughed that kosher wines were the worst in the world, but wine was holy for us. That’s why we chose the name Covenant, because wine has that special something that connects people, all Jews and Hashem. It works on so many different levels.”

Steven Rothfeld