Kosher wine is not what you think it is. It’s not blessed by a rabbi, nor made with special grapes nor produced differently. There’s only one requirement for a wine to be considered kosher: the religious status of the cellarmakers, who must be Sabbath-observing Jews.
And yet, it’s not as simple as it sounds.
“It’s hard to find motivated, hardworking, religious Jews to work with us in production,” said Jeff Morgan, co-owner and founding winemaker of Covenant. The Berkeley winery, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, makes certified kosher wine with grapes from 20 different growers in California and Israel.
The award-winning wine could find a home on any Seder table—and it also appears on menus from the famed French Laundry to Perbacco.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Covenant. It’s just good wine,” Morgan said of the vintages, which have been called the best kosher wine on the planet.
Covenant is the result of not one but two conversions in Morgan's life. The first happened when he ate a 75-cent lunch in Nice when he was studying music at a conservatory in France. Consisting of wine splits and celeriac remoulade, it opened his eyes forever.
“I realized I had been eating and drinking badly my whole life,” Morgan said.
But before he embraced a life built upon a refined palate, he had a career as a professional musician—including playing sax for Prince Rainier III in the house band at the grand Casino de Monte-Carlo (another saxophonist in that band went on to play for the Rolling Stones).
Eventually, the grind of being a professional musician in Morgan’s native New York City wore him out.
“I realized I was more interested in what I was drinking after the gig than the gig itself,” Morgan said.
He had a revelation on top of a boulder in upstate New York: He wanted to make wine.
Morgan spent years learning the craft and working as a wine journalist—he was the West Coast editor of Wine Spectator magazine—before founding Covenant in 2003.
“Why we did it is not because we're so religious. We're not,” Morgan said. “It was just a dare.” He and partner Leslie Rudd set an ambitious path: making the greatest kosher wine in the last 4,000 years.
Launching Covenant subsequently led Morgan and his family to the second great conversion of his life: becoming an observant Jew.
Morgan hadn’t grown up going to synagogue. As an assimilated Jew, his faith consisted of shopping at Zabar’s and eating bagels and lox. Yet the launch of Covenant cracked his heart open to God. He read the Bible, learned Hebrew and had a bar mitzvah—at the age of 63. He also became an Israeli citizen.
“We were like two deer in headlights,” Morgan said of his and his wife's first time in a synagogue. “My strong connection to Judaism wouldn’t have happened without wine.”
Covenant has expanded since its founding two decades ago, now producing 8,000 cases of wine a year. Its nearly 10,000-square-foot facility is the only kosher winery in the Bay Area. Winemaker Jonathan Hajdu has worked at the winery for 20 years—since he was 24—and Morgan’s wife, Jodie, and their daughter Zoë are also part of the business.
Morgan has picked up his saxophone again, and his funk band, Free Run, will play in the free concert series the winery is launching on April 23.
Covenant has a home in Berkeley’s “Drinks District,” with great neighbors: Fieldwork, Vinca Minor Wine, Trumer Brauerei, Gilman Brewing Company, Donkey & Goat Winery and Broc Cellars are all nearby.
The word covenant means bond, signifying the connection atop Mount Sinai when, according to the Old Testament, God revealed to Moses stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments—which the premium line of Covenant wine represents with its Marc Chagall-inspired label.
Yet there’s another type of connection that’s at play at the winery: the one between the drinker and the wine itself, one that’s only possible thanks to thousands of years of knowledge and tradition.
Covenant’s, and Morgan’s, success demonstrates two essential life learnings. Things aren’t always what they seem—and it’s never too late to begin a new chapter. L’chaim!
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Julie Zigoris can be reached at [email protected]