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"The Wine Interview" - Covenant Winery

Interview with Jeff and Jodie Morgan (answers for both by Jeff Morgan)

Jeff Morgan has spent his life upending convention. As a student, musician, writer, cook and winemaker he has never walked the well-trodden path, but rather made his own way at greater cost and greater reward. In 2003, Jeff created Covenant Winery with partner Leslie Rudd, a well-known Napa Valley vintner, philanthropist and highly successful businessman. (Leslie died from cancer in 2018. Covenant's new partner is Geoff Rochwarger, a wine and spirits aficionado who lives in Bet Shemesh.)
Covenant smashed the perception of what a kosher wine could be. The wines were as good as any made in California, sold at prices higher than most Kosher wines and bore designer labels. In short, Covenant made kosher chic! In 2013, Jeff, and his wife Jodie, broke the mold again and created Covenant Israel. Today, Jeff is the only winemaker producing wines in both California and in Israel. Read more in our interview below.

Where did you each grow up?
New York City

What did you study in college (university)?
Jodie's major was Social Work. I was a Music major.

Where did you meet?
At Jodie's father's 60th birthday party. Our fathers worked together on Madison Avenue in the 1950s. They were advertising "Madmen". We grew up knowing each other's parents but didn't actually meet until that fateful birthday party. Jodie was 25; I was 30.

How did you, Jeff, find yourself in the wine business? Describe your career itinerary.
A five-year stint in Nice, France (age 19 – 24) as a musician introduced me to fine wine and food. I then spent 10 years playing my saxophone in New York while looking for good bottles of wine and something good to eat. After returning to France in 1987 as the bandleader for Prince Rainier of Monaco, I decided I was more interested in the wines I was drinking after the gig than in the music I was playing.
When the job in Monaco (Monte Carlo) ended, I returned to America and got a job as a cellar rat in a small winery in New York for 2 years (1989 – 1991).
In 1991, I started getting freelance work as a wine writer (Elle Magazine, New York Times, Wine Spectator). Then in 1995, Wine Spectator hired me full time to be West Coast editor and moved my family and me to San Francisco.
In 2000, I left Wine Spectator to move to Napa Valley and start my own wine brand: SoloRosa, dedicated to fine rosé.
At a wine tasting in Napa Valley in 2002, I tasted a terrific bottle of Castel Grand Vin from Israel, which inspired me to start Covenant in Napa Valley the following year. 10 years later, I visited Israel and I felt compelled to make wine there. 2013 was the first vintage for Covenant Israel – a Syrah.

Jodie, tell us about your career itinerary too, please.
At the beginning of my professional life, I was a social worker. In the early 2000s, I became Executive Director of the American Institute of Food and Wine, founded by Robert Mondavi and Julia Child. In 2005, I left AIWF to step in and help Jeff manage Covenant. I am now the winery's CEO and help keep Jeff focused on the essential: making great wine (and making a profit)!

What sparked the creation of Covenant and why did you decide to make the wines exclusively certified kosher?
As described above, after tasting an excellent bottle of Israeli Domaine du Castel, my late business partner, Leslie Rudd, and I were inspired to make an equally good kosher Napa Valley Cabernet. (We didn't realize that the Castel we had tasted was not kosher! We assumed it was, being from Israel. Castel is now kosher, of course.) Our objective was to make kosher wines of the highest quality. We keep that objective in mind every day to this day.

Why did you decide to name your wines "Covenant"?
We wanted a name that communicated the relationship we have with and commitment to our farmers, our workers, our staff and our customers. And, of course, the relationship we have with our vineyards, with nature and, yes, with Judaism and Jewish life.

You recently made aliyah after many years working here in Israel. Why?
Since arriving in Israel back in 2011 as a tourist, we have wanted to make aliyah. We were scheduled to do so just prior to Covid, which shut down the process. Then we couldn't even get into the country to see our daughter, Zoe (who made aliyah some six or seven years ago), and take care of our wine business there. We were determined not to let that happen again. We have been proud Israeli citizens since April 2021.

Do you intend to live in Israel?
As long as we have an American and an Israeli wine business, it would be hard to be living full time in either place. The California winery is much bigger and requires more of our time. Currently we average about 6 trips to Israel per year. Due to the Covid lockdowns, we had to give up our apartment in Tel Aviv. We hope to get a new one sooner than later. We also hope to build a new Covenant winery someday in Israel – something that would lead us to spend more time there on a more regular basis.

Who designed your beautiful labels?
The original Covenant painting is a lithograph by Napa artist Susann Ortega. Our BLUE C Israeli labels are blue and white (like the Israeli flag) versions of our RED C California labels. And our Covenant Israel Syrah and Cabernet labels were designed by California graphics artist Casey Dillon.

You make wines in both California and Israel. Why?
We started in California; but when we "discovered" Israel, how could we not make wine in the country of our spiritual and cultural roots? Had we started off by making wine in Israel, I doubt we'd be making wine in California today.

And why the same brand name for both?
We are Covenant, regardless of where we make our wine.

What is the Covenant style?
We use minimal intervention (native yeast, native malolactic, no fining, little or no filtration) to highlight the terroir that we work with. It's not that complicated; essentially, we monitor the fermentations and encourage them to reflect the essence of what we harvest. Our style is typically balanced and elegant. And easy to drink.

What do you want to express in your wines, in California and in Israel?
In both California and Israel, we try bring forth what nature gives us in the vineyard. But in Israel, we have the added pride of reclaiming one of the world's oldest viticultural traditions—one that happens to be Jewish!

Your Israeli Operations Director, Zoe Morgan (your daughter), recently moved back to the United States with her Israeli husband, Guy, after living in Israel for eight years. She will be working at Covenant California as Operations Coordinator. Gili Raffeld stepped into Zoe's shoes here. Tell us a bit about Gili.
After Gili completed her army service as an operations officer in the West Bank, she traveled around the world and discovered that wine is not just for kiddush. When she returned to Israel she worked at a well-known bar and fell in love with the wine trade. Gili's parents live in Jerusalem. Her mother is an artist (Judaica art) and her father, a lawyer. Gili was introduced to us through our family in Tel Aviv. She lives now in Tel Aviv with her partner, Maya.

Which wine would you like to feature in this article?
Covenant Israel BLUE C Adom 2018.

Tell us about the wine please.
BLUE C Adom is a blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon from two vineyards - one in the Galilee and one in the Golan Heights. It's fermented with native yeast in tank, then aged in French oak for 18 months. BLUE C Adom is our "go to" everyday red. The wine is certified kosher and is vegan.

What dishes or foods would you serve with this wine?
BLUE C Adom is a fairly robust, yet soft-textured, red wine. It's ideally suited for richly styled foods such as grilled meats or stews. But it has a lovely fruit-forward component that lends itself to simple burgers or piping hot pizza.

While we are thinking about food, tell us about your cookbook. It is a gourmet kosher cookbook, correct?
If by "gourmet" you are referring to intelligently styled dishes made with wholesome, fresh ingredients that nourish both body and soul…then we say, absolutely! This is a gourmet cookbook. The recipes are mostly Mediterranean inspired, because we have lived in a Mediterranean climate (Southern France, Israel and the California Coast) for most of our eating and cooking lives. Olive oil is the foundation for much of what we cook. We are also influenced by Asian cuisine because we live in California with many Asian neighbors. Our cookbook is not a traditional Jewish cookbook. Every recipe is paired with various wine options; and indeed, all the recipes are kosher.

Where is Covenant BLUE C Adom available and how much does it cost?
The wine is available at top restaurants in Israel and many wine shops. BLUE C Adom can also be purchased on line. The price is around NIS 140. www.covenantIsraelwines.co.il

Thank you, Jeff, thank you Jodie!

Author's Tasting Note:

Covenant BLUE C Adom 2018 is, first of all, a delicious wine! Blended from Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (a blend often used in the 19th century to bolster the strength of Bordeaux wines!), the wine is a dark purple red with the aroma of fresh and dried red fruit (currants, blackberries, raisins). One sip is transporting: the wine is a powerhouse, warm and plush and packed with flavor. Covenant BLUE C Adom surrounds you like a very thick, warm down comforter on a cold night. Bravi Jeff and Jodie! 

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Thursday, 19 May 2022

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