Wine can lead men to ruin. It led Jeff Morgan to religion.
Morgan makes what Robert Parker — one of the world’s most the most respected and well-know wine critics — has described as “the best kosher wine in the US”. His wines are served in world-famous restaurants, such as The French Laundry, Spago and Chicago’s Trump Tower.
But although he was born Jewish, neither Judaism nor wine featured heavily in Morgan’s early life.
His initial career path followed a passion for music. He dropped out of college and left New York (where he had grown up) to study flute at the French National Conservatory. This led to him playing the saxophone and fronting the band at the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo.
Sounds glamorous, but it wasn’t. “Every night was like a bad wedding,” he says. “I eventually decided that I hated my life. I needed to do something I loved and what I loved as much as music was wine.”
Not believing that any French wine-maker worth his grapes would take an American musician seriously, he headed back to New York where he persuaded a small winery on Long Island to take him on. “I got a job as a cellar guy and learned the business from the ground up,” he says.
'When I asked for help with getting staff, I surprised myself by crying. It had come to mean that much to me'
While working at the winery he started submitting articles on wine to various publications, including the New York Times. “Funnily enough, my first commission for the Wine Spectator in 1993 was on kosher wines for Passover. I got the commission because I was Jewish. But that was the first time I realised there could be some really good kosher wines,” he smiles.
It was another decade before he decided to make them himself.
He continued to write as a freelancer before becoming West Coast editor of the Wine Spectator in 1995. In 1999 he became wine director for Dean and Deluca, the high-end US gourmet food emporium. He later wrote the Dean and Deluca Food and Wine Cookbook, one of seven books on food and wine he has written with his wife Jodie.
It was not until 2000 that he got the bug to produce wine again. He started with his own non-kosher rosé, SoloRosa, before a series of events set Morgan, still at that time very much a secular Jew, on the path to making kosher wine and to celebrating a belated barmitzvah at 54 years of age.
He was a close friend of Leslie Rudd — the owner of Dean and Deluca — also Jewish and similarly non-practising. Both had grown up drinking the sweet and sticky Manischewitz — the US equivalent of Palwins kiddush wine — on Shabbat. To Rudd, that pretty much was kosher wine.
Both were attending at a synagogue fund-raiser, when Rudd asked Morgan why there were not more great kosher wines.
“I told him I’d found some when I was writing and that with the right grapes, I could make a great kosher wine,” Morgan recalls. “I begged him to let me have some of his vineyard’s cabernet sauvignon grapes to make it with.” However, Rudd — worried that if the wine did not live up to expectation, the grapes would have his name on them — was less keen.
“He did offer to back me though and it’s expensive to make cabernet sauvignon in Napa” says Morgan, whose next hurdle was learning how to actually make kosher wine.
“For the wine to be kosher, I needed a crew who were shomer Shabbat” he explains “and the only crew I could think of were at Herzog Wine Cellars in southern California.
“I knew Nathan Herzog from my wine writing days so I asked him to dinner. I surprised myself by crying as I was asking for his help — it had come to mean that much to me,” he says. Herzog agreed and Covenant Wine was born.
“For the first four years of production, I drove the grapes to the Herzog Winery to be processed,” says Morgan.But in 2007 he hired Jonathan Hadju — a former Herzog cellar worker — as his associate wine producer. Hadju is his mashgiach (kashrut supervisor), enabling Morgan to make the wine at his own premises.
During his association with Herzog, he noticed that the staff held morning and afternoon prayers around the fermentation tanks. So impressed was Morgan that he set out to teach himself Hebrew. By 2007, he had learned enough to celebrate his barmitzvah.
He now has a kosher kitchen at his Napa family home and puts on tefillin daily. He and his team do not work during Shabbat or religious holidays. Harvesting can be a challenge when they have to down tools for several days a week.
A religious thread runs through operation: the label Covenant is obvious as is the play on words that make another of his labels — The Red C. His label designs are inspired by Chagall’s paintings.
Morgan’s approach to wine-making also involves a huge element of fun. “My new label and the name of the wine club we have started on the Covenant website is “Landsman” which Yiddish for fellow Jew. Our slogan is “Be a Landsman – join the club”, he smiles with a twinkle in his eye. “If we aren’t having fun, then what’s the point?”