A kosher Cabernet debuts in Napa

Several years ago, Jeff Morgan and Leslie Rudd were chatting — probably over a glass of Cabernet — when the conversation turned to the longstanding connection between Jews and wine.

“There’s a long history of Jewish winemaking in Napa Valley, but only one winery here makes kosher wine,” said Morgan, a wine educator and winemaker who is the former West Coast editor of Wine Spectator magazine. “We wondered, ‘Why is that? And how come so much of kosher wine is of questionable quality?'”

Morgan also used to be the wine director for Dean & Deluca, the upscale gourmet chain. Rudd is the chain’s owner, and a winemaker himself.

Both are Jewish residents of Napa Valley.

Morgan told Rudd, “I’ll bet I could make a great Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. And I could make it kosher.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Rudd agreed to back Morgan’s venture. The first release of Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, vintage 2003, was bottled a few months ago, and is being released in time for Passover. It sells for $85.

It was a chance assignment when he was still at Wine Spectator that began a journey back to Morgan’s roots.

Describing himself as a typical assimilated New York Jew, Morgan was told to write an article about the kosher wine industry.

“Why are you assigning me this story when I know nothing about it?” he asked his editor.

“You’re Jewish,” was the answer.

In researching the article, Morgan met with mashgichim, those who ensure kosher standards. He spoke with numerous kosher winemakers and, in so doing, became fascinated by the process. He also met the Herzog family, owners of the Royal Wine Company, who import kosher wines from all over the world. They also make Baron Herzog kosher wine in Santa Maria.

It goes without saying that kosher wine can have no non-kosher ingredients. Also, the entire winemaking process, from crushing the grapes through bottling, must be done by observant Jews.

Morgan realized that there were already some non-mevushal kosher wines that were as good as their non-kosher counterparts.

Mevushal, which means “boiled,” in Hebrew, takes the kosher standard to the next level. When a non-Jew opens a bottle of wine, it becomes non-kosher. Flash-pasteurization ensures that the wine will remain kosher, even if poured by non-Jews.

Although the process has been improved over the years, “it’s still not the best thing for the wine,” Morgan said, and therefore Covenant is non-mevushal.

Morgan is not kosher, nor is his winery that produces a rosé called SoloRosa. So over dinner in New York, with his friends the Herzogs, he asked whether they could help out.

“At first they looked at me like I’m crazy,” he said. “Then they said ‘OK.'”

When asked why the Herzogs should help the competition, Morgan laughed and said that it was a collaboration. “The Herzogs make about 110,000 cases in California annually, and I’m making about 600 cases. They’re not really worried about it.”

Whenever Morgan wanted a taste, he had to ask a member of the crew to open the barrel for him, or else the wine would become non-kosher.

“My greatest concern is that this wine be 200 percent compliant with kosher laws,” he said. “That’s what I’m most proud of. We have made one of the greatest Jewish wines, ever, and for wine to be Jewish, it must be kosher. And being kosher means following the rules.”

Morgan has reason to be proud. Robert M. Parker, Jr., whom many consider to be the most influential wine critic there is, gave Covenant a rave review.

“The wine is rich, opulent, medium to full-bodied, concentrated and tasty,” Parker wrote, in his “Wine Advocate.” “I can think of only one kosher wine that was this good or better, and that was the limited cuvée made at the garagiste St.-Emilion property of Chateau de Valandraud.”

Noting that the above-referenced wine is from Bordeaux and retails at $400 a bottle, Morgan said that “at $85, Covenant is a steal.”

Covenant is available directly through the Web site at www.covenantwines.com.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."