If I told you kosher wine transformed my family’s life, you might think I was exaggerating. I’m not. It all started 14 years ago, when I founded Covenant winery with Napa Valley vintner Leslie Rudd. Little did I know that my appreciation of wine would lead me back to my own heritage.
I grew up in New York City, a metropolis boasting one of the world’s largest Jewish populations. Yet, I never had a Jewish education and or even attended synagogue. Fast forward to 1992 when I received my first assignment as a wine journalist for the popular Wine Spectator magazine. I was to write about kosher-for-Passover wine. One problem; I didn’t know anything about kosher wine…or kosher anything.
Interested in getting my foot in the door, I took the assignment. After some rapid research, with the help of the famous Herzog wine family, I wrote a comprehensive five-page feature. That assignment led to an eight-year tenure at Wine Spectator.
In late 1999, I left Wine Spectator and headed to Napa Valley, intent on producing wine—but not kosher wine. That all changed in 2002. While Leslie and I attended a winemaker conference in Napa Valley, I tasted a bottle of outstanding kosher Israeli wine. I decided I wanted to create an equally high-quality kosher wine from Napa Valley. Leslie became my business partner.
Just one year later, with the winning combination of top-grade Napa grapes, the winemaking crew at Herzog Wine Cellars in southern California, and OU certification, we produced our first kosher wine—Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon. To our delight, the wine garnered rave reviews from famous critics, including Robert Parker and Wine Spectator!
DiVINE Providence Strikes Again!
While working with the OU Rabbinic Field Representatives at Herzog Wine Cellars, I realized how little I knew about Judaism. It prompted me to teach myself to read Hebrew and purchase an English translation of the Torah, a Jewish prayer book, as well as phylacteries.
Then an amazing thing happened.
In 2008, with the help of my longtime friend and winemaking associate Jonathan Hajdu (who is also an OU Kosher RFR), we moved Covenant’s wine production from the Herzog winery in Oxnard, California, 350 miles north to a facility in Napa Valley, notfar from Leslie’s vineyard and winery. The move necessitated a wine tank. When we arrived at the warehouse to pick one up, we discovered it had been numbered by the (non-Jewish) warehouse manager as “Covenant Tank 70.” The number 70 happens to be the numerical value of the Hebrew letters for yayin, Hebrew for wine!
In 2012, my daughter Zoe decided to spend her junior year of college abroad in Israel. While she discovered the beauty of the Holy Land, Leslie and I decided to follow suit. We soon found ourselves inspired to begin producing wine in Israel. In 2013, our company introduced Covenant Israel and recently released a second vintage. Zoe, who made aliyah (settled in Israel) two years ago, now works for Covenant Israel. The miracles just keep on coming.
Living The Covenant
After 15 years in the Napa Valley, my wife Jodie and I decided to become part of the Torah-observant Jewish community. We found the closest one to our vineyards in the city of Berkley, across the bay from San Francisco. For the first time in my life, at the age of 60, I joined a synagogue. We made our home kosher and built an urban kosher winery in the middle of the city where we produce 18 different and delicious wines.
I recently learned that my bar mitzvah chapter in the Bible is none other than Noah, the story of the first winemaker, which also includes G-d’s famous rainbow covenant with Noah. Last November, I had the great privilege of reading the chapter aloud for the congregation, traditionally done by the bar mitzvah boy on his thirteenth birthday. That should have been back in 1966 for me. Better late than never!
Vintner Jeff Morgan is co-proprietor of Covenant Winery in Berkeley, California, and Covenant Israel, in Israel.