Just a few days ago, I had the chance to chat with kosher wine-maker, Jeff Morgan, who is behind Napa’s Covenant Wines which Robert Parker has called the “best kosher wine in America.” Read on for my super interesting Q&A with Morgan!
ForgetBugundy: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into wine?
Jeff Morgan: When I was 19, I dropped out of college and went to study music at the French National Conservatory. [...] I eventually became a saxophone player, singer, dancer, and a band leader at the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo [...] circa 1987. The shittier the music was the more they liked it and we were going nowhere fast. So one night I said to myself, ‘Gosh, there must be something better than this – something I like more than music because I could see myself growing old on this stage’ and it just came to me in a flash. ‘Wine! I love wine! I love wine as much as music!’
FB: Were you always interested in making wine?
JM: Well, I decided to move back to the states, and to New York, where I’m from, and I started knocking on doors out on the east end of Long Island to work as a cellar rat because no one in France would hire an American sax player who knew nothing about making wine! In America you can actually get by on Chutzpah – at least at first. I got a job at a little winery that wasn’t built yet – it was just a vineyard and I worked in the vineyard for about a year and then they built the winery and I worked in the winery for another year or so and learned how to make wine from the ground up.
FB: You ended up writing about wine a fair amount, too. In fact, weren’t you the Wine Spectator West Coast Editor? How’d you go from the east end of Long Island to California?
JM: Yeah. I started writing about wine and somehow I worked myself into the New York Times as a stringer and then somehow I got into the Wine Spectator as a freelancer and they liked what I did and hired me to be the West Coast Editor and moved me to California in 1995. I stayed with them for another five years and quit in 2000 because I wanted to make wine again so I started a little winery that only made rose wine called SoloRosa. It was a brilliant idea and also a terrible idea at the same time.
FB: So how’d you go from making only rosé to making kosher wine?
JM: I started Covenant (Morgan’s kosher wine label) in 2003 on a dare from Leslie Rudd. […] Leslie is a nice Jewish boy from Wichita and I’m a nice Jewish boy from New York. Neither of us was particularly observant but I’d had some good kosher wines over the years and I said, ‘We can do it! We just need some great grapes from your fabulous vineyards!’ and he told me to think again because he was afraid I’d screw it up so I started with grapes from another exceptional vineyard called Larkmead vineyard.
FB: Why was Rudd so afraid you’d screw it up? Are there certain practices and methods you have to use that make a wine Kosher and also compromise the quality of the wine?
JM:No, all wine is kosher! But to keep the wine kosher it can only be touched by a Sabbath-observant Jew. And that is the only requirement. So there is no kosher wine making method and there’s no reason why Kosher shouldn’t be as good as other wine. You just need to pay attention, know what you’re dong, get good grapes and be able to reveal the terroir of what you’re using.
FB: If that’s the case then why does kosher wine get such a bad rap?
JM: Most people who are 40, 50, and older grew up with really lousy Manischewitz concord(grape)-based sweet wines that are bad whether they’re kosher or not. So I think we all have that taste in our memory banks. But I had been writing about kosher wines on [Wine] Spectator for a while so I knew there were good ones out there but Les didn’t. One day we went to a tasting and tried some Israeli kosher wine from a winery called Castel and we were loving them. Les said, ‘Why is this so much better than what we had as kids at Passover?’ I said, ‘It’s a brave new world!’
FB: So since you’ve started making kosher wine under the Covenant label, have you seen an increase in demand for Kosher wines in the marketplace?
JM: I think there’s an increasing demand for fine wine that happens to be kosher. A lot of that is sparked by a resurgence in spirituality and especially Jewish spirituality that’s being embraced by a lot of younger people today that may not have grown up Sabbath observant or keeping kosher but now they are and they’re used to drinking really good wines that aren’t kosher. I also think that the Jewish palate, like the American palate, is definitely becoming more sophisticated and discerning.
Also, did you know that the Jews were making really great wine at least a thousand years before the Roman Empire was even started?
FB: Really? The Jews are not really known, historically, for their wine.
JM: Yeah. We’ve been at it like…forever! Last May, I was in an old winery or wine press, and there were vats that were carved out of the limestone in the Judean hills and I’m telling you, from what I could see from the way that this thing was put together that these guys were making their wine essentially the same way I do! We extract the juice from the berries and we just let it sit there. We don’t even add yeast – I mean we use native yeast, from…. from God! I don’t know where it comes from but why not say from God? And we don’t inoculate, we don’t filter, we don’t fine, it’s a very simple gentle process.
FB: So would you describe what you make as “Natural Wine”?
JM: I would say our wines are totally natural but it has nothing to do with the kind of bogus movement today that is using the word “natural” to connote some kind of ephemeral quality that doesn’t exist in the wines. Most of the natural wines I’ve had unfortunately – and it’s a great concept – but most of them are so poorly made that they’re undrinkable; they’re refermenting in the bottle or prematurely oxidized because they don’t use sulphur and it’s a disaster. […] And that doesn’t mean that they’re all that way – it’s a big mistake to make a broad generalization about anything. If you can grow grapes organic and make your wine really naturally that’s something to strive for but it’s certainly not a consumer’s concern and I think it’s a mistake to buy those wines because of those labels.
FB: Changing subjects, here, did you have an “Aha!” moment with wine – perhaps a specific bottle of wine that changed the way you thought about wine?
JM: Yes. I’d been in France for maybe a week, I was 19, and I went to have lunch at the student restaurant at University of Nice. The lunch was government-subsidized and it was only two Francs, or about 50 cents. So I got my little tray and lined up and they had all of these little salads and you could pick the one you want. They had things like celery remoulade, grated carrots with all these funny little things on them, a beet salad and these beautiful little frisee lettuce. I didn’t know what to take but I took the celery root remoulade – I remember that! And it was a Friday so they were serving fish but it wasn’t fish sticks, it was the whole fish with the head on it and I didn’t even know how to eat it! And after that there was a little cheese platter, and you could pick your piece of Camembert and I got to the end of the line, and they said. ‘Monsieur would you like red or white?’ And I realized they had little splits of red and white wine and I can’t remember if I took the red or the white. But I sat down and tucked into the celery remoulade and someone showed me how to eat the fish, and I drank the wine and that was my religious experience, my epiphany. That one meal changed the course of my life.
FB: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the wines you make at Covenant?
JM: I want people everywhere, especially in America, to drink more wine on a regular basis and you can’t do it if the only good wines you can find cost a fortune. Our wines are not cheap – our Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon is regularly about $90-100 retail but we also make a wine called The Red C from different vineyard sources that is just as good in a different way at $44. We also make a really delicious Sauvignon Blanc, and I believe that white wine should start every meal, at about $22-24.
The reason our wines are so expensive, especially the Covenant wines, is that the cost of growing or buying grapes in Napa Valley is like the cost of doing business on 5th Ave. in New York City. We pay, on average, $10,000 a ton for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the greatest vineyards in Napa. Our wine prices reflect the cost of making the wines. This year, we also made a Zinfandel that will be about $35, a Pinot Noir that will be $45 and a Syrah that will be around $40.
So there ya have it, folks! Kosher wine is making a comeback!
Want to know more? Visit CovenantWines.com. And many thanks to Jeff Morgan.