4 Apr 2012

Covenant in California

DOUGLAS Blyde meets Jeff Morgan of boutique, Robert Parker appraised Californian label, Covenant, over lunch at Medlar restaurant, Chelsea...

The wine bug bit late. What did you do before?
I was a musician, trained in France as a classical flutist. I later became a jazz saxophonist. Ultimately, in the mid-1980s, I became the bandleader at the Grand Casino, Monte Carlo.

And then you joined Wine Spectator...
I moved back to the States in 1988 and got a job as cellar rat in a small New York winery. After a few years, I began to write locally on wine, eventually snagging a job as freelancer for The New York Times. When Wine Spectator read one of my pieces in The Times in 1992, they hired me to write (of all things) a feature on Kosher wines for Passover. It was the beginning of a seven-year stint which eventually saw me move my family to California. It was also the beginning of what would become a close relationship with both the Jewish wine community and an international array of winemakers and wine writers that this wine-geek/saxophonist could never have imagined in his wildest dreams.

What inspired you to make your own wine?
After leaving Wine Spectator in late 1999, I moved to the Napa Valley from San Francisco to become wine director for Dean & Deluca, a chain of well-known American specialty food stores. Living in Wine Country rekindled my desire to make wine. I started with a barrel of dry rosé called ‘SoloRosa’ in 2000; by 2008, SoloRosa had become a fairly well-known brand in the States. But I let it go to refocus my efforts on Covenant, which we founded in 2003.

Who is your backer?
Leslie Rudd, owner of Dean & Deluca (who hired me to work for him back in 1999). He also owns the well-known Napa Winery, ‘Rudd’. Leslie provided capital for us to get started and he is a co-owner of Covenant. After writing the Dean & Deluca Food and Wine Cookbook in 2001, I left the company, but Leslie and I remained friends. As we’re both Jewish, we both decided it was time for a top-notch Kosher wine harvested from some of the greatest vineyards in Napa. Leslie’s concept of “top-notch” is about as “top” as anyone could imagine. He has a single-minded mantra: “Quality”. I don’t believe I’d take shortcuts anyway, but Leslie (who lives just down the street from me) serves as a constant reminder that we must strive to do the best we can. Always. Quite a responsibility!

Describe the feel of your wines in one sentence?
With lush texture and elegant balance brought on by appropriate body and acidity, our wines serve up a multi-layered flavour profile that expresses the terroir of each of our vineyards.

What makes a wine Kosher?
A lot of misinformation abounds regarding this although the answer’s simple: all wine is Kosher, or Holy. However, to keep it Kosher, the wine can only be handled by Sabbath-observant Jews. There is no such thing as a “Kosher winemaking method.” In fact, at Covenant, we make our wines with native yeast fermentations, zero-fining and zero-filtration: a natural process. Our methodology is inspired by the winemaking protocols used by colleagues and friends in both Napa and France, all of whom have generously shared their wisdom with me over the years.

What are the misconceptions about Israel's long winemaking history?
Israel conjures up visions of Jewish (or Kosher) wine. For much of the last two millennia, Jewish winemakers were regularly deprived of raw materials necessary to produce fine wine. In Europe, for example, they were often proscribed from owning the land necessary to grow grapes. Yet our tradition requires the regular consumption of wine for both religious and cultural reasons. As a result, Jewish winemakers throughout the ages have had to resort to everything from rehydrated raisins to Concord grapes. (Concord, native to America, are not even the proper species of grape for making fine wine).

Israel is peppered with the remains of old wineries dating as far back as 3,500 years. I’ve been to some and seen their methods way back then were similar to ours today. It’s no accident that the word Chardonnay is actually based in Hebrew, not French etymology. It’s believed that Templar Knights returned to France during the Crusades with vine cuttings grown near Jerusalem. The cuttings were referred to as ‘Char Ha Adonoy’ which means ‘Gate of God.’ The French have never have been able to pronounce “H” properly, so it came out, “Char-donnay.” Basically, Jews were making fine wine back in the days when the French were still living in caves! But now, Jewish/Kosher winemakers can’t sit on their laurels gloating over the past. More recent history requires us to make up for lost time!

Unfortunately, our reputation precedes us. During my recent visit to London, I showed Covenant’s wines to Hugues Lepic, sommelier of Michelin-starred restaurant, Hélène Darroze at The Connaught. Although complimentary, Lepic acknowledged surprise at finding Kosher wine of good taste. That said, I’m proud our wines have been served in some of the New World’s greatest restaurants (eg. The French Laundry). We hope more of London’s fabulous restaurants, Kosher or not, will also place us on their lists.

What are the most unusual food matches you've encountered with your wines?
The annual Passover Seder is possibly our most exciting and challenging meal. We start a sweetish blend of wine-soaked apples and raisins called ‘charoset’. Then we move on to gefilte fish with spicy horseradish. Both dishes could both be considered dry wine “killers.” Fortunately we have a bright, fresh Covenant Chardonnay, “Lavan”, which stands-up to sweetness and spice. From a red wine perspective, Judaism’s traditional slow-cooked, meaty, Sabbath stew known as ‘cholent’ is possibly the best red pairing I can think of.

What does the London market mean to you, and what are your ambitions within it?
To be honest (and a bit selfish), my wife, Jodie, and are so enamoured with your capital that we’d love to spend more time here. The more wine we sell, the more often we can visit! On a deeper level, we have been touched by the Jewish community in London who have embraced us with enthusiasm. And we want our wines to be available to everyone who wishes to drink them. Our New World style offers a nice contrast to the many excellent European and Israeli wines already available. Variety is the spice of life, and we hope to spice up the London wine scene with both Covenant and ‘RED C’!

Where can we find your wines?
Currently we’re available in most fine wine shops that have a decent Kosher selection, such as ‘Sussers’ and ‘The Grapevine’. There are two amazing restaurants where I know we’re on the wine list: ‘Kaifeng’ (the best Chinese I’ve ever eaten) and ‘Bevis Marks’ (near Fleet Street).
Although we’re not there yet, we did put on an interesting tasting at Harrods, which I hope will carry Covenant and RED C this year. Covenant is distributed in London by Kedem, and any retailer worth his salt will know how to contact Kedem to place an order.

For Harper's Wine Magazine