Jeff Morgan: California and Israeli winemaker on why he makes wine in both places

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This is the second in a series of interviews with winemakers who have experience making wine in Israel. The first interview featured Shane Moore of Zena Crown Vineyards in Oregon. This time around I spoke with Jeff Morgan, co-owner and vintner of Covenant Wines in California. While both have vineyard and winemaking experience in Israel, their stories are quite different, set off by a pivotal distinction: Jeff’s Judaism.

Fourteen years ago Jeff and his partner Leslie Rudd drank a red wine from Domaine du Castel, one of Israel’s premier wineries. “It was really good wine,” Jeff told me, much better than either expected it would be. What really blew them away was that it was made according to kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher), which back then was a category of wine that didn’t have a reputation of being very good at all. Ironically, the wine wasn’t actually kosher, but that false assumption would prove fateful. They had already been making wine in California for more than a decade, but the bottle of Castel motivated them to see if they couldn’t make a better kosher wine in California. The challenge wasn’t connected to Jeff’s Judaism at the time – he was a secular and largely disengaged Jew – but really just a focus on improving the quality of kosher wine.

They deemed cabernet sauvignon the greatest expression of California’s terrior and climate, and decided to use it to achieve that goal. Leslie had access to the grapes and capital and Jeff had the winemaking experience and so they created Covenant Wines. Quickly the goal of the project changed into making the best kosher wine in the world. Fourteen years ago that bar wasn’t very high; today it’s far more challenging.

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2014 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon Blend. From California, Covenant’s flagship wine. Nose of cocoa, espresso and toffee barrel notes along with dark cherries and blackberries. There’s graphite and scorched Earth and some heat on it as well. The full body has smooth, subtle but developed tannins. Strong saline and iodine streaks help the wine overcome lean acidity. As the wine takes on air, the nose turns savory as olive juices start wafting. Orange zest develops on the palate along with toffeed barrel char, sweet strawberries and rich boysenberries, creating a densely layered wine. It has great balance but is tightly wound and will improve over 5-8 years. 92 points. Global value: C-. Kosher value: B.

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The making of kosher wine had a slow but cumulative effect on Jeff and Leslie’s connections with Judaism, and in 2011 they took a trip to Israel to explore their Jewish roots. While there they visited vineyards and wineries and noticed that the topography was very similar to that of California, as was the climate, soils, hillsides and valleys. Shortly after returning to California they decided that making Californian kosher wine was insufficient and moved to open a second line of Covenant wines made in Israel using Israeli grapes – the appeal of making wine in California and in the region where wine was created was too strong to resist.

In 2013 they started with three barrels working with an American-Israeli winemaker friend. They increased to seven barrels in 2014 and by 2016 were up to fifty (roughly 2000 cases’ worth of wine). In that year they crushed 35 tons of fruit, roughly one-third the tonnage of their California production. They began with one vineyard in the Golan Heights, but are now sourcing from seven vineyards across the Golan and the Galilee. Jeff loves the markedly different terriors of the two regions, although he noted that there are many stylistic similarities between the wines of California and Israel, more so than, say, between California and Oregon. So far they’ve used Jezreel Winery’s facilities to produce their wines, though because Jeff travels to Israel five or so times per year and he and his own team do the production themselves, he has become intent on opening his own winery there someday. He gives credit to his California team and cloud-based computing for allowing him to spend the time needed in Israel to oversee the production there without sacrificing attention of the California production. In 2017 he feels confident enough that he plans to leave California in the middle of harvest to monitor fermentation in Israel.

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2014 Covenant Wine Israel Syrah. This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points. Global value: C+. Kosher value: B+.

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Everything Jeff has learned about winemaking he picked up in California and New York State, and he’s applied those lessons to Israel where the biggest difference from the United States is mentality in the wine industry. Jeff noted that one difference is in vinicultural where Israel, despite closing the gap, is still behind. The California scene is more “dialed in” to the detail and knowledge of how individual vines respond to terrior while the workforce is more experienced in large part due to California’s immigrant labor that has worked the vineyards for generations (“and are great to say the least”). Conversely, in Israel “you have a ragtag crew of Thai and Arab workers along with some Jewish ones who are still figuring out what the essence of grape viniculture is and how it relates to great wine.” Further, Jeff noted that the Thai and Arab cultures don’t feature wine consumption as a tradition, and this makes it harder for vineyard workers to appreciate why vinicultural techniques affect the final product: “If you don’t drink wine you can’t really see the end result. That doesn’t mean you can’t do great work, but it’s a difference.”

Despite these differences, Jeff is high on the Israeli wine scene because every year the overall quality is markedly improving. The culture of wine in Israel, the making and consuming of it, is still decades behind the U.S., however. The level of “religious conviction” in California to their way of wine life remains higher than that in Israel. “Israelis still refer to wineries as ‘plants,’” Jeff told me, adding that Israelis don’t drink nearly as much wine as Americans. The winemaking community, therefore, “needs to raise the consciousness in Israel about the product. Israel is where Napa was thirty years ago in that sense, but Israel is more advanced in the winemaking than Napa was at that point.”

We shifted in conversation to the wines Jeff produces at Covenant. In both locations he starts with the same general protocols because “you can’t erase terrior, it’s stronger than the protocols. The idea is to make wine in a gentle, non-interventionist manner to allow the freest and truest expression of terrior to be seen in the wine.”  All of his wines are native yeast fermented, something he notes that is common in California but very unusual in Israel “because they’re afraid of it.” He prefers native yeast fermentations “because native yeast is a key component in harvesting terrior from the vineyard, [which also produce] slower fermentations which yield more complex wines.”

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2014 Covenant Wines Lavan Chardonnay. From California. Nose: big varietal characteristics of high strung lemon, grass, white pepper and vanilla bean. There’s also a little big of spearmint and a lot of slate and honey along with a mild petrol note. Palate: full bodied and although lush, the acidity is sharp and zips enough to keep the mouthfeel light and lively. Meyer lemon curd, lemon sorbet, Granny Smith apple and vanilla pudding dominate on the onset, but really nice red pepper flake spice and dried tarragon kick in on the mid palate. The ML and oak manifest themselves in a macadamia nut flavor and texture. Very pleasing and drinkable, there’s no reason to sit on it. 92 points. Global value: B. Kosher value: A.

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Jeff’s style tends to favor softer, suppler tannins in his reds and bright, fresh acidity in his whites and roses, leveraging the heat of California and Israel to achieve those profiles. His California and Israeli flagship wines, a cabernet sauvignon blend and a syrah, respectively, reflect his belief that the terrior of California favors Bordeaux varietals while Rhones best suit Israel. The sales figures speak to the appeal of Jeff’s wine: he sells both wines in both countries, and he sells out.

I asked Jeff about my favorite Israeli wine topic: does Israel have a signature style and, if not, should it? If Israel were as monochromatic as Napa, Bordeaux or Burgundy, Jeff responded, it would be easier to wish for, or define, a signature style. But Israel has so many microclimates and so many different kinds of grapes in production that it’s “wishful thinking and would make Israeli wine boring.” Syrah in the Galillee “is very different from in the Golan, viognier is very different from anywhere else in the world – ours came in at 11.5% alcohol by volume [an unusually low figure for the grape].” Signature styles “need to come from the winemakers themselves and while it’s true wine is made in the vineyard, that’s only true until it comes to the winery and the winemaker does their thing with it. What’s exciting for the consumer is that in Israel it’s all about the producers and their own styles, if they have one.” When he looks at the wine list in Israel he looks at the producers names, not the region, because “that’s where the signature is for me in Israeli wine.”

When asked about his hope for the Israeli wine industry’s future, he said his greatest hope “is that Israel is synonymous with high quality wine. Varietally they’ll see which deliver best long-term. Syrah is likely king but cabernet could be a close second or overtake it depending on where it’s grown and who is making it. We need 10-20 years of developments before we’ll have a real answer.”

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2014 Covenant Wine Neshama. From California, a blend of petit verdot, malbec and syrah. Nose: Very cool profile of big grapiness, blackberries, strawberries, asphalt, wet forest floor and Herbs de Provence. Just a hint of rubbing alcohol. The profile is dark and brooding but somewhat muddled, an issue a few years of aging will clear up. Palate: full bodied with big, coarse palate-drying tannins. Moderate acidity and tamed alcohol keeps it in good balance. The fruits are black, red, big and juicy: acai, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. There’s wet smoke and black pepper as well with graphite and iodine. This is hedonistic stuff, but it’s impressively managed. It’ll only get better over the following 10 years, but I’d sit on remaining bottles for at least five. At minimum give this a 2+ hour decant. 93 points. Global value: C+. Kosher value: B+.

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Beyond aiming to make better Israeli wine from one vintage to the next, Jeff is pitching in to help the industry. He has been working with Israel’s government, importers and distributors to raise consciousness outside Israel for its wines and develop more export markets. Israeli wine “won’t be an overnight sensation but the status quo has shifted dramatically in a short amount of time, for wine.” Israel wasn’t on the wine map when Jeff got started thirty years ago, whereas it graced the cover of Wine Spectator in 2016. “It’s going to happen,” Jeff said, “but nothing happens fast in the wine world.”

I received four of Jeff’s wines to review for this piece. All were exceptional in quality but the challenge I had in reviewing them was assigning a value grade. My normal approach is to put the wine in the context of the body of wine I’ve consumed to rate it based on its price competitiveness with that “global” market. However, in this case the wines are certified kosher, which means the wine requires a process that is different from the rest of the global market and therefore it could be argued that the value should be based on the category of kosher wine. The thing is, Jeff’s wines are not only among the best kosher wines I’ve had, but also great wines in the global context, so I wouldn’t want to suggest to the reader that they should try Covenant only if they focus on the kosher category. Therefore, I’m going to give value ratings for both the global market and the kosher category.

Jeff is building a very cool project and the wines are quite good.  One of the more interesting practices of Covenant is their wine club, which includes a version that supplies the member with kosher wine for every Shabbat of the year. It’s a fantastic concept. I’m excited to follow the winery, especially as he expands his Israeli production where the syrah I tried is especially distinctive.

 

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