Jeff Morgan’s career plan did not include “kosher wine producer.” Yet during a tasting of Israeli wines two decades ago, the secular Jew experienced an epiphany. He rediscovered his dormant desires to make wine and to grow closer to his religion. Since then, Morgan launched Covenant kosher wines, enjoyed an adult bar mitzvah, and will make gefilte quenelles and brisket for the upcoming Passover holiday in his kosher kitchen.
“The story and quality of that glass of Israeli wine in 2002 began my journey to making kosher wine and enriching my life with Judaism,” said Morgan.
I first met Morgan and tasted a selection of Covenant Wines at Perbacco restaurant in San Francisco. Perbacco serves traditional foods from the Passover holiday table paired with wines including kosher options from Covenant.
Morgan has attended the dinners as a sommelier-winemaker with suggestions on the pairings. Two years ago I enjoyed a memorable Covenant Red C 2017 blend with lamb shank braised with olives on Morgan’s recommendation. His enthusiasm for the quality of kosher wines in both California and Israel is contagious.
The Covenant wine tasted at Perbacco was a quantum leap from the sweet Manischewitz wine of the Passover seder program and meal at my grandparents’ home in Philadelphia. The serious part of the seder was the recitation of the 10 plagues and the Jews’ crossing the Red Sea to freedom from Pharaoh’s bondage. Watching my father get slightly shicker (drunk) from the required four glasses of wine was more fun; eating Bubbe’s chicken soup and gefilte fish was pure deliciousness. Mama once slipped me some Manischewitz, and I forever spurned insipid grape juice.
Eventually, I grew into wine and discovered that fine kosher wines like Morgan’s dry Covenant Blue C line from Israel and Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon are high quality and approachable. As Passover approaches, I asked Morgan for some pairings with his California and Israeli Covenant wines and a few important things-to-know about kosher food and wine.
Morgan is skilled in both winemaking and cooking. In 2015 Morgan and his wife Jodie published The Covenant Kitchen, an easy-to-follow kosher cookbook, filled with dishes from their culinary adventures such as rock cod with beurre blanc, spiced lamb tagine with Israeli couscous or lavender panna cotta. There are also traditional Jewish dishes such as chicken soup and salmon quenelles (dumplings), a lighter and tastier version of the gefilte fish of the jarred and frozen styles common now.
Understanding the book’s eclectic mix of recipes harkens to Morgan’s earlier career. As a young musician in Nice and Monaco, Morgan gravitated to French food and wine. Returning to the U.S., he worked at a Long Island winery and then as a wine writer for the Wine Spectator. After the magazine relocated Morgan and his young family to the West Coast, he met Leslie Rudd of Rudd Oakville Estates. At the seminal Israeli wine tasting, Morgan turned to Rudd, his companion at the event, and said, “With your help, we can make the best kosher wine ever.”
That chutzpah moment led the Morgans into a partnership with Rudd to create Covenant Wine, first at Herzog in Southern California, then Napa Valley, and now Berkeley. They also produce kosher wine in Israel which their daughter Zöe Morgan manages.
About kosher wine and food
“The guidelines for pairing kosher wines with food are the same as they would be for any wines, kosher or not. Kosher is a symbolic, religious designation that has nothing to do with the way a wine tastes,” said Morgan.
Moreover, added Morgan, there are many myths about kosher wine. The most common misconception is that a rabbi must bless the wine—this is not true. The main restriction is that the wine must be handled only by Sabbath observant Jews after the grapes arrive at the winery. The finished wine must be confirmed as kosher by a rabbi from a certifying organization such as OU Kosher. Though Morgan is not Sabbath observant, his winemaker and cellar staff do follow the Jewish laws from sunset Friday through sunset Saturday.
Most kosher wine is no longer meshuval or cooked, the older tradition of boiling the wine which can result in loss of flavor. The rationale for meshuval wine is that non-Jews can serve the wine. New techniques such as flash détente, an advanced form of flash pasteurization, maintains the overall quality of meshuval wine. Applying flash détente method, Morgan produces meshuval wine for his Mensch and The Tribe labels.
Given their mission to produce kosher wine, the Morgans wanted to honor those keeping a kosher kitchen and published The Covenant Kitchen with kosher recipes and wine pairings for each dish. From appetizers to desserts, the varied cuisine styles are flavor-forward and most follow Mediterranean Diet guidelines.
You would not notice The Covenant Kitchen recipes as kosher unless you focus on the “meat, dairy or pareve” categories for each item. These designations refer to the most well-known aspect of keeping kosher—the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy while preparing, cooking and storing food. Pareve foods can be eaten with either meat or dairy. Though they did not establish a kosher kitchen for many years, the Morgans followed the guidelines to change and found the kosher standards natural to follow.
Pairing Covenant wine and Passover food
We recently enjoyed a bottle of Covenant Blue C Viognier from Israel. Asked why he produces the varietal, Morgan said, “Viognier is a famous white wine in France’s Rhone Valley, but also grown effectively in Israel’s Upper Galilee region.”\Morgan offered a succinct response to pairing the Viognier with a delicious-looking recipe for gefilte quenelles (dumplings) in The Covenant Kitchen. “These fish quenelles—French for fish dumplings—are a cross between my grandmother’s homemade gefilte fish and something light and delicate I’ve enjoyed eating in Tokyo. The ginger and fennel seasonings echo the natural spiciness found in Viognier.”
I like gefilte fish, the Central and Eastern European Jewish name for poached fish made from ground, deboned fish, usually whitefish or carp, mixed with spices and binders such as matzo meal (ground matzoh) and shaped into balls or oval-shaped cakes.
What grabbed my attention about the Morgans’ recipe was the choice of salmon, the rich vegetable broth used as poaching liquid, the addition of ginger, coriander, and fennel seasonings, and the garnish of braised leeks and lemon zest. I wished Mama had made her gefilte fish with more flavorful salmon rather than bland whitefish cakes slathered with horseradish.
The pairing of Morgan’s quenelles with Bleu C Viognier was an excellent choice. Labeled C for Covenant and a counterpart to the Red C brand which evokes the crossing of the Red Sea, Blue C also honors the blue of the Israeli flag. The wine with its flowery, citrus nose, zero sugar, and full mouthfeel would pair well with many Passover appetizers from the braised artichokes at Perbacco or homemade chicken liver patés and salads.
For the main course, Morgan plans to serve brisket with Red C Red, a blend with Syrah, Petite Sirah, Malbec, and Zinfandel from Sonoma Valley and Bennett Valley, Sonoma County. Another favorite Passover meal of the Morgans is flanken pot au feu. This dish, also in the cookbook, is a mashup of Eastern European flanken short-cut short ribs and the French style of slowly braising the meat until ultra-tender. Traditionally the flanken was boiled at length and topped with horseradish. The Morgan’s pot au feu version brings a blend of herbs and vegetables to the braising liquid which melds well with the Red C red blend or full-bodied Covenant 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Morgan also offers dessert food and wine pairing. Since leavened products are verboten during Passover, a favorite dessert is macaroons. The Morgans’ preferred style is toasted coconut macaroons with chocolate drizzle paired with Covenant Zahav Late Harvest Chardonnay. Zahav means golden in Hebrew, and this wine is golden-colored, sweetish, but well balanced with enough acid to make the macaroons even more of a special treat.
In general, added Morgan, wine pairing guidelines, kosher or not, are straightforward. “Rich foods pair well with rich, full-bodied wines—often red, and lighter fare goes well with lighter-bodied, fresh wines marked with good acidity, often white. Exotic, spicy foods reminiscent of the Middle East might benefit from fruity, spicy red wines such as Zinfandel or Grenache, while fish dishes would benefit from a glass of bright, light-textured white wine or rosé.” This Passover, I may head across the San Francisco Bay to Perbacco for their creative renditions of holiday dishes paired with Covenant or others on the wine menu. For my home seder, I plan to make salmon quenelles. Remind me to buy lots of matzo and an extra bottle of wine to accommodate four glasses per person. But I promise not to get shicker like my father.
Feature photo is of Jeff and Jodie Morgan at Covenant winery in Berkeley.