May 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines

Winemaker Interview JEFF MORGAN

Making luxury-priced kosher Cabernet

by Jim Gordon
Kosher wines
Covenant wines display two seals--one from the Orthodox Union (right) the other from Kehilla Kosher (left)--indicating they meet kosher labeling requirements.
Jeff Morgan is one of the few cellar workers to become a full-time wine writer, and he's one of possibly even fewer wine writers to then become a winemaker and winery principal. The St. Helena, Calif., resident owns and operates SoloRosa and ZMOR wines with partner Daniel Moore. Morgan also makes a rare kosher Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (above) called Covenant ($90 retail) in partnership with Napa Valley vintner and culinary entrepreneur Leslie Rudd.

Covenant has received outstanding reviews from the wine media, including Wine Spectator (92 points, 2003 vintage) and the Wine Advocate (91 points, 2005 vintage), bringing unusual notice to a kosher American wine. While the grapes for Covenant grow in Napa Valley, the wine ferments and ages in Southern California at Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard. Covenant also makes a second label, Red C. SoloRosa produces dry rosé, while ZMOR makes dry Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir. Both the SoloRosa and ZMOR operations are based in the Russian River Valley.

Kosher wines
Morgan began his career as a musician, but in 1988 he found a job as a cellar worker in Long Island, N.Y. He also began writing freelance articles for publications that over the years would include The New York Times, Elle, Food & Wine and Wine Enthusiast. In 1995, Wine Spectator appointed him West Coast editor and moved Morgan to San Francisco. In 1999, he became wine director for Dean & DeLuca in Napa Valley.
Morgan and Moore also operate M Squared Wine Consultants (, which helps other wineries handle issues from winemaking to marketing, sales and PR. They are co-founders of RAP--the Rosé Avengers and Producers--a trade and consumer group dedicated to promoting dry rosé. Morgan teaches part-time at the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary
Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley. He is the author of four books on cooking and wine.

W&V: Why did you start making kosher wine?

Morgan: It was kind of a challenge. Leslie Rudd and I were participating in a fundraiser for the local Napa synagogue. Les was pouring his Rudd wines; I was pouring SoloRosa, my non-kosher rosé. All of sudden, he looks over at me and says, "How come there aren't more great kosher wines?" I told him I didn't know exactly, but that I'd learned something about kosher wine as a wine writer, starting back in 1992, when I got my first assignment from Wine Spectator to write the annual Passover story. I suggested to Leslie that with the right grapes, we just might be able to make a great kosher wine. He said, "Let's try!"

W&V: What makes a wine kosher? And who determines this?

Morgan: According to Jewish tradition, all wine is inherently kosher. That is, it's holy. But for a wine to retain its essentially holy nature, it can only be handled--from the crush pad to bottling--by Sabbath-observant Jews. To make a commercially viable kosher wine, anyone involved in the hands-on production will need to be certified "Sabbath observant" by a rabbinical agency, whose seal will ultimately grace the wine label.

W&V: Do kosher wines need to be boiled or flash pasteurized?

Morgan: No. In fact some 2,000-plus years ago in Jerusalem, heated wines--called mevushal--were not allowed to be used at the altar of the main temple. These heated, or cooked, wines were considered to be inferior and not good enough for God. Today, with flash pasteurization, mevushal wines have improved markedly in quality. In fact, there are many good ones. From a marketing and sales perspective, mevushal wines also have a decided advantage. Once heated to about 180°F, they can be poured and handled by non-observant Jews and non-Jews alike. This means they can be poured by non-kosher staff in kosher restaurants to Orthodox Jews. However, my wines are not mevushal. I figure if we go to the trouble to make the best wine we can, we're not going to take a chance and possibly screw it up with flash pasteurization.

W&V: What are the greatest challenges, from a production perspective, in making a kosher wine?

Kosher wines
Cellar workers at Herzog Wine Cellars are certified "Sabbath observant" by the rabbinical agencies that deem the wine kosher.
Morgan: Sometimes I wonder what God was thinking when he put so many holidays in the midst of harvest. My kosher cellar crew cannot work on the Sabbath; and there are also many other special days, such as Rosh Ha Shana and Yom Kippur, when they can't work. We have to pick grapes and make plans in the cellar to work around these holidays. Some years, it's not too bad. But last harvest, the winery was essentially closed down for four out of seven days during each of the three weeks we brought in fruit. Can you imagine what it's like to close the door on your fermenting Napa Valley Cabernet for four days without checking on it? That, in itself, is a leap of faith.

W&V:Are there special ingredients, or forbidden ingredients?

Morgan:If you're using commercial yeasts, ML strains or other fermentation aids like Fermaid K, you'll need to use only those products that are certified kosher. Some fining agents, like gelatin, are not permitted because they may be made with non-kosher animal products. Egg whites need to come from kosher eggs. I haven't been able to find any kosher yeast hulls yet either. And just lately, my certifying kosher agency has declared that I can't use barrels with heads sealed traditionally with flour. (It might cause a problem with a wine that is kosher for Passover.) So now we have to request a neutral sealant called "enoplastico." Fortunately, coopers like Taransaud and Gamba are hip to this.

W&V: Does it cost more to make kosher wine?

Morgan: Yes. Not only do you have all of your regular winemaking costs, but you've also got to pay a certifying rabbinical agency. And you'll have to make an extra effort (translation: spend more money) to make sure you are set up correctly in the cellar and have the highly specialized and hard-to-find kosher cellar crew that makes it all possible. You'll also have to have pumps for every fermentation tank, too, because you can't move your pumps from tank to tank during the Sabbath and other holy days. That means each tank needs a pump with a timing device to run pump-overs. It can get pretty expensive, especially if you're using really good pumps.

W&V: Are you Jewish? Do you keep kosher?

Morgan: Yes, I'm Jewish. But I was brought up in a very secular environment. It's only since I started making kosher wine five years ago that I've been introduced to a lot of tradition that I missed as a kid growing up. I've learned how to read Hebrew, and I was finally bar mitzvahed last year! But I haven't yet begun to keep kosher.

W&V: Has Covenant changed your perspectives about winemaking?

Morgan: Absolutely, but not so much because of the kosher element. Covenant gave me the opportunity to make Cabernet with some of the finest grapes on the planet; and I've been blessed with the most generous advice from some of the greatest winemakers in the world. Contrary to what some folks may think, we live in a very open and sharing wine community. Maybe that's what has helped our industry make the phenomenal progress we have made in such a short period of time.

W&V: Does it make financial sense to maker kosher wine?

Morgan: If you can set yourself up to do it right, you can probably find a market for your wines. But kosher is a double-edged sword. You may find a Jewish public that's thirsty only at certain times of the year--like the Jewish holidays. And you may also find that the secular world doesn't really want anything to do with your kosher product most of the time.

Let's face it: Kosher wines have a bad reputation. That's because for so long, so many of them were pretty awful. Things have changed in the cellar; but public perception hasn't changed as fast. The bottom line is that you may think you've found a niche market, but you'll also find it's pretty saturated. And the folks who were brought up on sweet Concord grape wines won't easily be shelling out $50 to $100 for your Napa Cab any time soon!
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