Back in 2002, Napa vintner Leslie Rudd hosted a tasting of wines made by Jewish winemakers in Napa, only one of whom—at the time—made kosher wine. By coincidence, he learned that Eli Ben-Zaken, the owner of Israel’s Domaine du Castel winery was visiting the San Francisco Bay area. Eli was invited to come pour his wine; and he did.
Jeff Morgan was also in attendance, pouring a non-kosher dry rosé that he made at the time called SoloRosa. Both Jeff and Leslie tasted the Castel, which was quite good.
“Why are there so few kosher wines as good as that?” Leslie asked. “I grew up in Kansas drinking Manischewitz.”
Ironically, Jeff had been hired to work for Wine Spectator magazine a decade earlier. His first assignment was to write a story about kosher wines for Passover. During his seven year stint with the Spectator, Jeff repeatedly wrote about kosher wines, tasted some good ones, and learned that kosher wine can be made pretty much just like non-kosher wine—no boiling or sweetness required.
“Leslie,” Jeff said, “with top-notch Napa Valley Cabernet, we can make the greatest kosher wine in 5,000 years. All we need are grapes from Rudd Vineyard.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Leslie replied. “If you screw it up, it’ll be the worst kosher wine in 5,000 years…. from Rudd Vineyard!”
It was hardly an auspicious beginning. But the two winemakers continued to discuss the idea. In 2003, they decided to give it a try. Nevertheless, Leslie didn’t offer Jeff any of his grapes. Instead, he suggested finding another suitably fine vineyard to start off. That original Covenant vineyard was Larkmead, first planted in 1889 and located about 10 miles north of Rudd.
Jeff and Leslie are both Jewish, but neither was Sabbath-observant. To keep Covenant kosher, the partners needed a fully Sabbath-observant crew in the cellar. Jeff believed that the only kosher winery in California with a cellar crew able to follow his winemaking protocols was the crew at Herzog Wine Cellars in southern California.
He asked Nathan Herzog, whom he knew from his Wine Spectator days, if he could bring his Napa Valley grapes down to Herzog winery to make Covenant. Nathan agreed, and in doing so, changed Leslie’s and Jeff’s lives profoundly. Not only did they begin to make kosher wine, but they were also drawn closer to their Jewish heritage—in spirit and in practice.
In 2008, with the aid of former Herzog cellar worker Jonathan Hajdu (now associate winemaker at Covenant), Jeff and Leslie brought the winery production up to Napa Valley, where they made all Covenant wines until 2013. In 2014, the winery moved to its current location in Berkeley. It is now part of small but growing group of West Coast urban wineries.
Postscript: 2008 was also the year that Leslie finally relented and gave Jeff his wish to make wine from Rudd Vineyard. In that year, they produced the first Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon Solomon Lot 70. Covenant’s top-of-the-line Cabernet is co-fermented from a blend of grapes grown at Leslie’s Oakville vineyard and Mount Veeder vineyard, which looks down on the valley from an altitude of 1,500 feet. The wine honors Leslie’s Hebrew name: Shlomo, or Solomon, as it is translated in English.