Expanding my winemaking to Israel was a grape idea

by Jeff Morgan

I’m a California winemaker with an urban kosher winery in Berkeley — Covenant Winery, which I co-founded in 2003 with Napa vintner Leslie Rudd. Our flagship cabernet sauvignon is made from grapes grown in Leslie’s Napa Valley vineyards.

Four years ago, I decided I also wanted to make wine in Israel. The idea simply popped into my head, and it felt right. I guess the logic went as follows: We make kosher wine in California, so why not also make it in the place where Jewish winemaking began.

The author standing in an ancient wine press in Israel

In 2013, we started small in the Galilee with just a few barrels of wine. But this coming vintage we are making about 1,500 cases of syrah, cabernet, viognier and rosé, bottled under the label Covenant Israel. I recently returned from Israel, where I visited our six vineyards in the Galilee and the Golan Heights. I get the same rush in Israel that I experience here in California when I know that the vines are almost ready to be picked.

To be honest, northern Israel and Northern California resemble each other in many ways. The blue-green colors of the Mediterranean paint the landscapes, with their hilly topography and rocky red soils. Vineyards are now being planted in profusion in Israel, and it won’t be long before the best wine-growing regions there resemble those here in Sonoma and Napa.

However, I feel something in Israel that I don’t feel here in California. It’s a sense of history — Jewish history — that makes me feel grounded in the past. The hills of Israel are covered with the ruins of wineries that supplied our ancestors with daily libation. Wine mixed with water was the beverage of choice before and after the time of Herod, and it gives me goosebumps to think that I am pursuing the same winemaking quest as my long-ago forebears.

What’s really surprising is that we are pretty much making wine today the same way our ancestors did in the past. We grow the grapes, then harvest and ferment them with native yeast as it was done in antiquity. After the wine has finished fermenting, we age it in barrels and then drink it.

But we could also age it in clay amphoras, as they did when the Romans were buying Judean wine and selling it for a high price. In ancient Rome, the wine of the Jews was considered to be among the best.

Today I take a lot of pride in the wines we make in California. They have helped raise the bar for kosher wines everywhere. And I guess they also directed me toward Israel. I call it the kosher connection — where making something (like wine) in an ancient Jewish tradition bridges the gap between past and present, secular and religious.

To make the bond tighter, my 24-year-old daughter, Zoe, has now made aliyah and works with us at Covenant Israel. I find myself “commuting” to Ben Gurion Airport four to six times per year to work on the Covenant Israel wines with Zoe and the rest of our team there.

From a winemaking perspective, making wine in Israel is not so different than making wine in California. But emotionally, it has brought new, special meaning to me and my family.

No longer at Passover do we need say “next year in Jerusalem.” We are there regularly and with increasing frequency. And we are not tourists. As we invest in Israel, we harvest a long-lost legacy — its wine — now appreciated worldwide for perhaps the first time since Roman days.

This year, because of hot weather in California and Israel, the grape harvest will be early in both places. We’re hoping to have all the vineyards picked before Rosh Hashanah in early October. That would be a great way to celebrate the New Year.

Jeff Morgan is co-founder of Covenant Wines, located in Berkeley since 2014. He is former West Coast editor of Wine Spectator magazine and co-author with his wife, Jodie, of “The Covenant Kitchen: Food and Wine for the New Jewish Table.”