Covenant Winery Israel – the next step in a spiritual and physical Journey

2013 Covenant IsraelWhen I think of Covenant Winery, what leaps to mind for me, is Jeff and Jodie Morgan, Jonathan Hajdu – Covenant’s top-notch associate winemaker, and their world-class kosher Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, Lavan Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Sure, they also make a lovely and unique Red C wine, rose, and Landsman series of wines, but that is what comes first to mind.

When I first met Jeff and Jodie, it was at Herzog Winery, in 2006 where Jonathan Hajdu and they were pouring their wines at the first ever Herzog IFWF on the west coast. Since then I have made it my business to go to the winery at least once a year and meet with the Morgans and to taste their wines. I state that very specifically, as I have found that wines do follow their creators, and the open and accessible Covenant wines that also age to perfection, intrigued me and I wondered what their creators were like.

If you have had the opportunity to meet with Jeff and Jodie Morgan you will find two people who are passionate about their Jewish roots, though more traditional in nature than Orthodox, but still two people on a spiritual journey with their wines as their guides. From the start they decided that their wines would be kosher, and that they would be creating wines that were mimeographs of themselves, whether they realized that – or not.

To be honest, this article is a long time coming, a post that I think is more about my relationship with the Morgan’s, Mr. Hajdu, and their wines, and less about their story. The now famous story about Lessie Rudd and his grapes, his apprehension to letting the Morgan’s use his grapes, as he feared that they and their kosher process would ruin them, has been written about over and over. Humorously, the fact that the story is in every post about Covenant wines, and that the story is so well-known and repeated, is once again a representation of the wine and Jeff – both are wonderfully gregarious while also being quiet but confidently capable of spinning a tale of what they both have to offer.

Sure, when you meet the Morgans, and trust if you come to the KWFE in NYC – you will meet them, you will find two lovely, affable, and equally impressive humans that have honed their skills, with care and effort. However, it takes a bit more to see beyond the initial blustery interface, and to get deeper into what they see in the future. Yes, they are always looking forward to what the winery can become, but it is far more interesting to get to the story behind the tales, the story of a couple who are equally passionate about their tradition and history as they are about their impressive with their skills and craft.

As always, I am as straightforward as they come, there is really little left to read between the lines on my blog, though some think there is always another story. To me, Covenant Winery is a world-class winery, one that has the best track record, in my opinion across all California wineries (other than maybe Four Gates Merlot) of hitting a home run with every vintage of their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Were they all A- to A, not always, but they never were less than a classic 91 score and I am hardly the only person with that opinion. Look at Wine Advocate and you will know where this winery stands in the mind of Robert Parker and his minions.

Landsman Club

At times, the Landsman wines have infuriated me, they can be an A- to A wine one vintage (2011 Pinot Noir) and then fall to B+ the next (2012 Pinot Noir). Sure, a wine club is required for almost any large-scale winery today, but it is a vehicle that needs tender care. Sure, the main wine line is the focus of any great winery, and again kudos to the team for that! However, you can never forget that the wine club may be focused on the winery’s greatest fans, but it may also be the winery’s most public face in a very not so obvious manner. The wine club is a system that kind of sneaks up on you, you buy the wines because you love the winery and as the winery evolves you tend to forget the overall cost you are paying every four months, kind of like your cable bill. However, every so often these super fans wake up and wonder, what am I paying for a case of this stuff again? When they check, you may lose one of your loudest fans – maybe for good. It is a deadly two-sided sword that can build a huge fan following, or lose parts of it.

No, I am not trying to make a big deal of the hit or miss aspect of 2012 for the Landsman club, it is just an aspect of the winery that has been digging at me for some time and others. Sure 2011 was solid and so has 2013, so I am willing to chalk it up to a bad season, I hope others are as well.

Winery’s Epic Track Record

Look at Covenant Winery, and I see a winery that has been built to last. Sure, the wines have been epic and impressive, but the manner in which the winery has scaled is one that proves it is here for the long haul. The winery started in 2003 with the fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon from Larkmead vineyards and its Red C Cabernet Sauvignon, which was essentially the press of the bigger brother. This went on for 5 years. For all those years they honed their craft, scaled their production, built a network of fans, restaurants, and aficionados. In 2008 much change came to the winery in a single step, first they moved from Herzog Winery (where they were housed for 5 years) to a Napa Valley Custom Crush facility, and it was there where they stayed for another 6 years until they moved to their now permanent home in Berkeley.

They also took Jonathan Hajdu on as their associate winemaker and kosher wine supervisor. Jon was working with the Morgans while working at Herzog from 2003 through 2005, but it was not until after he returned from Israel in 2007, met his wife, and made his first Brobdingnagian wines, that he joined the Morgans for good in 2008.

It was also the first year for their wonderful Chardonnay. Sure, the 2008 vintage was sourced from a crazy epic vineyard, the Bacigalupi Vineyard in California’s Russian River Valley, but even after that vintage, the Lavan wines have been on par to the epic Covenant standard.

Finally, it was also the first year that Leslie Rudd finally relented and gave Jeff his wish to make wine from Rudd Vineyard. It was that year that they produced their first Lot 70, a moniker given to them by the crush facility and a moniker that Mr. Morgan loves to spin a tale about regarding the lot’s number and its numerical significance to the Hebrew language – Yayin’s (wine in Hebrew) numerical value is 70! As much as I love to watch Mr. Morgan in his element, it never ceases to amaze me the control that he has used to build this winery brick by brick.

The fruit for Lot 70 is some of the most sought after grapes in all of California! The wine is co-fermented from a blend of grapes grown at Leslie’s valley floor Oakville vineyard and Mount Veeder vineyard. The other name given to this wine, Solomon – is in thanks to the man who owns the grapes, Solomon Rudd, AKA Leslie Rudd Vineyards.

Having spoken to them then and afterwards, it was a very intense few months! They had to move all their empty barrels and tanks from Oxnard in the spring of 2008 and then crush and ferment the new 2008 wines in a – shall we be generous, a less than truly ready environment. Still, they had most of the stuff in place and rocking soon there after. The 2007 vintage was finished in Oxnard, and only made it up to Napa once bottled.

The subsequent vintages saw the expansion of the brand slowly, with the fantastic, and reasonably priced Sauvignon Blanc starting in 2010, and what a wine it is. I recently had a bottle of the 2011 vintage, and it was crazy epic! The acid and minerality was impressive as was the fruit structure, this wine was going nowhere for another year easily. It was still very crisp and very refreshing.

In 2011 Covenant began the Landsman program, which is their wine club. The wine club has three wines; Pinot Noir in the winter, Zinfandel in the spring, and the Syrah in the early summer. As stated above the club has been solid, with a few clear misses, but it is a young brand and it is a club only brand of wine, not available in any other manner.

The 2012 vintage of Covenant Cabernet was sourced 100% from Mr. Rudd’s Mount Veeder vineyard. The Solomon Cabernet was made exclusively from grapes grown at Mr. Rudd’s Oakville vineyards. As much as I have always loved the Larkmead vineyard, the 2012 vintage is by far their best yet and it is only begetting better from the barrel samples I have tasted.

Covenant Winery barrels in Berkeley

Finally, in 2013 Mr. Morgan returned to his early roots with a Rose that was repeated again in 2014. It was also, the vintage where Covenant expanded beyond its original borders and went international, with an Israeli blend, called Covenant Israel. I do not believe in coincidences, and to me it was the Morgan’s choice to embrace Israel in a real and tangible place and manner – that led to their next huge change – moving to Berkeley in June 2014 – RIGHT BEFORE CRUSH!!!

Finally, 2013 was the first year for the Covenant Mevushal program – with two tribe wines and two Mensch wines. The mevushal program for Covenant is really a program that many other non-kosher wineries use called Flash Detente. It is best used to remove green notes, some alcohol, and add fruit forward notes. Meaning, that if you take really ripe fruit and throw it through this system, what u will get crazy over the top fruit juice. The process is run on the crushed fruit juice + skins (AKA the wine must). By running the juice and fruit through the system as early as possible it does not hurt the wine, actually in some ways it improves the wine, when and where it is needed, like under ripe fruit, and the such. Still, the real reason it was created was to remove pyrazine aromas. The fact that the kosher supervision bodies of the US allowed this for the mevushal process is fascinating and only time will tell if this process of mevushal is better than what Herzog and Hagafen have been doing for years.

Besides the emotional stress that the 2014 move entailed, it was a mind numbing and total energy suck event, I saw it unfolding with my own eyes, and yes, it was truly intense! They had to move barrels – full and empty down from Napa. Then they started their 2014 mevushal process soon after the official move, it was crazy. Fruit was coming in, on trucks and the juggling was impressive. A year later – wow what a beautiful property! Once again, they invested where it counts. Till 2014, it was all about the grapes and beyond that there was nothing else. Now, with more than 11 harvests under their belt, they have earned the right to call a building their own and expand to a location where they can grow physically and spiritually.

In case you cannot see, the process was slow, methodical, and well thought out. It makes me further appreciate the impressive outcome of their wines. This continual rise in quality was well thought out, it was never a swing for the stands approach, and though it must have been really hard and felt slow to the Morgans and Hajdu, it has clearly paid off in one of the most consistent wineries in California in terms of quality and style.

Fast forward to today

Covenant Winery tanks in Berkeley

Fast forward to 2015, and the next stage in the life of Covenant Winery is starting to come together, albeit with growing pains. The move from Napa to Berkeley, as mentioned above, was painful and trying but successful in every way. Though I watched it personally, where I was actually one of the first folks to walk into the new building when the barrels were first placed in the structure, it has come a long way. During this last trip with SB and DF we had a chance to taste through many wines that are coming and some that are already out, and of them all I continue to be in awe of the Covenant Cabs.

However, while Covenant has continued excelling at making the classic noble wines, they are starting to branch out into Rhone varietals, and maybe Jonathan and his Hajdu Winery successes, have been a positive influence in that direction. In case you do not know, and you have been under a rock for the past 8 years, Hajdu Winery makes world-class Rhone varietal wines, which happen to be kosher. Starting in 2013 Covenant Winery has been slowly moving towards the Rhone varietals, when they brought in Petite Sirah and when they made their mevushal Mensch with Rousanne grapes.

Looking back some many years ago, all the wines made by Covenant Winery came from Napa Valley, that all changed in 2008 with the world-class and epic Bacigalupi Vineyard Chardonnay. Since that year, slowly but surely, Covenant has moved from 100% Napa fruit, to now around 20% Napa fruit. Further in the past 12 years they have grown to now close to 8000 cases of wine, with 2000 of those being mevushal.

During these past two visits we had a chance to taste many wines from the 2014 vintage, and what I can tell you is that the Red C is moving away from its deep-rooted Cabernet roots to a red wine blend. The 2013 vintage is a blend of Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2014 blend will even get more esoteric!

However, the real shocking changes are coming to labels that do not yet exist. The first new name will be a high-end label that will live at the Covenant level (above the Red C, Lavan, and Tribe/Mensch) and will entail many new grape varietals. The exact blend is not yet made up, but it for sure will include some Petit Verdot, and then potentially some of these; including Grenache, Malbec, Syrah, and God knows what else! As I said, there are new Rhone leanings in the world of Covenant, and while the 2014 Covenant Cab and Solomon took my breath away – the new varietals and blends are moving the winery into an expanded place – both tonnage and label wise. The new label name – in case you are curious (again the blend is still undefined) will be called Neshama! What a lovely name!

Another grape that is new in 2014 that I tasted on a previous visit was the 2014 Muscat – crazy wine! Oily, viscous, sweet, honeyed, with rose hip, and more acid than a chromatic dragon could throw at you! Balanced, viscous, sweet, and ripping with acid – Bravo and to be aptly called Zahav!

Well, if this was not enough of a behind the scenes view into the world of Covenant Winery, what about their new release of the 2013 Covenant Israel!

Covenant Israel

In May of this year, the Morgans went to Israel and it was there that they bottled their inaugural bottles of Covenant Israel. It is this aspect of the Morgans that I hope brings this post full circle. Looking at Jeff and Jodie today, many would say that not much has changed about them outwardly, from a physical and spiritual sense (they sure do not seem to age anyway). However, with Israel things have started to change for them, both winery wise and spiritually as well. There are not many folks that I know who would just uproot their comfortable and quite lovely lives in Napa and move to Berkley, CA! No, not that Berkeley is a bad place or anything, on the contrary, it is a lovely community, but it is a huge change. They sold their lovely home in Helena and moved down the street from an Orthodox Synagogue, which they joined this past year (their first), and from the banter in the winery it seems that it is one that they go to weekly! Good for them, but more than that it seems that the winery and the Morgans have grown even closer than ever! It seem more than just that they are tied at the hip, it almost feels like Jeff, Jodie, Jonathan and Eli (the other mashgiach) are finally having fun and letting the winery’s bring them closer to their roots and their current purpose.

Sitting with Mr. Morgan on this past trip, was a real joy. No, I do not mean that it was great to see him in his element, which it was of course, but he was relaxed, at peace and finally taking joy and nachas from the creation that he had built with Jodie! There will always be folks helping along the way, but it felt to me that he was finally reaping the fruits of their intense labors, and finally letting himself enjoy it. The steady, sure handed plan, impressive track record, and new winery were finally all falling into place, and for the first time, to me anyway, he was finally allowing himself to be more than the sale man – he was allowing himself to be the very thing that he has always been – the co-owner of a wonderful kosher winery – now in the Bay Area.

After tasting the wines from barrel, we were led to the beautiful tasting room, designed by Fred Hyer, where we found a stunning 12 foot Monterey cypress log table. Upon that table sat a few wines, but the obviously unique and new label was the 2013 Covenant Israel. The wine was made in the Galilee, in the Bat Shlomo winery under the hands of Covenant Israel Associate Winemaker Ari Erle. The wine is a blend of 34% Syrah from the famed Tel Phares vineyard in the Golan Heights, 33% Syrah from the Kadesh vineyards in the Galilee, and 33% Cabernet Franc from the Tzivon vineyard in the Galilee (same place that Tulip sources their CF).

We happened to visit right after some very important wine folks, and so we were lucky to get a taste of the 5th bottle opened of this brand new wine! Wine has a way of getting into your soul, and clearly if you have read the story of the Morgans, you will see that this was exactly what happened to Jeff and Jodie, whether they wanted it or not. However, after that fateful Friday night dinner with Eli Ben Zaken of Castel Winery, there was no turning back! Mr. Morgan painted himself into a corner, and my Rabbi always says – when you see a person or entity do something that does not at first blush seem logical, it is always a very clear sign of God’s hand. When Jeff and Leslie decided to make kosher wine together, whether with his fruit or not, it was a great idea, but one that Jeff never saw coming. It was a spark that was ignited on the holiest day of the week, and it is that very spark that took him to Israel and now – finally settling in the Bay Area.

From what I had the chance to taste, I can tell you that the spark has transcended the spirit and it courses through the wines, the winery, and the people who make it all possible. My many thanks to Jeff and Jodie Morgan, and the rest of the Covenant clan! My notes follow below:

2013 Covenant Israel Blend – Score: B+ to A- The wine is a blend of 34% Syrah from the famed Tel Phares vineyard in the Golan Heights, 33% Syrah from the Kadesh vineyards in the Galilee, and 33% Cabernet Franc from the Tzivon vineyard in the Galilee (same place that Tulip sources their CF). The bottle was just bottled two weeks before the tasting and it was transported across the country by plane a week prior.

The nose on this lovely wine shows a ripe nose of blueberry, plum, lovely roasted animal, graphite, green notes, star anise, crazy oriental spice, it is a very interesting nose with contrasting aspects. The mouth on this wine is a bit riper than the usual Covenant wine, not quite date, but ripe with crazy ripe blackberry, graphite and dark cherry, with sweet spices, dill, and oriental spices. The blueberry shows but the black fruit shows stronger with mouth coating tannin, searing acid, with blue fruit dominating but then fading to allow the blackberry, green notes, sweet dill, nice mineral, garrigue and bramble. The finish is long with sweet tobacco, green foliage, and coffee. This is a fascinating wine that is both green and blue and black all at the same time.

2014 Covenant Red C Sauvignon Blanc – Score: A- What can I say, Covenant continues to impress with their white fruit wines. The acid and the balance are always there. The nose on this lovely and classical Sauvignon Blanc is ripe yet tart and citrusy with crazy grapefruit, lemon, followed by tropical notes of kiwi, guava, and cats pee. The mouth on this medium bodied wine is lightly viscous but still bracing with mad acidity, tropical notes, gooseberry, nectarine, and lovely fresh cut grass. The finish si long and balanced with more tart notes, acid, slate, mineral, and light citrus pith. BRAVO!

2011 Covenant Chardonnay, Lavan – Score: A- I will repeat myself, I messed up when I posted the white wines, I missed the Covenant wines and I will fix that today. This Chard does not disappoint and continues on with a long tradition of viscous and lovely Chardonnay wines. This is the first year that Jeff used fruit from a new vineyard, for him, called Mount Scopos, on the Sonoma Mountains. The nose on this light gold colored wine is ripe and acidic with crazy mineral, peach cobbler, rich perfumed oak notes, and great spice. The mouth on this full bodied and viscous wine, shows a buttery and creamy bent with with a lovely control on the oak usage, with clear butterscotch, nutmeg, white chocolate, all layered in with apricot, melon, yellow apple, and more spice. The finish is long and spicy with oak tannin, great balancing ripping acid, citrus, and cloves – BRAVO!

2011 Covenant Red C, Sauvignon Blanc – Score: A- Bravo! What a lovely nose and the wine is really kicking, which surprised me very much. The nose on this wine is lovely and aromatic with crazy gooseberry, cats pee, grapefruit, and floral notes, lovely! The mouth is still crazy, mouth puckering with insane acid, mad lemon friache, lemon citrus, with wet grass, hay,  dirt, and dried apricot. The finish is long and acidic with nice spice, crazy lemon citrus, pith, and intense lemon acid core. BRAVO! This is a ripping acid wine, lovely!

2013 Covenant Red C – Score: A- With this vintage, Jeff Morgan and Jonathan Hajdu have made this wine more than just a cab blend, but it is now a multi varietal blend of two grapes, Cab and Petite Sirah. Fruit wise the color and complexity has changed with this new blend, it has gone from a red and black fruit wine to a black and blue wine, there is still press from the Covenant along with the new grape. The two grapes were co-fermented. The nose on this lovely wine is dirty and black, with herb, spice, and earth. The mouth on this wine is big and aggressive, less elegant than the bigger and more expensive brother, but part of that is from the press, the mouth is followed by layers of ripe blackberry, plum, garrigue, bramble, cedar box, white pepper, roasted meat, cloves, and sweet spices. The finish is long and in your face, with great control, lovely acid, but with a serious sense of intensity, inky structure, blueberry, black forest fruit, and coffee. BRAVO!

2012 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon – Score: A- to A This is clearly their best wine to date, and much of it comes from Rudd. The nose on this wine is insane and captivating, with mineral, black fruit, and herb. The mouth on this full bodied wine is soft yet crazy intense, with multiple layers of  rich mineral and concentrated blackberry, cassis, saline, graphite, and rich fruit. The mouth is both supple, concentrated and yet richly layered and extracted at the same time, with crazy extraction that does not give up, dark cherry, and sweet oak. The finish is long and rich with intense spice, nutmeg, leather, crazy lingering tannin, chocolate and dark brooding fruit. The wine with time shows no sign of age and continues to impress with its richness and its salinity – while holding true to its Napa name – BRAVO!!!

2012 Covenant Syrah, Landsman – Score: A- The second you pour this wine you hold your breath from the depth of its dark, impenetrable purple color. The wine is more a Rhone wine that a Cali Syrah, with deep rooted mineral, freshly turned earth, slate, rock, and graphite that seems to scream #2 pencil. This turns some wine lovers away, as they want fruit forward wines, but to me this wine screams control, depth, and style. So, now this wine opens far faster than before. There was no need to decant this wine. With time the wine showed fresh licorice, fresh tilled earth, freshly smoked game, and fresh black and blue fruit. The mouth on this full bodied wine is rich and layered with concentrated blackberry, boysenberry, lovely extraction, sweet cedar, and rich mouth coating tannin that linger long. The finish is long with great mineral, graphite, salty notes, crazy sweet spices, nutmeg, along with watermelon, root beer, intense smoking tobacco, and oriental spices – BRAVO!

2013 Covenant Zinfandel, Landsman – Score: B++ The nose on this wine starts off with lovely rich mineral, loamy dirt, roasted animal notes, and more dirt. The mouth is well spiced, and light to medium bodied with sweet fruit that blows off, to show cherry, strawberry, nice zinberry, blue fruit, good tannin, acid, and nutmeg. The finish is long and spicy with watermelon and black pepper. Sadly, this wine lacks the presence to cut through most food, though the rich acid and mineral is nice. After the wine was open for a day – it really did open and become more complex and less sweet. The blue notes receded and the spices and complexity rose – with more earth, acid, mineral, and spice, nice.

2013 Covenant Pinot Noir, Landsman – Score: A- (and more) Lovely nose with crazy strawberry perfume, and sweet cherry and sweet wood. The mouth on this medium to full bodied wine is rich and layered with spice and coffee with layers of fruit and nutmeg, candied kirshe cherry, blackberry, really nice tannin. The finish is long and spicy with cherry and black currant and rich dirt and mineral. With time the nose opens further with a perfume of earth, dirt, intense mineral, saline, and hints of barnyard. The mouth is still layered and concentrated with sweet white chocolate and sweet spices – BRAVO!!

2014 Covenant Mensch White – Score: B+ to A- (mevushal) This is a mevushal wine that is closed and not fun to start, but with time shows nice tropical and stone fruit. This wine is 85% Roussanne and 15% Sauvignon Blanc. The nose is tropical with guava, citrus, wet grass, straw, hay, and nectarine, and citrus. The mouth on this lovely wine is ripping with good acid, pith, grapefruit, orange blossom, floral notes, with sweet oak, and mineral, with sweet herb, and spice. The finish is long with slate and spice and mad pith.

2014 Covenant Tribe Chardonnay – Score: B+ (mevushal) Nice sweet and tart nose with citrus, nectarines, orange blossom, yellow apple and brioche. Lovely acidic mouth with marzipan, grapefruit, orange notes, lovely tart lemon and peach notes, with nutty quince and saline. All running into a finish of sweet spices and herb.

Posted on July 15, 2015, in Israeli Wine, Kosher Dessert Wine, Kosher Red Wine, Kosher Rose Wine, Kosher Semi Sweet Wine, Kosher White Wine, Kosher Wine, Wine, Wine Tasting, Winery Visit and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

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