Founded in Napa Valley in 2003, Covenant Winery is now located in the new, urban “Drinks District” of Berkeley, California. The 7,000-square foot winery is situated in a neighborhood that is also home to other urban wineries and breweries. And since 2013, Covenant has also produced wine in Israel under the Covenant Israel label.
Back in 2002, the late Napa Valley vintner, Leslie Rudd, hosted a tasting of wines at his Napa Valley Oakville estate. Eli Ben-Zaken, the owner of Israel’s Domaine du Castel winery, was among those who poured. Also in attendance was Napa winemaker Jeff Morgan, who offered a dry rosé 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 write for Wine Spectator magazine a decade earlier. His first assignment was a story about kosher wines for Passover. During his eight-year stint with the magazine, Jeff repeatedly wrote about kosher wines and learned that they can be made just like any non-kosher wine. The kosher designation was symbolic and had more to do with who touched the wine than winemaking techniques.
“Leslie,” Jeff said, “with top-notch Napa Valley Cabernet, we can make the greatest kosher wine in 5,000 years. All we need are your grapes.”
“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!”
The two winemakers argued about how to proceed for nearly a year before they decided to make the first vintage of Covenant in 2003. But 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 Winery.
Jeff and Leslie were both Jewish, but neither was particularly observant. To keep Covenant kosher, the partners needed a fully Sabbath-observant crew in the cellar. Jeff believed that Herzog Wine Cellars, in southern California, was the only California winery with a kosher cellar crew able to follow his winemaking protocols. He asked winery patriarch Nathan Herzog for help. Nathan agreed, and in doing so, changed Leslie’s and Jeff’s lives profoundly. Not only did the winemakers begin to make kosher wine, but they were also drawn closer to their Jewish heritage—in spirit and in practice.
From the very beginning, Covenant was critically acclaimed by such reviewers as Robert Parker and Wine Spectator. In 2008, with the help of longtime Covenant winemaker Jonathan Hajdu, Jeff and Leslie left Herzog Wine Cellars and started making wine on their own in Napa Valley. Soon they were sourcing grapes not only from Leslie’s vineyards but also from vineyards in Sonoma and Lodi. In 2014, Jeff and his wife, Jodie, decided it was time to build a new urban winery in Berkeley, California, about an hour’s drive from most of their vineyard sources. Across the street is an urban organic farm and Jewish cultural center called Urban Adamah. In Yiddish, we call this beshert—or too good to be true!
The story doesn’t stop there. In 2013, Jeff felt a calling to make wine in Israel. He teamed up with Israeli/American winemaker Ari Erle—who had also made wine in Napa Valley—to create Covenant Israel. Today Covenant is the only American winery making wine in both California and Israel.
In May of 2018, Leslie lost his three-year battle with cancer. We miss him greatly. His encouragement and support over the years were critical to the success of Covenant. In 2019, Covenant brought on a new partner—Geoff Rochwarger—who lives in Israel. Geoff has a longtime passion for wine and is a longtime friend of Covenant. We are delighted to have him on our team.