In 2002, a tasting of wines made by Jewish Napa Valley winemakers provided the forum that gave birth to Covenant. Was it possible to make a kosher wine from some of Napa’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon that would be comparable in quality to the best non-kosher Napa wines? Covenant co-founders Jeff Morgan and Leslie Rudd decided to give it a try. Today, Covenant’s 7,000-square foot winery in Berkeley, California 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.
In 2002, the late vintner, Leslie Rudd, hosted a tasting of wines made by Jewish winemakers at his Napa Valley Oakville estate. Eli Ben-Zaken, the owner of Israel’s Domaine du Castel winery, was among those who poured their wines. So was Napa winemaker Jeff Morgan, who offered 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 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 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 Sabbath-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 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. Covenant’s 7,000-square foot winery is now situated in a neighborhood that is also home to other urban wineries and breweries. Across the street is an 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 has 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 two-year battle with cancer. We miss him greatly and will always be thankful for his encouragement and support over the years. Without Leslie Rudd, there would surely be no Covenant Winery today.