By Mary Orlin
Covenant Wines has been raising the reputation of kosher wines since its first vintage in 2003. Napa Valley based winemaker Jeff Morgan set a challenge for himself: to make the best kosher wine in 5,000 years, and make them from Napa Valley grapes. Thus Covenant Wines was born.
Morgan began with 3,000 barrels for his first vintage; now he’s up to 5,000 barrels and 13 wines, including his flagship Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Many prominent critics, including Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, have called Covenant one of the best kosher wines in the world. Morgan consistently receives scores in the 90s from Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. He has certainly made good on his challenge.
There are only about half a dozen kosher fine wine producers in the United States. So it’s a big deal that Covenant will be packing up and leaving Napa Valley and setting up shop in Berkeley.
The winery’s new home will be at 1102 Sixth St. in Berkeley and Morgan says he thinks Covenant will be the first kosher winery in the United States to be in an urban setting since before Prohibition, let alone in Berkeley.
“We were looking to build a winery somewhere in Napa,” he said, “but we couldn’t find a place we could afford.”
Covenant Wines have been made at a custom-crush facility in Napa since 2008. Before that, Morgan had to drive grapes to the Herzog winery in Oxnard, on the Central Coast, the nearest place at the time that had an all-Orthodox Jewish winery crew, required for making kosher wine.
Another reason the time is right to leave Napa is that the winery’s focus on Napa Valley grapes has changed, Morgan said. While he continues to make a Napa Cab, Morgan is now sourcing grapes from vineyards in Sonoma Mountain, Dry Creek Valley, Bennett Valley, Carneros, and Lodi.
Morgan and his wife Jodie happened to be driving through Berkeley one day and saw for rent signs on several warehouses. “We thought, gosh, maybe there’s something around here that could work for us,” Morgan said.
The sweet spot they found is in the “Drinks District,” a couple of blocks from two other Berkeley wineries, Broc Cellars and Donkey & Goat. Pyramid Brewery & Alehouse and Trumer Pils Brauerei are also neighbors. And Far West Brewing plans to open a brewery, also on 6th Street, soon.
Also fortuitous — and something Morgan is happy about — is that Urban Adamah‘s forthcoming organic farm and Jewish community center will be right across the street.
The Covenant winery, with 7,000 square feet of indoor space and 2,500 outside, won’t have a public tasting room as it is only zoned to make wine. But Morgan is hoping he’ll be able to have people visit and taste by appointment.
Being in Berkeley has one more strong pull for Morgan and Covenant.
“Another important reason why we’re moving is because what we call the observant Jewish community is really living in Oakland and Berkeley, not up in the wine country. You can’t work at Covenant unless you are a Sabbath observant Jew.” It helps that Morgan’s associate winemaker, Jonathan Hajdu, lives in Oakland.
Morgan has lived in Napa for 14 years but said he and his wife are ready for a change. “There’s a big for sale sign in front of our house,” he said.
He has just received the building permits and is ready to get rolling on the construction of the winery. Morgan has hired local architect Fred Hyer of Hyer Architecture because he admires his work, calling it “functional cool.” “It’s aesthetically pleasing yet affordable,” he said. Hyer is known for his eco designs and green building practices.
The new Covenant winery will be operational as soon as the first grapes of the 2014 harvest arrive. In addition to Covenant, Morgan’s Red C and two new labels, The Tribe and Mensch, will also be made in the Berkeley winery.
Morgan is looking to expand to a 10,000-case production over the next 10 years.
“I think there is an urban winery renaissance in the works in a number of cities, and we’re excited to be part of this one,” he said.
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