A Loaf Of Bread, A Jug Of Wine | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

A Loaf Of Bread, A Jug Of Wine

A Loaf Of Bread, A Jug Of Wine

The Morgans have been on a Jewish and culinary journey. Courtesy of Schocken Books

The Morgans share their Mediterranean lifestyle with you.

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Jeff Morgan started his career in the 1980s as a Jewishly indifferent musician living it up in southern France. Yet in the early aughts, he found himself dissolved in tears across the dinner table from one of the biggest kosher winemakers, sobbing about “making the best kosher wine in 5,000 years.”

His movement from music to wine – becoming a husband and father along the way – has most recently produced a new cookbook, The Covenant Kitchen: Food and Wine for the New Jewish Table (Schocken), named after the 12-year-old kosher California winery he co-owns with his wife, Jodie, and another winemaker. Jodie and Jeff co-wrote the book, too.

“After growing up in assimilated, secular families, we have rediscovered our Jewish heritage while making kosher wine,” they write in the introduction to the book. “It has been a wonderful awakening.”

Jeff’s journey toward Jewish winemaking, and Judaism, began when as a 19-year-old studying the flute in France he realized that he had “been eating badly my whole life.” He started paying attention to the contents of his plate and his glass, and by the time he left France was oenophile enough to try his hand at winemaking back home at one of the early Long Island vineyards. Both Jeff and Jodie are native New Yorkers.

Jeff and Jodie’s daughters were born on the island, along with a career for Jeff as wine journalist that culminated in a job as the Wine Spectator’s West Coast editor.

It was in Northern California that the Morgans had their world-changing encounter with Jewish winemakers. Jeff belonged to the tasting group “Jewish Vintners of Napa,” whose members were Jewish makers of non-kosher wine. He invited Eli Ben Zaken of Israeli winery Domaine du Castel to a meeting as his guest.

The other vintners liked Ben Zaken’s offerings from his own vineyard, which triggered in Jeff the ambition to make the best kosher wine in Jewish history – that’s what had him all verkelmpt at dinner with Nathan Herzog, whose Royal Wine Corp. is the largest kosher winemaker and importer.

Jeff had an investor, winemaker Leslie Rudd of Oakville Estate, but what he didn’t have was the Shabbat-observant winemaking crew necessary to secure kosher certification for his product. Jeff planned to produce his wine in a part of Northern California where there was no Orthodox synagogue. Royal’s winery is further south. Jeff asked Herzog to lend him – a potential competitor – his crew. Maybe it was beshert?

“He said, ‘What’s wrong with you? Are you meshuggeneh’”? when Jeff started crying. But then he said the Morgans could use his crew, if Royal could distribute their wines in New York and New Jersey, a handshake deal still in effect.

“Some kind of Yiddishkeit chord had been touched,” Jeff said.

Now it’s a symphony. What started out as a winemaking challenge has become a religious experience. Making kosher wine has transformed the Morgans’ lives, Jeff said.

“I learned about mincha, maariv and something called davening,” he said. “I’d barely been in a synagogue my whole life. I started reading about Judaism and teaching myself Hebrew. It was a pretty steep learning curve, but I got connected.”

He became a Bar Mitzvah at 56 and at 61, he joined Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Berkeley, where he had moved the winery in 2013. He drives his grapes from Napa to Berkeley in a truck and makes the wine – 14 different kinds – in a 7,000-square foot building that used to be a factory. Covenant Wines crushed 150 tons of grapes last year.

“We turned that building into the first functional urban kosher winery to exist since Prohibition,” he said. “There’s a kitchen in the winery; it’s kosher. And we’re kosher at home.”

Indeed, the new book has the imprimateur of the Orthodox Union, whose kashrut arm is the country’s premier certifying agency. The OU also certifies Covenant’s wines. OU Kosher’s chief executive officer, Rabbi Menachem Genack, wrote the first of the book’s three introductions.

Like a more traditional kosher cookbook, The Covenant Kitchen designates each recipe meat, dairy or pareve; it also has instructions for how to keep kosher at home. But it also expands that template. There’s information about wine varietals, suggested pairings and a focus on a Mediterranean-inspired cuisine that includes Jewish classics and gives them and all the other dishes a Bay Area flavor. Fish Soup with Matzo Balls and Aioli, anyone?

“The Morgans, so experienced and knowledgeable in their fields, have been on a path of discovery of the laws and traditions of kosher, or kashrut,” he wrote. “Integrating this information into a contemporary cookbook is not an easy task, and The Covenant Kitchen is a masterful expression of how one can create modern recipes without sacrificing the standards of a kosher home.”

On Sunday, March 8 at 2:30 p.m., the Morgans will appear at the Museum of Jewish Heritage with Mark Russ Federman of Russ & Daughters. They will do an event at the 92nd Street Y on Wednesday, March 11 at 7 p.m.

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