Jeff Morgan, the co-owner and winemaker of Covenant Wines. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Jeff Morgan, the co-owner and winemaker of Covenant. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Jeff Morgan couldn’t keep his hands off the grapes

The gleaming purple clusters were heaped in crates in the parking lot of Covenant, his new winery in Berkeley. Morgan, a saxophonist and writer turned award-winning winemaker, had just brought the fruit down from Sonoma. As he wrapped the straps that had tied the crates onto the flatbed truck, he kept plucking grapes. A smile spread across his face every time he popped one in his mouth,

“These are really good,” said Morgan, a man with abundant kinetic energy and a laugh to go with it. “I am very excited about these grapes. I have never made wine with them before.”

The Grenache grapes were beautiful. They had only been picked about two or three hours earlier from the 700-acre Kunde Vineyard and they glistened in the sun, plump and juicy and without a hint of shrivel.

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Morgan was not only excited about the taste. The grapes represented the completion of a long held dream: to have his own winery. Ever since Morgan and his wife Jodie paired up with Leslie Rudd, a vineyard owner and the proprietor of Dean and DeLuca, to make kosher wine in 2003, they have been producing it in rented facilities. First Morgan made the wine at Herzog Winery on California’s Central Coast. From 2008 to 2013, Morgan made wine in a custom crush facility in Napa.

The Morgans had been looking to open a winery in Napa but could not find a place that was affordable. Then last fall, as they were driving around Berkeley, they spotted a 7,000 square foot warehouse for rent on Sixth Street two blocks north of Gilman. A light bulb went off in their heads: why not become an urban winery?

Covenant Winery moved into its new space in mid-September, joining three other urban wineries: Donkey & Goat, Broc Cellars, and Urbano Cellars, all located nearby. In a normal year, that would have given the Morgans time to get adjusted before the harvest began. But 2014 has been especially hot and dry, and the northern California harvest started three weeks earlier than usual. That meant there was little separation between move-in day and full on harvest.

The major renovations to the warehouse had been completed on the day the Grenache grapes arrived, but much still needed to be done.

The walls and roof had been insulated. (Wine must be kept cool at all times or it can turn.) A new mezzanine level held offices. There was a new kitchen, bathroom, and meeting room.

Most importantly, a solid and imposing steel fence that runs from floor to ceiling the length of the warehouse was in place. The fence divides the administrative part of the winery from the kosher portion. Only Sabbath-observant Jews can touch the wine while it is fermenting and the fence is required to make sure the wine is not sullied. Morgan, the winemaker, is not Sabbath observant, so he does not even have a key to the kosher section. His associate winemaker, Jonathan Hajdu, who has worked on every Covenant vintage, must open and shut the fence each day.

Since he can’t touch the grapes while they are fermenting, Morgan often jokes that his job at Covenant is merely menial.

“Winemaking is schlepping, cleaning, and a little bit of grapes,” he said. “My job is often clean-up. I am totally certified for clean-up.”

On the day the Grenache grapes arrived, there was still more to be done to make the winery ready. An electrician was fiddling to perfect the cooling system on the fermentation tanks. The kitchen wasn’t finished, there wasn’t much furniture, and the city inspector had not yet signed off on the building.

But the harvest couldn’t wait.

Morgan processed three tons of Grenache on Tuesday Sept. 16. Two days later the winery got another 20 tons of tons of grapes – some Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Napa, and some Malbec grapes from Sonoma County.

Morgan drives the grapes from the various vineyards himself. Hadju uses a forklift to put the grapes into a stainless steel hopper, which then sends them into a de-stemming machine. The grapes get slightly crushed in the process. Then they are pumped into a stainless steel fermentation tank. Morgan may keep them chilled there for a few days before he turns off the cooling system and allows the grape to start to ferment. He touches the wine as little as possible, allowing the natural yeasts to convert the sugar in the grapes into alcohol, and is wine. After that happens, the wine  is put into oak barrels to age.

Morgan makes a number of varietals. Covenant, made with Cabernet grapes from Rudd’s vineyard on Mt. Veeder on the western edge of the Napa Valley, is the signature wine. It sells for $150. But Morgan makes many more affordable varietals, including Red C, The Tribe, and Mensch. He also makes a wine from Israel.

While the wines are kosher, Morgan insists they are not just for Jews. The kosher aspect is secondary, in a way. Morgan is trying to make the best wine he can from the best grapes he can find. And a slew of awards attests to his success.

The Morgans are already reveling in the urban nature of their winery. Although they have just arrived in Berkeley, friends are dropping by regularly. The rabbi from their new Modern Orthodox shul even stopped to check out the facility.

They are also dealing with the downside of an urban environment. After some homeless people living in a camp near Cordonices Creek behind the winery stole some tools, the Morgans had to string sharp industrial barbed wire coil along their back fence.

Installing the steel fence to separate the kosher section from the administrative section. The orthodox rabbi overseeing Covenant said the fence had to be "unscalable." Photo: Covenant
Installing the steel fence to separate the kosher section from the administrative section. The orthodox rabbi overseeing Covenant said the fence had to be “unscalable.” Photo: Covenant
Installing the steel fence to separate the kosher section from the administrative section. The orthodox rabbi overseeing Covenant said the fence had to be “unscalable.” Photo: Covenant

The Morgans are hoping Covenant becomes a central gathering spot for Berkeley. The winery will not have a public tasting room, but people will be able to make appointments to sample the wines. The winery also has a large open space that is perfect for celebrations.

“People are really enthusiastic and supportive of our winery,” said Jodie Morgan. “We are both from New York City. We left the country and are returning to our roots. It feels good.”

One party they are planning is in March, for the publication of Jeff’s latest book, The Covenant Kitchen: Food and Wine for the New Jewish Table, a kosher cookbook.

A longtime writer for the Wine Spectator, Morgan has written a number of cookbooks with lavish photos of food, including one on Dean and DeLuca, San Francisco’s Plump Jack restaurant, Domaine Chandon, the sparkling wine maker in Napa, and a book about rose, among others.

In the meantime, Morgan is excited about introducing Covenant wine and Red C and his other brands to a new Berkeley audience.

Morgan had lunch recently at  Zut! on Fourth Street and he talked to the sommelier about doing a tasting of his wine. The sommelier was receptive about carrying a locally-made wine. Morgan hopes that other restaurants will be too. In Napa, with so many wineries, the competition to get noticed was fierce.

“I am going to eat my way through Berkeley,” said Morgan. “In Napa, there are a few restaurants and gadzillion winemakers. In Berkeley, there are a gadzillion restaurants and a few winemakers.”

“My mission is to get Berkeley drinking wines of ours because we make really good wines that I think will go well with the culture of Berkeley,” he said.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...