Jonathan Hajdu, associate winemaker at Covenant Winery, a kosher business in Berkeley, has been named one of Wine Enthusiast magazine’s “40 Under 40 American Tastemakers.”
While it is a great personal achievement, to be sure, it’s also a win for the kosher wine industry, which usually is ghettoized into its own category.
“This is not only a beautiful thing, but it also makes history,” said Jeff Morgan, Covenant’s winemaker and owner. “There is not one kosher wine and spirits professional who has ever clocked in with the top dogs in the secular wine world before. Kosher is often relegated to the ‘kosher section,’ whether it’s in wine shops or in the media.”
This is only the third year of the list, which includes people in the beer and spirits world as well as sommeliers and mixologists. While the list was definitely on Hajdu’s radar as a beverage industry professional, he didn’t set his sights on it since he knew it had never included someone in the kosher industry.
Hajdu, 39, who has been with Covenant since 2008, has known the news for a while now but was sworn to secrecy. He was first told that he was a finalist, then that he had won; he did a photo shoot for the magazine more than a month ago.
“It’s a big honor and definitely a very exciting thing to be included,” he said.
Hajdu (the name is ethnically Hungarian) grew up in Long Island. “There definitely was an appreciation for food and cooking and dining, and that was passed on to me,” he said. His family attended a Conservative synagogue but were not particularly religious. He was the first to become observant, and later his family followed suit.
Hajdu’s journey started during college at SUNY Albany. He says he hated the college culture, which seemed to be nothing but cheap beer and fraternities, and he started frequenting wine bars with another interested friend as an escape from the prevailing frat scene.
It was there that he had his first sip of a Napa Valley Shafer’s 1996 Hillside Select. That one sip was life-changing, and he remembers it to this day.
“All of a sudden my perspective of wine went from two-dimensional to three-dimensional,” he said. “I tasted the depth and complexity of it. I drank it and felt transported, like I was in a vineyard. It was amazing.”
After graduating college he went to yeshiva in Jerusalem and began dating a woman from Australia, following her back home and doing a viticulture program outside Melbourne. The relationship didn’t stick, but the wine bug did.
When Hajdu returned to the U.S., he headed to California to find work in wine, taking an internship at Copain Custom Crush in Santa Rosa, where “there were maybe 15 different wineries in one location, all making small handcrafted wines.” By this point he was fully observant and couldn’t taste the wine he was helping to make. He also was the only person not working seven days a week.
It was through the wine industry that he met Morgan, who was looking to hire someone Sabbath-observant to handle the wine.
“I definitely saw that there was a need for a quality wine in the kosher market,” Hajdu said. “Part of it was I wanted to drink it myself. If I want it, someone else does, too.”
He continued, “It was great going from making wine that I couldn’t drink to tons of wine that I could drink, and also working somewhere where you can live an observant life.”
Until Covenant moved its winery to Berkeley in 2014, Hajdu spent six years commuting between his home in Oakland — where he attends Beth Jacob Congregation — and Napa Valley.
Because Morgan is not Sabbath-observant, it falls upon Hajdu to perform the task of removing the wine from the barrel for tasting, as kosher laws dictate.
While the winemaking techniques for Covenant wines are more or less the same in that “we use a minimalist approach, using high-quality fruit that we pick at the right time, gently massaging the flavors out and preserving the quality that’s already there,” he said, he is able to experiment with his own label.
“With Covenant, everything we do is planned and thought out in advance, with a clear vision of what we want to make,” Hajdu said. With his label, “I’ll take some more risks. If I find some interesting grapes available, I’ll buy them and make something new. This allows me to learn more and create some interesting things.”
This article first appeared on www.jweekly.com and is reprinted with permission.