An Impressive Journey From Musician to Winemaker

An Impressive Journey From Musician to Winemaker

Interviewer:

Mark Powers
Editor-in-Chief

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Educated in France in the French National Conservatory System

Jeff was actually educated in France in the French National Conservatory System. And then eventually he became the bandleader and the saxophone player at the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo, like Monaco and Prince Rainier, Princess Grace. That’s where he discovered wine. Jeff grew up in New York City and by the time he got to France in his late teens, he discovered at the student lunch cafeteria, they were serving half bottles of wine for lunch. And he realized, “Wow, I’ve been missing something here.” So that was kind of his introduction to the good life.

Blessed to Have a Passion For Anything

“I feel blessed to have a passion for anything.” Says Jeff.  He goes on to say that a lot of young people that he meets today, they work hard, they’re successful, but they don’t seem to know what it is that they really want in life. And he feels that he’s been fortunate enough to know from the time he was a kid that he loved music, and because he loved it, he wanted to pursue it and play it.

One day when Jeff was on the bandstand at Monte Carlo playing with a great band, he realized that he was more interested and more excited about the wines he was drinking in between the gigs than what he was playing.

Over time Jeff realized that the intensity of his passion for the aesthetics, something beautiful, like a beautiful piece of music or a beautiful bottle of wine, a beautiful glass of wine, was kind of evolving further towards wine. And eventually it just kind of was a no-brainer for him. Jeff just thought, well, I make music, I’m a musician, I wanna make wine, I wanna be a winemaker.

So Jeff came back to America in 1988 when he was 34 years old and got a job at a winery in Long Island, New York as a cellar guy, and that’s how he learned how to make wine.

Write About Wine

Since Jeff enjoyed wine so much his wife Jodie suggested that he should write about it which will help keep his foot in the door. Jeff managed to become a writer for “The New York Times,” and eventually he became the West Coast editor of the “Wine Spectator,” which moved him to California in 1995. Jeff wrote for the Spectator starting in ’92 where he learned a lot about wine, got to taste lots of wines, and meet a lot of people because his job was not only tasting wine, but it was writing stories just like this one about other winemakers. So Jeff was able to travel all over the world and interview people who made fantastic wines and hear their stories, which were very inspiring to me as well. As a reviewer for “Wine Spectator” and other magazines, Jeff tasted a significant amount of really, really great wines. And so his goal has always been to make wine that’s as good as the wines that he loved the most.

From Writing About Wine to Making Wine

Ultimately, Jeff wanted to make wine again, so he left the Spectator in 2000 and moved to Napa Valley, where he started a little brand called Solo Rosa. Jeff was the first winery to actually only make rose in America. “If you talk about being ahead of the curve, I was way too far ahead of the curve, and I went out of business in 2008 because the pie had shrunk. My piece of the pie had shrunk so much by the time the Rose revolution kicked in that I stopped making only Rose.” 

But somehow in the interim, Jeff got this idea that after tasting some really great Israeli wine up in Napa Valley, he decided to make a really great kosher wine. If they can do it in Israel, let’s do it in Napa Valley Jeff said. 

This is how Covenant was started back in 2003 and they’ve grown from a small 500-case brand to a 7,000-case brand in Berkeley, California, where their winery now is, and they also produce a 2,500-case brand of their Covenant Israel wine that they make in Israel. 

Making of Great Kosher Wine

You have to work with what you’ve got. You try to grow or purchase the best grapes you can, and then you try to do as little as you can to change the essential nature of those grapes. Covenant, for example, doesn’t add yeast to their fermentations. And that’s kind of the baseline for Covenant’s own wines that they make at Covenant Berkeley and also Covenant Israel.

All of Covenant’s fermentations are native yeast, not because it’s necessarily better. There’s a lot of amazing wines out there made with commercial yeast but Jeff feels that it reveals the truest of nature of what’s coming out of the vineyard and perhaps better than the addition of a commercial yeast that’s designed to bring out fruit forwardness or body, tannin or no tannin.

Covenant uses native yeast and they are blessed with exceptional vineyard sources from some exceptional growing regions, whether it’s Sonoma County or Napa Valley or Lodi, which is east of Napa in California, or the Galilee in Israel, or the Golan Heights. All of these places have their own particular character, and Jeff try’s to translate that into what he puts in the bottle.

Family Face Behind The Brand

Jeff’s daughter Zoe lives in Israel full-time, and she became Israeli, and she emigrated to Israel four years ago. Zoe is in charge of sales and marketing and hospitality for Covenant Israel. So if anybody who’s reading or listening to this wants to go to Israel and have a tasting of Covenant wines at their tasting room in Tel Aviv, you should contact the team at Covenant on their website, and they will set you up with Zoe, who will arrange a wonderful tasting for you and show you what Covenant Israel is doing.

Jeff said “it’s great to have her there. It’s great to have our family face behind the brand in Israel full-time.” He goes on to say that “The bottom line is that we need to make great wines for our own satisfaction as well as the satisfaction of our customers. So that’s what kinda probably keeps me grounded. And then the rest is important, too, I mean, doing interviews like this, or doing tastings, or promoting our various wines. It’s all important.”

Connection to Wine in The Jewish Tradition

Covenant has a long history and connection to wine in the Jewish tradition. Every Friday night, you say a special prayer to bring in the Sabbath. It’s called Kiddush. And then you say it again on Saturday and it’s a prayer over the wine. The wine kind of opens the door to the spiritual dimension of the holy day, and it has special meaning. But because the Jews were dispersed all over the world, and often not in wine regions for the last 2,000 years, it was hard to get the good stuff to make that Kiddush. So people maintained the tradition, but Jeff think’s, in some ways,  the industry lost sight of the concept of what is a high-quality wine and what makes great wine.

Before Jeff started making wine, he was actually reviewing them for the “Wine Spectator” starting in 1992, he realized that a lot of Jews and a lot of non-Jews don’t realize the important connection of wine to Jewish life and the importance of making that connection with a high-quality wine, such as the many wines that are available today in the kosher and non-kosher markets. For kosher wine, there’s most definitely a renaissance occurring. When Jeff reviewed his first kosher wines in the ’90s for “Wine Spectator,” he did a blind tasting with a lot of his winemaker buddies. Jeff was still living out in Long Island in New York and they didn’t know it was kosher. They didn’t know what was going on.

And at one point, Jeff remembered this guy named Dan Clack, who was a winemaker at Palmer Winery back in the day, he looked at Jeff and said, “These are the strangest wines I’ve ever had, Jeff. What are we tasting here?” And today, you wouldn’t have that experience at all. 25 years later, winemakers who make kosher wine, either they’re educated Davis or the University of Bordeaux or whatever, or they’ve been educated by fine wine makers, which is the way Jeff got his education while working on site and working with very talented individuals.

The State Of Kosher Wine

The state of kosher wine is very good. Just like in the non-kosher world, there’s good wine, there’s in-between wine, and there’s not so good wine. So for kosher wine, we have the same thing. We have our best wines and we have our not so best wines. But it’s very easy to find tremendously good wines today from Israel, from France, from Italy, from Spain, and of course, from America that are top-quality wines that happen to be kosher.

And then if you go to the French Laundry, which is probably the most famous restaurant in America, Thomas Keller’s three-star Michelin in the Napa Valley, you’ll find Covenant Cabernet on the list. You’ll find Covenant Chardonnay on the list, and you’ll even find our Covenant Israel Syrah and the Covenant Israel Adom, which is a blend of red grapes.

Covenant is the first Israeli winery to actually be on the list at the French Laundry. And their wines happen to be kosher. They happen to represent a little slice of what Jeff would call Jewish heritage and Jewish culture, and they just taste really good. It’s the story behind the wine that makes the difference.

The Wines

The staff at Uncorked Monthly truly enjoyed tasting the wines from Covenant and highly recommend them. Below are a few of their wines. Visit them online at www.covenantwines.com to learn more about Jeff and his amazing story, his wines, and of course how you can purchase his wine.

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