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A Splendid Syrah

When I visit food and wine shows, where vintners and producers present their products to the market, my first question is, “What’s new?” For wineries, the answer is usually nothing more groundbreaking than the latest vintage or a new blend. But when I approached Covenant Winery’s Jeff and Jodie Morgan at the recent Kosher Food & Wine Experience a few weeks before Purim, they had a notably interesting answer to my question.

The California winemakers recently went “bi-country,” and were now producing kosher wine not only in Napa and Sonoma but also in Israel’s Golan Heights and Galilee. I tasted the second vintage of their Israeli Syrah: It was velvety and well structured, full of ripe black fruit and spice.

The Morgans, along with their partner, Leslie Rudd, have been making Covenant wines in Northern California since 2003. On a trip to Israel in 2011, they explored wine country, visiting their favorite producers.

Jeff Morgan inspecting syrah grapes. Image by Courtesy of Covenant Winery

“We realized, as we traveled through the Galilee and the Golan Heights, that the topography closely resembled what we know in California,” Jeff Morgan said. “It looked a lot like Napa Valley and Sonoma. And we thought, wow, maybe we could make wine in Israel, too. That was the beginning of the idea.”

Their daughter Zoe Morgan, who had gone to Portland State University in Oregon, with a focus on Jewish studies, had decided to take her junior year abroad at the University of Haifa. According to her dad, she promptly fell in love with Israel.

She made aliyah two years ago, and now lives in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, the Morgans (with Israeli-American vintner Ari Erle) made their first vintage of Israeli Syrah in 2013. (They just released the 2014, which I tasted at the show.) They found that they needed help marketing, promoting and selling the new Israeli wines and representing their California wines to the Israeli market.

Zoe Morgan had grown up in the Napa Valley but had never expressed an interest in working with her parents in the wine industry. “With great trepidation, I approached Zoe,” Jeff Morgan said. She was then working for an educational organization in Israel. He asked her how she liked her job, and she said, “Not so much, Dad.”

“So I said, ‘How would you like a job that would allow you to yell at your boss without getting fired?’” Jeff Morgan said. “And she laughed. And I said, ‘We really need help with Covenant Israel from someone like you, who is not only a family member but who was born to this business.’ By this time Zoe spoke fluent Hebrew. It was a great fit. She said yes.”

According to her parents, 25-year-old Zoe Morgan quickly became the consummate promoter of Covenant wines in two languages.

A Covenant Winery vineyard in the Galilee. Image by Courtesy of Covenant Winery

“I love working with my daughter,” Jodie Morgan said. “She’s bright, she has a great attitude, she’s receptive, and she helps me navigate in Israel — she’s my translator. I’ve seen her really effectively bridging the two markets, as well as the two cultures. I’ve enjoyed watching her blossom as a wine professional in Israel. It has been extremely rewarding both as a professional and as her mom.”

The Morgans now have an apartment in Tel Aviv, and travel back and forth five to six times a year.

“We started with one little vineyard in 2013, and now we source our grapes from seven different vineyards that stretch form the Galilee to the Golan Heights,” Jeff Morgan said.

The Israeli Syrah, made with grapes from the Tel Faris vineyard in the Golan Heights, may be the perfect Purim wine, according to Jeff Morgan. (I asked him to make the connection and he gamely took on the challenge, offering an answer that we both recognized as somewhat fanciful, but clever nonetheless.)

A bottle of Covenant Israel Syrah. Image by Courtesy of Covenant Winery

Syrah, he ventured, may be related to the Iranian city of Shiraz, which was a city in Persia. “So I have a soft feeling that syrah was the wine that the wicked Haman and the beautiful Queen Esther were all drinking,” he said. “I do believe that syrah is the premier red grape grown in Israel, kind of like cabernet sauvignon is the premier red grape in Napa. But I think it’s no accident that syrah is the best red grape grown in Israel, because I think it has the oldest history. So that’s my two cents on syrah, the Middle East and Purim.”

Well done.

In 2015 the Morgans came out with a beautiful cookbook, “The Covenant Kitchen,” in which they offer a Purim menu that includes spiced lamb meatballs with tomato sauce and freekah.

“It’s a dish you can make ahead, and it’s really hearty and extremely satisfying. And when you’re drinking a lot, it really soaks up the alcohol,” Jeff Morgan said.

It also goes perfectly with a rich, spicy Israeli syrah.

Liza Schoenfein is the food editor of the Forward. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter, @LifeDeathDinner

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