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Saturday, June 6, 2020

Keeping the Covenant: Making Wine in California and Israel

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When 27-year-old Zoë Morgan first landed in Israel on a Birthright trip, the tour went straight from the airport to the Golan Heights. She fell asleep on the bus. “I woke up and looked around and was like, ‘Am I in Napa?’ The landscape, the smell. For me, this was the first impression of this country and it felt nostalgic; felt like home.”

Morgan grew up in St. Helena, a town of 5,000 people in the heart of California wine country in the Napa Valley. “We were the only family that had two Jewish parents in our town,” she said, and they didn’t think much about their Judaism, let alone Israel. “We never had a Jewish identity because our identity was based on the food and wine industry,” Morgan said. “My dad has been in the wine industry for 35 years.” 

Today, Morgan’s parents, Jeff and Jodie, are co-owners of Covenant Wines, the only American winery making wine in both California and Israel. A chance meeting in Napa Valley with famed Israeli winemaker Eli Ben Zaken of Domaine du Castel winery in the Jerusalem Hills led Jeff Morgan down the path of kosher winemaking and brought his family closer to Judaism and Israel. 

After that initial Birthright trip, Zoë returned in 2012 for her junior year abroad to study at the University of Haifa. Three days before she was due to fly back to the United States, she met a guy (now her husband) and stayed. In 2016, Morgan officially joined the family business and became the director of hospitality, sales and marketing for Covenant Israel. 

“Right now, what’s so exciting about the wine industry in Israel is that it’s coming back to life.”

“It’s like being in a startup,” Morgan said. “You don’t have one job. It’s a little bit of everything. Right now, what’s so exciting about the wine industry in Israel is that it’s coming back to life.”

Morgan echoes her father’s initial vision for Covenant Israel: “This can be a world-famous winemaking place. … It’s all about the ‘terroir’ (soil, weather, elevation).” But perhaps even more than the “terroir,” the Morgans were drawn to the land itself. “We have a history of winemaking here that goes back thousands of years,” Morgan said.

As romantic as it all sounds, Morgan emphasizes that it is a business, like any other. “It is hard work. You are putting yourself out there, you are getting rejected.”  

Covenant Israel participated in the Sommelier show on Feb. 10-11, the Israeli wine event of the year that brings together winemakers, sommeliers, distributors, wholesalers, restaurateurs and hoteliers. “Yesterday, we presented our 2019 rosé, and my dad said, ‘This is the rosé I’ve been trying to make in Israel.’ We finally got there.”

Expressing profound gratitude for everything her parents have done for her, and pride in their vision and hard work, Morgan hopes to continue in the family business. “I feel that being able to take a dream that they had, and something they have created, and take it to the next generation, to the next level — that’s the proudest thing I could do in my life.”

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