The Landsman Lodi Zinfandel is not just kosher, it’s a doozy
The newly released 2011 Landsman Lodi Zinfandel ($40), crafted by Covenant winemaker/owner Jeff Morgan, is a genuinely rich, vivid, powerfully aromatic expression of Lodi grown Zinfandel: teeming with raspberry and blueberry fruit qualities that are not quite jammy, yet generous enough to coat the palate with sensations akin to eating drippy berries with svelte, black lambskin gloves. Medium-full body – that is, not coming across as fat or ponderous – and nuanced by faintly gamey whiffs that are more like the animal smells you find in black, oily, dark roast coffee beans than red meat, laced with suggestions of cardamom and cinnamon.
Mr. Morgan’s own take: “The Landsman Zinfandel has a very distinctive quality, going a little beyond the usual varietal character. There is an exuberance of fruit that is very ‘Lodi,’ plus smoky, earthy qualities that I find fascinating. I get an almost Middle Eastern shuk character: shuk, meaning the spice market quality – like the heavy, heady aromas of cardamom, cinnamon, cumin and other spices wafting in the air, like a giant spice rack.”
Elaborating further, Morgan tells us, “Landsman refers to being a member of a tribe with a similar heritage or belief system. The Landsman Zinfandel has its roots in Lodi Wine Country, and is very much an expression of that place, with its long tradition of grape growing. This fits right in with our Jewish philosophy and faith, which is based on sense of place, and very long traditions.”
As a Zinfandel, Morgan adds, “the Landsman is robust yet perfectly round and delicious – almost like a Port, but completely dry, not sweet. It can overpower many dishes, but makes a wonderful match with cheese – especially complex, aged cheeses made from cow’s milk, and even fresh goat’s milk cheeses from California.”
Morgan had been producing Covenant Wines – a portfolio consisting of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay, and a Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc – since 2003. The 2011 Landsman is Morgan’s first foray into Zinfandel. He tells us, “I had been aware of the great wine tradition in Lodi for a long time, and so in 2011 I went out there to ask around about grapes, and someone sent me to Larry Mettler. We started out with just 4 tons from a little block farmed by the Mettlers on Alpine Rd. The 2011 turned out so well, starting in 2013 we’re committing to an entire block and stepping up our production of Lodi Zinfandel.”
As with all of the Covenant wines, the Landsman is fermented completely with native yeast, to achieve the additional layers and complexity wrought by slower natural fermentation. “There is such a thing as kosher yeast,” says Morgan, “but indigenous yeast makes that unnecessary. We don’t want to add acid or do anything unnecessary to our wines. We focus on the natural fruit by aging for only 6 months in strictly neutral French oak barrels. For observant Jews, it is a kosher wine; but for anyone who appreciates good wine, it is great Zinfandel.
Now for the 64 million dollar question: what makes the Landsman “kosher?” Explains Morgan, “What keeps a wine kosher is that it can only be handled by a Sabbath observant Jew. There are no actual kosher winemaking methods – no particular anything that makes a wine kosher. But of all the things we consume as Jews, the only thing subject to stringent rules is wine because it is inherently holy – the one thing that creates the connection to the almighty. Religious moments are highlighted by prayers that are said over wine, but not because wine has been blessed by the divine, but because wine is blessed as something naturally divine.”
Although Morgan became Bar Mitzvah (literally speaking, a “son of commandment”) in 2007, as a non-Sabbath observing Jew he is not allowed to physically handle his own wines during the winemaking process. “I’m not a Sabbath observing Jew because I’ll drive a car on Saturday, I’ll eat non-kosher food and drink non-kosher wine. In the cellar, though, I have an associate winemaker named Jonathan Hajdu, who supplies the Sabbath observant component that keeps my wines kosher. For instance, only Jonathan can press the on and off buttons of our destemmer. Only Jonathan can do the pump-overs or pull samples out of barrels. I control all aspects of winemaking, but the only things I can actually do are basically the clean-up jobs, like cleaning the floor.”
So why produce a kosher Zinfandel? Explains Morgan, “The reason we follow these rigid rules is because we want to be able to sell to Jewish wine drinkers who, like Jonathan, follow kosher guidelines religiously. It is not so easy to do kosher winemaking because cellar work is very skilled work, and there aren’t that many Sabbath observing Jews around to do it. Jonathan has been with us for eight years now. Prior to joining us he worked at Herzog Wine Cellars in Southern California (Oxnard). Later, when he moved to the North Coast, he did cellar work at Copain, but things like not being able to work on Saturday didn’t go over well with them. Meanwhile, I had been trucking grapes all the way down to the Herzog family’s winery near L.A. for five years, just to have my wines done kosher. Getting Jonathan onboard made it possible to produce kosher wines here in Napa Valley.”
The entire Covenant project began ten years ago, as a result of a dinner in Napa Valley with Leslie Rudd, the owner of the prestigious Rudd Oakville Estate, as well as the famous chain of gourmet grocery stores, Dean & DeLuca. Says Morgan, “Leslie and I are part of a social group called Jewish Vintners of Napa Valley. There must be at least 100 Jewish winemakers in Napa Valley alone. At one dinner I was sitting next to Leslie when we were served a great kosher Cabernet Sauvignon from Israel. Leslie said, ‘Wow, I’ve never had something like that before.’ I said, ‘Leslie, all we need are good grapes, and we can make even better wine. If you let me use the Cabernet Sauvignon from your vineyards, I’m sure we can make the greatest kosher wine in 5,000 years.’”
Rudd, however, did not swallow Morgan’s invitation hook, line and sinker. Says Morgan, “Leslie said that if I screwed it up it would be the worse kosher wine in 5,000 years. But he did say, ‘Find someone else’s grapes, and I’ll be your partner.’ So I found some great Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from a heritage Napa Valley vineyard, and with Leslie’s help, we got Covenant Wines started.”
On the day we met in their Napa Valley farmhouse home, Mr. Morgan and his wife Jodie were preparing to leave for Israel for ten days, ostensibly to look into the possibility of producing wine there as well. Reflecting on his life – first, as a young saxophone player developing a taste for good wine and food while studying music at Conservatoire de Nice, and later as a wine journalist and former West Coast Editor for the powerful Wine Spectator magazine – Morgan tells us: “Covenant Wines has been a journey that has brought me closer to myself. Although I was born and raised Jewish in New York, I didn’t know much about what that meant until fairly recently. Now I am working with some great Jewish friends, mentors and colleagues. I’ve visited Israel numerous times, and am making successful wine in Napa, Sonoma, Lodi… and perhaps soon, also in Israel.
“And to think, it all started when Leslie Rudd said, ‘I bet you can’t make great kosher wine!’”