Jeff Morgan is, among other things, an adjunct instructor at the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies, part of the Culinary Institute of America's Napa Valley branch. His course is titled "Career Discoveries," and it's easy to see why. "I occupy kind of an unusual niche in our industry," explains Morgan -- by which he means that, when it comes to wine, he's delved into a great many niches.
"I started as a producer, working as a cellar rat in Long Island. I helped make some really good wines, and that caught the attention of Wine Spectator. Then I started writing about wine for a local newspaper. I built a portfolio and parlayed that into a position as a stringer for the New York Times, with a specialization in agriculture. The people from Wine Spectator saw my byline in the Times." That led to freelance work, then a regular gig, and finally, a stint as the magazine's West Coast editor. "I covered the California wine scene, and I was also part of the tasting panel." After seven years, he decided he'd said what he had to say about wine -- an opinion he has since retracted -- and took a job with the gourmet grocery chain Dean & DeLuca in Napa Valley. "That's when I started making wine again."
Pink wine, no less. Lots of oenophiles can cite a visit to Europe somewhere along their way, usually near the beginning. Morgan spent nearly a decade in the south of France and the surrounding area, including "a 1987 gig as bandleader at the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo." Pink wine is king in those parts, and by the time he made the jump to Long Island, Morgan was thoroughly besotted. His winery project, created in partnership with Daniel Moore, is called SoloRosa -- "the only winery in the entire New World that was founded with a dedication to Rosé...Nobody else is that stupid."
Stupid because, even as recently as 2001, rosé in America was still struggling to distance itself from its rep as sweet stuff, wine for people who like soda but want a buzz. Morgan's book Rosé pins the blame on Portugal and war: a marketing man at Lancers says that "Lancers was developed to appeal to American military servicemen toward the end of World War II. It was thought that the soldiers who had discovered wine in Europe would still want something easy to drink that was semisweet and with bubbles -- like Coca-Cola.... By 1964, Lancers was selling 400,000 cases annually and had become the nation's number-one wine import." Mateus followed suit. As a result, when wine drinkers decided to get all sophisticated and start thinking about the way dry wines paired with savory foods, pink wine was quickly abandoned.
And even after rosé began its recent, rather mysterious comeback, says Morgan, it had to do battle with "the image that rosé is one kind of wine, one that's worth about eight to ten dollars. There's no one kind of white wine, and no one kind of red wine, and there's obviously no one kind of rosé." In Morgan's case, that means a California bottling at around $15, and a couple of reserves clocking in at $28. The French Laundry got what he was getting at and began stocking his Rosé of Syrah, but generally, "Restaurants are still slow to figure it out. Most don't even have a rosé section. They stick the one or two rosés that they do have in either the red or white section. It's definitely a retail phenomenon." (Speaking of retail phenomena, the book recounts a visit to an Aix-en-Provence grocery store that carried "more than 250 different labels" of rosé. The image makes it easier to understand his frustration.)
The book, which I first noticed for sale a couple of years back on the elegant wall of the downtown Extraordinary Desserts, probably helped some. "It was my publisher's idea. I've written a number of other cookbooks, including The Dean & DeLuca Food & Wine Cookbook, and, with my wife, The Working Parents' Cookbook. My publisher at Chronicle Books had been drinking SoloRosa for several years, and he said, 'Hey, we love this wine. Why don't you write a book about rosé?' The best thing about the book, I think, is that it touts rosé as a great food accompaniment, and we have 15 great recipes in it to help you enjoy your favorite rosés." (Recipes range from onion pizza to pasta with pesto to a chicken couscous.)
Finally, Morgan took a page from ZAP and the Rhone Rangers: if you want to champion a wine, you need an advocacy group. With his partner Daniel Moore and Carol Shelton -- a winemaker perhaps best known for her Zinfandels -- he founded RAP: Rosé Avengers and Producers. "We're avenging the wrong done to rosé. For the last three years, we've done pinkouts in San Francisco and New York. We usually have about 150 rosé producers pouring. We'll have over 500 people at each one, and we've always got a waiting list. It's something that is growing. We even did one in winter, to remind people that rosé is not good just in summer."
Now, he's back in the writing game, with a column in Wine Enthusiast, and has made his varied experience into its own product via a wine consulting service. And through Covenant, the high-end Cab he makes with Leslie Rudd of Rudd wines, he's setting out to do for Kosher wines what SoloRosa helped do for pink. "I'm not kosher myself, but I like to fight for the underdog. It's more interesting. Five years ago, Leslie Rudd and I were doing a fundraiser for the local synagogue up in Napa. I'm pouring my SoloRosa, and he's pouring his Rudd Cabernet, and he looked at me and said, 'Jeff, how come kosher wines are so terrible?' " The unfortunate practice of pasteurization accounts for some of it, but not everyone pasteurizes. Says Morgan, "I don't know why it is. It's an irony -- the Jews have a very long connection to wine in their culture. Wine is a very important part of their ritual. The Jews were making great wines back when the Greeks and Romans were making great wines. Somehow, they lost the path when they were wandering around Europe. But I think they're coming back."