Squeeze a Concord grape, and it practically screams kosher wine. Jelly sweet, the much maligned Concord has been the traditional kosher wine of choice at American Passover Seders for what seems like forever. So brace yourself for irony: The Concord has a suspected antisemitic horticultural past.
Before there was Schapiro’s, the first American kosher vintner, there was Ephraim Wales Bull, a 19th-century grape enthusiast and political nativist. He spent much of his life in Concord, Mass. — hence, the name of the grape — where he hobnobbed with such Transcendentalist icons as Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne.
The nativists were a short-lived mid-19th century anti-immigrant political movement whose adherents were also known as “know-nothings” because of their penchant for organizational semi-secrecy. Their standard reply when asked about the movement was professed ignorance about its activities.
Bull took a local wild grape, Vitis labrusca, commonly called the fox grape, and selectively bred it for its fruit. His goal was to develop for commercial use a grape better suited for New England’s climate and soil than the vines brought from Europe; however, Philip J. Pauly, a Rutgers professor who is the author of the forthcoming book “Fruits and Plains: The Horticultural Transformation of America” (Harvard University Press), argues that Bull had another motivation, which was influenced by his social and political leanings. In a recent interview, Pauly said that the nativist Bull wanted a grape free of foreign roots — particularly those of the Middle East, where grape cultivation and winemaking are believed to have originated.
Pauly notes an early review of the Concord grape, published in 1855 by the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture. The review — written not by Bull but by someone named William D. Brown, whose identity has been lost to history — praised the Concord as being superior to its “too tender Syrian brothers.” That reference could be interpreted as simply underscoring the Concord’s suitability for New England cultivation.
But Pauly, in a 2005 essay published in Anoldia, the journal of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, views that phrasing more darkly. He termed it “a coded reference to Semitic/Jewish degeneracy.” Extrapolating from Bull’s nativist sentiments, Pauly argues that Bull believed foreign grapes to be inherently genetically and morally corrupt.
In our conversation, Pauly — who is not Jewish and who professes little interest in “reconstructing” Bull’s mindset — said that “‘Syrian,’ ‘Hebrew’ and ‘Jewish’ were interchangeable terms in Bull’s day.” He also noted that Bull “thought of domesticating plants in the context of ridding them of a kind of lower-class roughness,” and that he promoted the Concord above all as a “native-American grape.”
Pauly admitted to “employing a certain amount of interpretive judgment.” But he insisted that “it is plausible” to say that Bull — perhaps along with the writer, Brown — “was antisemitic in the larger sense of the old racial anthropology of his time…. It’s also true that the only Semites Bull could ever have known were Jews.”
Pauly cited as further proof Bull’s performance in the Massachusetts legislature, where, in 1855, he won a seat largely on the strength of the fame he garnered for developing the Concord. As a legislator, Bull, again sticking close to his nativist ideology, devoted himself to agitating against immigrants, in particular the large numbers of Irish Catholics then arriving in Boston.
The nativists, however, were not known for their antisemitism, but rather for their opposition to immigrants, particularly the Irish Catholic. In fact, Lewis Levin, the first Jew elected to Congress in 1844, was a founding member of the American Party, which was based on nativism.
But Bull combined both prejudices. German Jews were arriving in America in some numbers during that same period. One of Bull’s political hobbyhorses was attacking “sharp businessmen.” Pauly said that the businessmen Bull had in mind could have included those newly arrived, and ambitious, Jewish immigrants, as well as “big city” moneymen in general.
It’s easy to imagine that Bull’s pique at upstart capitalists stemmed from his disappointment over prospering little from developing the Concord; he sold the grapes to commercial nurseries that then propagated their own vines for widespread sale without paying him royalties (the first commercially bottled fruit juice, produced by Thomas Welch in New Jersey, was made from Concord grapes).
In the end, Bull died an impoverished recluse. Ben Birnbaum, in a 2005 Boston Globe article, reported that Bull’s wife left him and he died “alone and bitter.” Inscribed on Bull’s gravestone was the epitaph “He sowed, others reaped.”
As the 19th-century ended, Eastern European Jews appeared on the American scene in growing numbers. Among them was Sam Schapiro, a newcomer from Poland’s Galicia region. In 1899, he opened a winery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side: Schapiro’s House of Kosher Wine, the first of its kind in North America.
Schapiro used the Concord, the only grape he could get in sufficient commercial quantities. The Concord, however, is an acidic grape, ill suited for wine except when its astringent taste is tempered by large amounts of sugar or other sweeteners. That’s just what Schapiro did, giving rise to super-sweet Concord kosher wine. Schapiro, apparently a pretty savvy marketer, sought — dare I say it — to make lemonade out of lemons by advertising his product as “wine so thick you can cut it with a knife.”
Kosher wine has come a long way since Schapiro’s hit the market, with myriad finer — not to mention dryer — varieties now available. But who doesn’t begin to wax nostalgic after a mere whiff of Bull’s inadvertent contribution to the Passover Seder and American Jewish culture?
Author and journalist Ira Rifkin enjoys his wine in Annapolis, Md.