The Syrupy Tale of How Jews Invented Kedem and Modern America

Story of Kosher Vino Encapsulates a Century of History

The Original Wine Spectator: A rabbi inspects the kosher wine on New York’s Lower East Side.
Library of Congress
The Original Wine Spectator: A rabbi inspects the kosher wine on New York’s Lower East Side.

By Laurie Gwen Shapiro

Published April 06, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.

(page 2 of 6)

I promise we will get to those 28 casks again, but first let’s backwind considerably to 1849, and check in with the hobbyist neighbor of the Transcendentalists, Ephraim Wales Bull, a diminutive, bearded, chronically-coughing goldbeater who has relocated into a 17-acre farm in Concord, Mass. from industrial Boston on his doctor’s recommendation after an examination of his lungs.

Competitive Advantage: Hersh’s was the first wine to get the kosher seal of approval from the OU.
Hillel Weisel
Competitive Advantage: Hersh’s was the first wine to get the kosher seal of approval from the OU.

Bull has plenty of demand as a goldbeater — pounding thin sheets into gold leaf is a much-needed skill in New England, as many book covers are gilded. But after moving to a country town, Bull returns to his boyhood hobby of grape-growing in what happens to be the most intellectual small town in 19th-century America. We are yards from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s place, and next door to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house that was built by Emerson’s grandfather. Bull looks the other way as the cute little girl next door, Louisa May Alcott, pops grapes in her mouth on a regular basis.

For the next six years, until 1854, on an eastern-facing slope, good for grape-growing, Bull obsessively breeds early-maturing saplings, looking for a prolific vine with notable flavor that will be resilient in icy-cold New England wind. His grapes have a heavy sweet scent, what winemakers call “foxy.”

(Years later a historian will label him a probable anti-Semite for growing grapes to compete with the “Syrian” market, coded language for Jewish — but grapes know nothing of such things. It’s ironic then that Bull’s winning cultivar, elected from 22,000 seedlings, is the grape that will one day be the foundation of New York City’s kosher cellars.)

“I detect my neighbor’s ripening grapes by the scent twenty rods off,” wrote Henry David Thoreau.

The man who will become Concord’s most iconic resident, naturalist Henry David Thoreau, would connect the all-pervading aroma that would one day waft from the casks at 107 Norfolk to Bull’s seedlings. He could do so even if blindfolded

In August 28, 1853, Henry writes in his journal: “I detect my neighbor’s ripening grapes by the scent twenty rods off, though they are concealed behind his house. Every passer knows of them. Perhaps he takes me to his back door a week afterward and shows me with an air of mystery his clusters concealed under the leaves, which he thinks will be ripe in a day or two—as if it were a secret. He little thinks that I smelled them before he did.”

The ancestral vine to all of Lower East Side sugary sweet kosher wine is still growing in 2014 in Concord, at Grapevine Cottage, 491 Lexington Road.

Now hopscotch to 1899, a year in which restaurateur Sam Schapiro will smell opportunity in the humble Concord grape. I promise, we’re coming back to the casks. But not just yet. This is where the story of the goyishe Transcendentalists gets all mashed up with the hamishe wine merchants.

After arriving in the Lower East Side from Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Schapiro has had middling success with his small corner kosher eatery at 83 Attorney St. There are over 500,000 other Jewish residents of the Lower East Side in 1899, and kosher eateries are a dime a dozen. Kosher whiskey and rum distilleries abound. But what about wine?

Schapiro muses about the Concord grape wine that locals choose to make at home simply because the cheap grape is so readily available in New York. Below 14th Street, especially in the Lower East Side and Little Italy, sidewalks are stained purple, with telltale discarded mash in the gutter.

Bull never made any money from his grape, but the juice has made a fortune for another man, Vineland, N.J. dentist (and adamant teetotaler) Thomas B. Welch, who developed Welch’s Grape Juice in 1869. After 30 years, the nation has gone wild for the new-fangled drink: It is swilled plain, or as Welch-ade, a variation on lemonade. Tons of Concord grapes are now grown in upstate New York to supply the market. The surplus of upstate cut-rate Concord grapes is easily transported to Manhattan on the Hudson River, and Schapiro gets his hands on some. He concocts a primitive wine akin to the homemade version made by poor Jewish immigrants, adding sugar water to balance the considerable acerbity of the grape.

Schapiro adds a small kosher winery to the basement of his restaurant, the first of its kind in New York, and the second in the United States. For the few who splurge on store-bought wine, imported kosher wines from Palestine are the main option, from wineries like Société Cooperative Vigneronne des Grandes Caves-Carmel. Commonly known as Carmel Wine, the dominant brand was kick-started financially in 1882 by the mighty Château Lafite’s Zionist-leaning Baron Edmond de Rothschild, in an attempt to get Palestine’s renewed Jewish viticulture off to a good start. The other option available in stores originates from Anaheim, Calif., where the first kosher wine in America was launched.

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