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 3 of 6)

A Passover Seder requires each adult participant to drink four cups of sacramental wine. It’s an expensive ritual if you add in the weekly Sabbath obligation, so the low cost of the new sugary sweet Concord grape wine suits the impoverished local immigrants.

For the majority of New York Jews, the new pre-bottled made-in-downtown wine is a better option than Palestinian or Californian wine — not only is it an affordable indulgence, but local rabbinical supervision can also be trusted. (Who knows what is going on in that kosher winery that sends their goods east by trains out of California?)

Appealing to American sensibilities and the growing Jewish desire to assimilate, Schapiro first markets his wine as the California Valley Wine Company. In 1907, he relocates his shop to 126 Rivington, and the winery does decent enough business.

“Kosher cellars soon dot the neighborhood, but what is going on underground is not always so kosher, especially during Prohibition.”

A decade later, the 18th Amendment and the accompanying Volstead Act that launches Prohibition are ratified on January 16, 1919, and the big national headache starts on January 17, 1920. Section 6 of the Volstead Act includes an exemption for sacramental beverages. Each family is allowed 10 gallons a year, either made at home or purchased by sacramental winemakers. Schapiro’s son Jacob renames the shop Schapiro’s House of Kosher and Sacramental Wines to indicate the legality of its activities, keeping the corporate name for taxes. The original mass-market Concord grape wine has the most memorable advertising slogan in the history of wine and it stays: “So Thick You Can Almost Cut It With a Knife!”

The competition is eager to get a slivah of the House of Schapiro’s revenue — Schapiro’s now moves over 100,000 cases of wine, with long lines outside his shop before religious holidays.

The Manischewitz family, the meaningful competitors, are over in Brooklyn. They’re known for their matzo, and they don’t make their own wine; Monarch Wine Company over on 105-113 Wooster St. figured out a way to cash in on the biggest name in kosher foods by paying a licensing fee. (Eventually the Star family, owners of Monarch Wines, will move to Brooklyn in 1939 to build an automated establishment, and soon thereafter will dominate even Schapiro’s, who, however, will remain the alpha winery of the Lower East Side.)

Cask Away: The original casks at Hersh Wines, located at 107 Norfolk.
Courtesy of Hillel Weisel
Cask Away: The original casks at Hersh Wines, located at 107 Norfolk.

Kosher cellars soon dot the neighborhood, but what is going on underground is not always so kosher, especially during Prohibition.

From 1920 to 1925, those who engage in chancy practices fear flamboyant Yiddish-speaking agents Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, unemployed vaudeville actors who signed up to be Prohibition agents for the easy bucks, showy men who use costumes and fake accents to catch the bootleggers. In May of 1922, Izzy and Moe seize the coffeemaker in Max Locker’s Kosher Dairy Lunch at 216 Canal, as evidence that what’s served for breakfast is neither kosher nor dairy. Later in November they pose as small-town Kentucky machinery dealers and seize rum from an “office” at 427 West Broadway. (Years later, in 1985, they will be played in a TV movie by Jackie Gleason and Art Carney.)

Despite the growing number of wineries, many Jews ferment wine at home, since the Volstead Act allows an exemption for home religious use. Many Jews make do by saturating raisins in water (adding sugar, salt and spices) to produce a sort-of wine that mimics their sweet old-country fermentations.

My nonagenarian father — Julius Shapiro (no relation to House of Schapiro) — remembers his own father, Sidney Shapiro, an émigré from Jerusalem, making Prohibition-era sacramental wine in the Lower East Side, “like it was yesterday.” While the bottles of wine were fermenting, “Abba” stored them in the room he shared with his brother Sol. “Ima would always buy Concord grapes because they were cheap, in pushcarts on Monroe Street, which was a big pushcart thoroughfare. Sol and I would lug the boxes up the stairs, and there were always six or eight barrels of grapes in our room, and we were always getting yelled at because we were sneaking grapes, which were tasty and tangy. Sol and I were drunk every Passover on Abba’s wine. All the boys were drunk, somehow that was okay.”

Adds my 90-year-old aunt, Paula Goldstein, by phone: “C’mon! We’re talking 80 years ago! You think I can remember specific details?” But three seconds later: “The Concord grapes came in wooden barrels with 1-inch slats and weighed around four or five pounds, containers a foot long maybe, about 5 inches wide, and had a metal handle. The grapes had an acidy taste, but they grew on you. Our mouth would be tart and stinging and the girls got yelled at for sneaking in the boys’ room to steal grapes and put the bunches back in the barrel. Ima chose the coldest place in the railroad flat, Julie and Sol’s bedroom, furthest away from kitchen. She would only be able to get the grapes in fall, and the girls would help her squeeze the grapes and add the sugar, and we had wooden kegs where the wine would sit and ferment. When it was done fermenting, the wine would overflow on floor, and the scent of wine was everywhere. All the kids were drunk on the wine at Passover, not just the boys. Everyone got a sip.”

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