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 5 of 6)

By the 1950s, Schapiro’s is now run by third generation owner Norman Schapiro. It is selling wholesale, and has secured the all-important Sullivan County market, catering to guests staying at Borscht Belt resorts like Grossinger’s and The Concord, who swig grape wine while watching Shecky Greene and Buddy Hackett at show time. Everyone else, including Hersh’s Kosher Wines on 107 Norfolk, is stuck selling retail.

Newfield was his father-in-law’s trusted right-hand man. I call him many times during my winery research. He has a quick answer for everything I ask. “Did 107 Norfolk have a cat?” I ask.

“No cat. Why would we keep a cat alone in the building?”

“For rats?”

“But there nothing for rats to eat.”

“What about the fermenting grape mash?”

“What kind of a winemaker would let wine drip? The casks were sealed. No cat.”

One slow day, Newfield comes up with an idea. Some people suspect that Schapiro’s, which caters to the High Holiday Jews, is not so strict on their kosher, and nobody who is remotely Haredi trusts Manischevitz, rumored to allow gentiles to touch the wine. Here is vulnerability. Newfield, a bona fide ex-yeshiva boy, pulls some strings to get the Orthodox Union to give Hersh’s business an OU. (Now everybody in the kosher wine business has an OU, but Hersh was first.)

The men place a Hebrew-language advertorial in a Jewish paper called HaMoar (or The Illuminator) that stresses that Hersh is beyond discussion kosher, and that everyone in contact with the wine is Shomer Shabbos and keeps the commandments. There is prominent mention of the new OU stamp of approval that Newfield arranged.

Newfield helps his father-in-law make the standard Concord and the Malaga, a Spanish sweet wine mimicked with the Concord grape. For the Malaga they use the Concord but add more sugar syrup, and Newfield marvels how uneducated his father-in-law’s clientele is — they think it is good stuff and from a different grape.

Staff slowly increases, and eventually a larger staff emerges as the grapes come to the door in the fall. Ten weeks before Passover, Hersh instructs Newfield that it’s time to hit up the yeshivas. A dozen yarmulked boys come to pack cartons and help with the samplings. People buy by the gallon; most people save up all year and buy five gallons. It is a mob scene, always, lines down the block, and each winery has a street cop assigned to make sure nobody’s getting more than a taste, and that there’s no drunken melee.

Newfield is bored with his job. As he heads to Brooklyn Law School after hours, he scrubs and scrubs his hands but people on the subway still smell the wine penetration and move away. “The second I passed the bar, at 32, I was out,” he tells me. With Newfield gone, Hersh loses his key employee. He keeps going, but he is wearying.

Over at Schapiro’s, tragedy strikes on October 17, 1961, when Alfred Ratz, 50, and Meyer Rosenfeld, 46, are overcome by toxic fumes while building a plank for a grape-crushing machine full of fermenting mash. Ratz collapses on the surface of the mash, and Rosenfeld, who goes to his aid, also blacks out. Two police officers in gas masks try in vain to resuscitate them.

Song of My Shelf: Today, at the site of the old Schapiro’s, all that remains of its history is this vintage wine bottle.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro
Song of My Shelf: Today, at the site of the old Schapiro’s, all that remains of its history is this vintage wine bottle.

By 1965, the neighborhood is getting dodgy, and Hersh is getting older and ready to call it quits. He calls over at Ganeles-Lenger see if they want to take over the premises. Hersh knows the owner, Rabbi Schmuel Dov Bear Ganeles, who started in Prohibition times with Meyer-Ganeles wine, from way back.

Rabbi Ganeles talks it over with his sons, bright good-looking men on the short side. His natural heir is Sol Ganeles, who is much older than the other two brothers. He’s willing to learn the trade, but he is iffy on the expansion. The next oldest, Billy Ganeles, is having health issues, but the youngest, Simon Ganeles, is keen. Eventually they all say okay. Together they’ll manage.

Six-year-old Corky Ganeles adores visiting her dad, Simon, at the new place on 107 Norfolk, helping with labeling and mechanical gel-capping with tight plastic gel caps that come in a large tub with gluey gel to apply. Simon Ganeles had served in the army as a radio repairman, and after the war started working with his father. He smiles big when she is dropped off, and his hugs smells like fermented wine. Between the brothers, there are many cousins hanging around on the premises and it sometimes feels like a playroom. Kid helpers are often rewarded with a treat: After Shabbos, some men head back to work, but the kids can stay late into the evening, and go with the tired men to early breakfast at Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant a block south, on Delancey Street.

But just one year into the Ganeles’ ownership of the new premises at 107 Norfolk, things are getting worse. The family wants out of the business too — Sol Ganeles is feeling old. Billy Ganeles is not getting better. The children of the three partner-sons are too young to take over.

“At right about this time, a man with many secrets arrives in NYC and approaches Rabbi Babad.”

So, Hersh is out. Ganeles-Lenger is out. But to understand exactly who the next owner of 107 Norfolk St. is, and why he is so important to the story of the building and the story of kosher wine, we must quickly rewind to 1948. This is not a typo — yes reader, we must back up to 1948.

So it’s 1948 again, and we’re at Royal Wines, a struggling corner store kosher cellar at the skinny Little Italy extension of Delancey Street called Kenmare Street. Sixty-year-old Rabbi Yankel Babad is the big macher here, but there are five other partners.

At right about this time, a man with many secrets arrives in NYC and approaches Rabbi Babad. Eugene Herzog, an impoverished refugee and member of an esteemed European family of kosher winemakers, needs a job.

Of course the Royal partners know of the Herzogs, whose founder, Emanuel Herzog, started making wine in 1848 in Vrbové, Slovakia. Emanuel Herzog’s great-grandson Philip Herzog was given the title of baron because Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef so adored his off-dry riesling, and the family became his exclusive wine suppliers.

Eugene Herzog explains to Babad that despite the family’s early fortunes, he arrived in America with only $3,000 and the Herzog family’s wine recipes. During World War II, Nazis seized the winery in Czechoslovakia. His family, including his pregnant wife Sidonia and his children, had survived the Holocaust living off smuggled profits from their winery and its sister brewery, and had placed the business in the trusty hands of a Christian friend who managed production. Sidonia kept kosher in hiding, living off of potatoes cooked in an earthen pot. In 1948, after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, Eugene Herzog liquidated his fortune, afraid they might be shipped to Siberia. They then fled with whatever pocket cash they had on a Pan Am refugee flight organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to New York City. When they arrived in New York on June 3, 1948, they had the potato pot with them.

Rabbi Babad and his men are humbled, but they have no money to pay Eugene Herzog. Would he work for shares and a pittance?

Herzog goes to work for Royal Wine as a winemaker, truck driver, and salesman — a good portion of his salary paid for in company shares. (Two of his sons on the scene in 1948 are still alive in 2014, Philip Herzog, known as “Reb Feish,” and Herman Herzog, known as “Reb Shia.”)

The name of the winery changes as each partner drops out. Eventually, Herzog and his sons gain control of the company.

Government regulation requires storefront retail locations to keep a wine production license, and the Herzog mishpokhe hears the Ganeles family who bought out Hersh, are nearly bust. The Herzogs meet and discuss, and soon make an offer to take over everything. Shortly after, the Herzogs decide on the name Kedem, translated as “Moving forward,” or alternatively “Renew our days as before.”

Even if the sacramental line based on an acidic grape is embarrassing to Herzog — to the heir of a Baron, it’s a wannabe wine with the scent of grapes crashing a wine party — the Lower East Side concoction gives him a $120,000 profit in the first year. He’ll use the company’s cheaply made Concord grape wine to get his dreams going. He invests in costlier vines, and finally has the capital to significantly improve the quality of kosher wines in the United States.

The Herzog family, name and fortune restored, holds on to the 107 Norfolk St. retail outlet into the 1990s, so aging Eugene Herzog can spend time with the casks, tangible reminders of his second chance. He dies in 1995 at the age of 88, and the family finally feels free to sell the property

(Today, Kedem’s lead winemaker is the eight-generation Michael Herzog. The company is now best-known for its super-premium Baron Herzog Varietals line. Herzog Wines are sold in 16 countries, and sell over a million cases per year.)

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