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 6 of 6)

And now we are back to the Scotts, back to 1997, back to primetime hipster Generation X Lower East Side. The Scotts spend a long, cold honeymoon ripping down the false ceiling of the old kosher winery and hand-staining 2,500 square feet of beams. I first meet the Scotts the day before Tonic opens, walking in off the street like any good Lower East Side yenta, to see what is what. I end up staying for over an hour, bonding with them over a love of the neighborhood, and continue to stop by often during off hours for progress reports. John is a young man with a perpetual smile and mighty sideburns, and Melissa a dark-haired, green-eyed sophisticate with a perfect figure, sporting raisin lipstick and exquisite vintage dresses.

Tonic opens in March 1998, featuring an eclectic array of progressive jazz and rock musicians.

For the first few months, elderly Orthodox men see the lights on and knock on the doors to buy wine, thinking optimistically that Kedem has reopened.

Since the lease was signed, the Scotts have discovered that the old Kedem barrels described in the Times as oak, some 6-feet high, some 8-feet, are actually made from two different types of wood. The ones built from Douglas fir are thicker and softer and coated with a black wax, while the oak barrels are older and are crusted with barnacle-like clusters of pinkish red residue crystals.

And best of all, the Scotts have so much termite-free fantastic wood! They dismantle three barrels to make the space more open. The Scotts do their own renovation and readily concede that the strain of establishing a DIY nightclub is overwhelming. John has great ideas, but each day brings distractions. He is one day the webmaster, next day the accountant, and next day the plumber. Needing help, he hires a regular early customer, artist Charlie Becker, who has quit his job as a designer at Atlantic Records and is seeking a career change. He wants to work with his hands.

John and Charlie cut holes in three of the 8-foot casks so customers can climb in. These private spaces promise intimate moments tinged by the lingering scent of grape mash. The Scotts keep the remade seating in the basement level, used first as a green room, where artists like Sonic Youth and Medeski Martin & Wood relax before performances upstairs on the wooden stage also fashioned from cask wood.

Living Colour’s super-talkative Vernon Reid falls in love with the casks and soon leads a talk salon in the casks, almost never about music. A salon regular is Jaron Lanier, the dreadlocked visionary who popularized the term virtual reality.

John and Charlie strip the steel bands from the casks, and then meld the metal bands into bar stools and Charlie forges the remaining steel from the casks into a sizeable wall sculpture of ornamental arcs and circles.

The New York scene, always thirsty for novelty, loves the magazine photos of edgy celebrities in the climb-in creations. The original design, while undeniably cool, begins to feel anti-social overtime, so Charlie widens the holes to make the people lolling inside the casks more visible.

A bar is built from the cask wood. John and Charlie envision banquets and more booths with what remains of the reserve, but without that trust fund credit line, there is never enough money to proceed.

In that first year after Tonic opens in 1998, the Scotts aren’t quite sure what’s going to work. They try a bit of everything, including operating one walled-off section of the building as a hair salon. It later becomes Incommunicado Press, a carefully curated bookstore owned by Gary Hustwit, who later goes on to cause an unlikely splash with “Helvetica,” a documentary film about the font of the same name. After Hustwit’s departure, the space became the headquarters of the publisher Soft Skull Press.

Soon the club has nights reserved for comedy, spoken word and burlesque.

And then in the door comes John Zorn, a leading avant-garde composer who offers to create a week of alternative music. The basement is rechristened SubTonic, and slowly catches on as an autonomous performance space, made popular by The Bunker, a DJ collective overseen by Bryan Kasenic and his wife Seze Devres.

(One day, Meyer Newfield drops by and silently observes, telling no one he is connected to the building’s past. He has no idea what is going on in this new space! Oy vey!)

Tonic’s Sunday klezmer brunches are led by renowned clarinetist David Krakauer and give an excuse for the late 1990s hipsters to drag their grandparents to the establishment. The bar serves authentic egg creams with Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup, and local fare: Kossar’s bialys and Russ and Daughters’ nova. “It was always great to stuff five or six people into one of the huge barrels downstairs and have a glass of wine in our own private booth,” Krakauer recalls.

On Passover, private Seders with Kedem wine are attended by the nightclub’s regular musicians, led by Zorn’s soon-to-be brother-in-law: psychiatrist-to-artists Martin Wilner. (One Seder, Sean Lennon reads two of the Four Questions in not-half-bad Hebrew, and explains he had some Hebrew school lessons, but does not elaborate.)

What happens next still makes former regulars sigh. It’s not just one more local joint that shuts down. It’s a severing of the historical connection that Tonic was trying to create.

“We all sorely miss that special ambience that was so unique there,” said David Krakauer. “But now it’s part of history.”

A different, more moneyed gentrification arrives. Keith McNally, the prosperous owner of Tribeca’s Odeon and SoHo’s Balthazar, opens Schiller’s Liquor Bar at Rivington and Norfolk Streets, and spends a whispered million dollars to achieve a tenement look with fake bullet holes in the glass. Rents skyrocket.

Schapiro’s is the only holdout with their 100-plus casks made of redwood and oak, and a cellar so large that it extends underneath seven buildings. But the family’s newest generation decides to cash in on an astounding Lower East Side real estate boom that Gottlieb predicted — they sell the buildings for $2.3 million in 2000.

The Scotts panic and organize a series of finger-in-dyke fundraisers that raise over $100,000. Even Yoko Ono stops by to perform. But it’s a losing battle. Tonic schedules a last show for April 13, 2007 with their most popular acts, Zorn upstairs and The Bunker in SubTonic. The next day, upon locking the gates, there are over 100 protestors. Several heartbroken regulars are arrested for refusing to leave the premises.

“I think I can safely speak for everyone who was part of that scene in saying that we all sorely miss that special ambience that was so unique there,” says Krakauer. “But now it’s part of history.”

I have known Melissa 16 years, but only now will she speak freely of the ugly end with the cops and the civil disobedience zoo and the legal battle with William Gottlieb Management.

She thought she could hold back time, and the power of New York real estate speculation, but now she has made peace with what she cannot control.

“In a way we were ahead of our time,” she says. “We were already off the beaten path, and then on top of that we had a hidden basement. Even with all the press, it was a hard sell. Shortly thereafter, secret hidden bars and restaurants became all the rage.”

Melissa concedes that at first the loss was a crushing disappointment, but that she and John moved on to do the more mundane but also significant work of starting a family. The wine casks were left there. What else could they do?  

“I have what wood we could take by car in storage, maybe enough to make a sauna,” she tells me. “Or maybe I’ll gift it to my sons, see what they make of it.”

Following this conversation, I stumble upon a 2009 Flickr comment by Connecticut oil salesman Hillel Weisel on an image an amateur photographer posted of a fading street sign of Hersh Wines, which I cannot find while walking in my neighborhood in 2014. In the comment, he claims to be the grandson of Joseph Hersh, Newfield’s father-in-law. I join Flickr to reach him, and Hillel emails me 30 minutes later. As it happens, he and his family are coming to the Lower East Side the next day for a semi-annual pilgrimage to the world of his grandfathers. I join him, his wife Audra, and Audra’s father Alan Daninhirsch and we head over to the latest incarnation of 107 Norfolk St., the Lisa Cooley gallery.

The front of the one-story building is still there, surrounded by the new rising skyscrapers of New York, reminiscent of “The Little House,” the humble country home swallowed up by an emerging city in the 1944 picture book by Virginia Lee Burton. 107 Norfolk has survived, but it is sandwiched between the Blue Building (designed by former dean of Columbia University’s architecture school, Bernard Tschumi), which has $2 million apartments for sale, and a second modern smaller tower to the other side.

Carrying bags of pickles, bialys, doughnuts and old-time candy, Hillel takes a breath and goes inside.

After a brief talk with gallery director Kelly Woods, she silently leads our party of four to all that remains from the nightclub, the graffitied firewall in the basement. She points out the wooden beams above that remain from the original building, beams the Scotts worked so hard to reveal and hand-stain. The brickwork remains.

Gone is the nightly bustle, the sometimes-wonky loudspeakers. But crucially, what happened to the casks?

Demolished, Kelly admits. It was the cheapest method of removal. “One of our gallery’s artists cut out part of the ticket booth,” she says. “He’s making it into a sculpture for a future exhibit.”

But the ticket booth has no history for Hillel. It was only the casks he remembers.

We say good-bye to the gallerists, and Hillel leads me to a corner nearby, Orchard and Rivington, where $300 Earnest Sewn jeans are sold. He cannot accept that the poster for Hersh Wines is gone. On the outside of the establishment are a few bits of the poster. He is horrified to see that since his last visit, the already faded advertisement has reached this dilapidated state.

We head to Schapiro’s Eatery, a new non-kosher restaurant whose name is a nod to the street’s storied past. I explain that I have heard that the cellars are underneath. The Israeli co-owner David Shemesh is outside, walking his dog, Shapiro (no c), and admits that the timeworn Schapiro’s cellars start next door, in Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery, whose owner Peggy Williams lets us look in the cellar, and points to a bottle of Schapiro’s wine near the cupcakes. The bottle and cellar full of baking supplies are about all that remains of the old Schapiro’s and the story of Lower East Side wine. The rest of the history exists in photographs and eBay finds, such as an old Haggadah that features Ganeles-Lenger wine on its cover — same inside as Maxwell House.

But on the last day of writing this story, Hillel calls me, and says he has to tell me something special he forgot to mention.

On Monday, May 5, 2008 at approximately 2 a.m. Arizona time, the Hersh family’s original documents were destroyed and lost forever. Hillel’s brother, David Weisel, had sent their collection to, the largest American photo scanning and video transfer service. The company informed David that they were among the 100 plus customers who collectively lost thousands of original archives in a massive blaze at the one-story warehouse in Gilbert, Ariz. The fire that engulfed the building made national news. A roof collapse was a direct hit on 100 plastic boxes containing the stored photographic material. Some of the material survived the fall, which crushed a large portion of the storage facility. The Weisels, the Hersh wine heirs, were distraught.

The Little Building That Could: The facade of Tonic still remains. Photo is from “Five Days at Tonic,” a documentary film by Matthew Kohn.
Stephanie Palmer
The Little Building That Could: The facade of Tonic still remains. Photo is from “Five Days at Tonic,” a documentary film by Matthew Kohn.

Gone was their small slice of Lower East Side history that nobody but the family cared about. They waited for any news. A few months later, they received a call informing them that they were among the lucky ones — their digital files had been retrieved.

If nothing else, at least the earliest pictures of the casks in operation were saved.

Eager for a happy ending to this story, I spend a few minutes clicking on the photos. I call my dad, who, like Meyer Newfield, lives in a Century Village complex during the winter. We are supposed to make Passover plans for Florida, but he senses my dismay at the story of the casks.

“The biggest mistake you’re making is romanticizing the past,” he tells me. “ I’m a big believer in ‘it is what is.’ Parts of my life were no picnic. After the Depression my brother and I had to chop wood from empty buildings, we couldn’t afford coal, we had to line up for milk at P.S. 2 and my father was sick. Even with my mother working we had to go on home relief. But if you don’t remember the past you’re not alive.”

“You ever read Proust?” my dad asks me. “I never actually read him but I know him well enough. Understand, at 93, I have very little control of my life. When you get older it doesn’t get better. Some people like Gloria Steinem don’t mind, but I think the happy ones are a little crazy. But some things really do give you a momentary happiness. When you come down here, we’ll get a bottle of Kedem from Publix. The smell of Kedem reminds me of an apartment I lived in 90 years ago, where I became a human being. I’ll never forget the musky scent of the Concord grape. It was the smell I fell asleep to. I’ll tell you what, we’ll give some wine to your daughter and let her eat as many macaroons as she wants. Let her have a good time. Let her get drunk, she’ll tell her grandkids, ‘My crazy old grandpa let me get drunk.’ And don’t forget to pack the Maxwell House Haggadahs. I don’t like those new bullshit Hagaddahs.”

Laurie Gwen Shapiro, novelist and documentary filmmaker, is currently working on her first non-fiction book, about a Lower East Side kid who was a stowaway on Commander Byrd’s 1928 Antarctica expedition (Simon & Schuster, 2016).

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