Pour yourself a glass of wine — this is a story that needs a little extra time set aside. It’s a twisty tale of three centuries, and how improbable connections made New York City into the city it is today, and how difficult it is to keep moving forward without destroying what lies behind.
Let’s begin then, with a Generation X couple dividing the Sunday paper on the morning of January 5, 1997, in a 14th-floor Lower East Side middle class kitchen. Eventually, 26-year-old Melissa Caruso hands the New York Times Metro Section to John Scott, her college sweetheart and fiancé, and asks him to read a curious article out loud. Available for lease at $4,950 a month is an abandoned 5,000 square foot, one-story retail space at 107 Norfolk St. — complete with a basement catacombs containing 28 abandoned jumbo wine casks.
The site, according to the Times reporter, once belonged to the country’s leading kosher wine corporation, Kedem, and might date to the turn of the 20th century.
Over more coffee, John reads on. The abandoned tiny retail shop is an urban relic, the casks in the basement unknown to property owner Bill Gottlieb until after the sale. According to The Times, Gottlieb had been on a Lower East Side buying spree, snatching up buildings; the crumbling neighborhood is rumored to be on the cusp of a revival.
Melissa and John call a friend in the know who tells them Gottlieb is a wealthy eccentric, a disheveled real estate magnate known for inadvertently preserving New York’s history by never fixing anything up before a sale. It is not unusual to see him wearing crumpled, stained clothes, or driving a car with broken glass windows.
Fixated on the casks, the breakfasters forge a screwy plan over their remaining rare hour together — John has to soon head north for his shift at grungy alt.coffee, one of the first Internet coffeehouses in New York City, where he and his fiancée are co-owners. They’ll loop in that hipster heiress they know who “maybe wants to invest in future projects.” They envision doing something more ambitious with her money, maybe an edgy performance art space connected to wine.
After hearing the initial pitch on the phone, the heiress sends her boyfriend to join the young entrepreneurs on their exploratory trip to Norfolk Street, a part of town best known in 1997 for crack deals. They meet with Michael, Gottlieb’s 30-ish no-nonsense Chinese-American assistant.
William Gottlieb Management has not spent a dime on staging the property. Decaying corks, wine bottles, and boxes of mid-century labels for sugary sweet Kedem Concord grape wine are everywhere.
The heiress’s boyfriend says nothing during the tour of the winery. Then, at the sound of rats scrabbling in the walls, he flees the scene. But Melissa and John are still drawn to the magical cooperage languishing in the basement — those 3,000- and 5,000-gallon casks that once held fermenting acidic grape mash balanced with sugar water.
John cannot see how they are going to swing it, but Melissa is determined. After all, her roots are here — she grew up in the Seward Park Houses on Grand Street. She was schooled at the now defunct East Side Hebrew Institute (alumni include executed Communist spy Julius Rosenberg and comedian Paul Reiser). Her parents met as teachers in a public school two blocks away.
John nods. An Air Force brat raised without religion, he does not share her indigenous pride, but he has just spent 12 months converting to Judaism for the love of his woman, who was raised Conservative. He dials a friend, Ted Reichman, alt.coffee’s part-time accordion player and music booker, and begs him to go down to the site to test the acoustics. Ted leaves the squeezebox at home, but meets his bosses outside the entryway to 107 Norfolk. The real estate assistant waits as Ted claps a few notes on both floors until he finds a sweet spot where a stage may go. He admits to his young employers that he’s surprised the acoustics are that amazing.
Melissa and John marry shortly thereafter, and delay their formal honeymoon to keep talking to the assistant. Can they find a way to borrow enough and make 107 Norfolk work? When it’s obvious the Scotts are serious, they are introduced to the mysterious Gottlieb: a stubby man with a roundish face and a potbelly — and yes, he’s wearing crumpled clothes.
The Scotts tell Gottlieb that whatever they will do, the old casks will have to be incorporated into a design. Eventually they tap into their savings, and in a 20-something tradition, max out their credit cards. Gottlieb takes a genuine interest in the couple and turns down a couple of other potential (and wealthier) renters because they want to remove the casks.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.”
After Prohibition’s 1933 repeal, Schapiro and his kin still dominate upstart kosher-wine competitors from their 124-126 Rivington address. Lifshitz’s Rumanian American Wine (aka Monterey Wine) is at 112, the western end of Rivington, where the Rumanian Jewish populations are. Lifshitz is no Schapiro’s, but the brand has enough money to be advertised during Passover season on WEVD radio, which reaches most of the Yiddish-speaking audience of New York.
Ganeles-Lenger Wine Corporation is at 136 Ludlow and maintains a second office at 236-244 Eldridge St., having bought out New York State Fruit Products (manufacturers of House of David and Belmont Kosher wine) in order to expand.
There’s also Baumgarten’s at 70 Stanton and 181 Allen; Cohen’s Kosher Wines at 235 Eldridge; Pure Wine at 149 East Broadway; Greiff Wines at 132 Norfolk; Birnbaum’s Winery (Crystal Wine) at 179 East Broadway; and Central Grape is at 25 First Ave. I. Greher’s Clinton Wine and Liquor at 58-62 Clinton sells all brands, and advertises itself as “The Only Sabbath-Observing Wine and Liquor Store in N. Y.”
Like Manischevitz, Streit’s Matzo has a wine brand, but it is made by vintners in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Carmel Wines, the agent for the big rival wine in the New York market, Palestinian wine, is run by Rabbi I. M Kowalsky at Palestine House on 10 W. 28th St.
In Chicago, the Cohen and Marcus families produce Mogen David, a Concord grape wine popular in the Midwest.
And meanwhile in 1943 over at 107 Norfolk St., a one-story building built in 1939 as a kosher meat storage unit (that doubles as a kosher sausage factory) is being shown to a potential buyer, Joseph Abraham Hersh, a Hungarian immigrant with a grocery store right where Ridge Street meets the Williamsburg Bridge.
The stocky, bespectacled, 5-foot-9-inch immigrant son of a Hungarian vintner is a proud and proper man who always wears a suit to walk to his store, where he changes into his work pants. He has decided he will branch into the Concord grape trade, under the name Hungarian Grape Products, with a partner. But this doesn’t work out, and by 1943 he has decided to go solo and connects with a man named Harry G. Silverstein, whose family owns 107 Norfolk St.
The empty one-story sausage factory has replaced a residential tenement, which replaced a brick dwelling. In 1897, a shoemaker named Isaac Silverstein who lived there was shot in the eye by his nephew, Abraham Silverstein.
Silverstein. Take note of that name: Hersh’s real estate “broker” Harry G. Silverstein is a descendant of that unfortunate shoemaker.
Hersh buys 107 Norfolk St. in July and moves in his business. He arranges for local coopers to build 28 casks in two sizes, out of oak and Douglas fir. He also asks his daughter Rita’s husband, the articulate and outgoing 20-year-old Meyer Newfield, to serve as his assistant winemaker. Newfield is fit and tall and Hersh needs some extra muscle. Newfield agrees to help out — he wants to go to law school, and needs to save some money.
“We were in neighboring East Broadway tenements, that’s how Rita and I got married,” says Newfield, now an 88-year-old widower, from his winter condo in Century Village of Deerfield Beach, Fla. “We were little winemakers, Schapiro was the star!” Newfield is the father of four daughters, and grandfather and great-grandfather to so many children that he is not sure of the exact count. Yet he can name all the kosher winemakers in the Eighth Ward, 60 years later. “Ganeles-Lenger was number two, Hersh was three, and Lifshitz four. The rest were not so big. But we all made the same sugary wine.”
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?”
“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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 DigMyPics.com, 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.
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).