Schapiro's Wine

Just as Eastern European Jewish immigrants established delicatessens, restaurants, and bakeries that offered their patrons food like that of the “old country,” so too did they create their own wineries, producing wine under strict rabbinic supervision. Notable among these were the Mogen David winery of Chicago; the Kedem, House of David, Crystal, and Belmont wineries of New York City; and Manischewitz of Brooklyn, which eventually established itself as the country’s leading producer of kosher wine. And just as Jewish food purveyors adapted traditional menus to the new ingredients available in America (this is, for instance, how salmon replaced carp as the Jews’ favorite fish), the new kosher wineries turned to the only variety of grape readily available on the East Coast – the Concord grape. The result was a distinctively thick, sweet wine, dismissed by some Jews as redolent of cough syrup but celebrated by many others as reminiscent of the homemade wines of Eastern Europe. Even today, for many Jewish families, sweet Concord grape wine is as much a fixture of Passover seders as potato latkes are on Hanukkah.

Founded in 1899 on New York’s Lower East Side with the unlikely name of the California Valley Wine Company, the Schapiro Wine Company quickly became one of the largest and most recognizable of the kosher wineries. Far from attempting to downplay its wines’ syrupy sweetness, the company celebrated it with the famous slogan, “Wine so thick you can almost cut it with a knife.” For generations Schapiro’s crushed grapes in a series of cellars that ran an entire block beneath Rivington Street; the wine was sold in its flagship store at 126 Rivington (during Prohibition the store was granted an exemption to stay open to sell “sacramental wine”), as well as in wine shops and liquor stores around the country. The company also produced a line of wines that leading Catskills hotels – such as the Concord, the Nevele, and Kutsher’s – sold under their own labels, examples of which are shown here.

In 2000 the owners of Schapiro’s sold the building on Rivington Street, and the company now produces its wine in Monticello, New York. In another instance of the gentrification that has overtaken the Lower East Side, the site of the former Schapiro Wine store is now a cupcake bakery called Sugar Sweet Sunshine.

By the end of the 1960s the Jewish community was assimilating into American life, and earlier uneasiness about assertions of Jewish identity had made way for more confident assertions of ethnicity. Large national food corporations continued to appeal to Jewish consumers – as in advertisements from soda companies like Coca-Cola for products made kosher for Passover.  In an even more striking phenomenon, venerable Jewish companies began to reach out to a mainstream audience.  Hebrew National touted its hot dogs as superior because “We’re kosher, and have to answer to a higher authority,” while the makers of Levy’s rye bread rolled out an advertising campaign assuring Americans that “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” So too did kosher wineries seek to expand into the broader American market, with advertisements suggesting that kosher wine was (in the words of one Manischewitz advertisement) “everybody’s wine,” while also producing less-sweet varieties to appeal to those who had not grown up drinking Concord grape and blackberry wine. Mogen David even produced a book entitled Recipes the Whole Family Will Enjoy, featuring decidedly non-Jewish celebrities such as James Mason and Xavier Cugat.

Today, the mainstreaming of Jewish food shows no signs of abating. One recent study estimated that nearly half of all the products in a typical American supermarket bear a kosher stamp, while some market researchers estimate that as much as nine-tenths of kosher food is purchased by non-Jews (many of whom believe – often mistakenly – that it is healthier than other food). At the same time, traditional Jewish foods are fast disappearing or becoming deracinated. Nowhere is the latter trend more evident than in the case of that most iconic Jewish food, the bagel. Bagels are now sold as “breakfast sandwiches” at McDonald’s, often topped with ham and cheese, and the largest purveyor of bagels nationwide is Dunkin’ Donuts. As bagel shops offer varieties including blueberry, jalapeno, and sun-dried tomato, it is fair to surmise that many Americans no longer identify the bagel as a Jewish food.

Even the most observant Jews are now free to eat kosher sushi, waffles, and gummi bears. Traditional Jewish delicatessens and bakeries are increasingly scarce, and very few of the dishes found in those early Jewish cookbooks are still being made at home. Surveying the assimilation of Jewish food in America in the early twenty-first century, one might wonder what has been gained, and, just as surely, what has been lost.

-Matthew Goodman

August 31, 2010