Spilling the Tea on Passover Wine

In an effort to find some sweetness in a trying time, we interviewed Maggid Jhos Singer, writer, scholar, Jewish educator, and expert on the history of Manischewitz wine.

Berman Archive: Does anyone but Manischewitz use the Concord grape in wine making?

Jhos Singer: When Jews started arriving in America—a land largely devoid of commercially produced wine—in large numbers in the mid-1800s the quest for Kosher wine was on. As there was no gastronomic snootiness or epicurean standards for Kosher wine, pretty much anything made by a Kosher Jew which originated with fruit from a grape vine and ended up as an alcoholic beverage would do. American grapes notoriously made skanky wine—the domestic varieties having far less sugar and stronger flavored skins made for a mouth puckering and musky quaff. But for Jews this problem was easily overcome by overwhelming the unpleasant flavors with sugar. Concord grapes, introduced in the mid-1800s on the Eastern Seaboard, were all the rage for their dusky hue and flavorful character. Observant East Coast Jewish home wine makers would have had access to the now ubiquitous Concord grapes, and a beautiful relationship began, not entirely unlike peanut butter and chocolate.

From the NYPL Digital Collection

By the late 1800s Jews had arrived in America in enough numbers to drive an economic movement for more widespread commercially produced Kosher foods. The commercial production of Concord Grape Kosher Wine began in earnest in the early 20th Century. The most successful and long lasting came as the result of the efforts of one Sam Schapiro, whose Kosher eatery in New York’s Lower East Side sought to satisfy the many culinary demands of the burgeoning Jewish city dwellers. While Jewish food in NYC has become the stuff of legend, Sam saw past the pickles, herring, and bagels, and in a moment of entrepreneurial brilliance decided to add a Kosher Winery to his restaurant. This was a wildly novel move, as upper crust Jews bought imported Kosher wine, and the hoi polloi made the stuff in the proverbial bathtub. Sam took a chance that maybe he could entice both markets with his Schapiro’s Kosher Wines whose marketing included the phrase, “Wine so thick you can almost cut [it] with a knife.”

What is the “Concord grape” and where did it come from?

American commercial wine culture was a disappointing bust until 1976 (when a California Napa Valley Cabernet and Chardonnay blew the doors off the chateau in the Paris Tasting, which is to wine what the Sundance festival is to film). With one strange exception—Concord Grape Kosher Wine, which is actually an oenophiles version of a portmanteau, since the two components (Concord Grapes and Kosher Wine) had no previous relationship. Kosher wine is any somewhat fermented grape concoction produced by a Sabbath observant Jew. In a pinch this could be a handful of raisins thrown in a crock of water and put it in a warm place until it started to bubble and froth. Come Shabbes the ersatz vintner would pour off the resultant brew and use it for kiddush. Totally kosher. And probably disgusting. 

Concord grapes on the other hand were the 1849 botanical invention of an eccentric teetotalling amateur horticulturist with the fabulous name of Ephraim W. Bull who hailed from Concord, MA. He was looking to propagate a grape hybrid that took advantage of the best qualities of domestic American grapes (Vitus Labrusca, which are utterly unsuitable for wine making), and capable of producing an excellent jelly-making fruit. Next came the brain-child of one passionately Christian member of the temperance movement, one Dr. Thomas Welch, who with the help of Louis Pasteur’s insights about how to arrest certain bacterial activity, came up with the idea of using Concord grapes to produce “Unfermented Wine” aka Grape Juice, which, before pasteurization was an unknown phenomenon, as grapes have a habit of fermenting pretty much as soon as they are picked.

What are some explanations for why we drink four cups of wine at the Seder? 

The Seder is a rabbinic invention most likely modeled on both Arabic wine feasts and Greek symposium. There is no biblical injunction to drink 4 cups of wine or eat blistering horse radish. The Torah commands that one should eat only matzot for a weakish as a remembrance of the gastronomic trials and tribulations of the ancient Israelites story of winning their freedom from bondage. It was the rabbis who found a way to afford folks the privilege of having a long, leisurely, bardic, wine infused, inspirational, feast. They prescribed drinking 4 cups of wine to represent 4 utterances found in Exodus 6:6-7: I am G!D and I will free you from heavy labor in Egypt; I will deliver you from bondage; I will redeem you with an outstretched arm; I will bring you into the land of your ancestors as a possession. Thus we drink ourselves from enslavement to freedom, which is quite an interesting metaphor.

If I were a sommelier I might say that Manischewitz is the John Waters of wine. Crude, coarse, obvious, vulgar, and yet strangely sweet and inviting.

How did Manischewitz come to be the wine of choice for generations of American Jews?

As unlikely as it may seem, the success of Concord Grape Kosher Wine is largely due to the 1919 ratification of the 18th amendment, aka Prohibition, and the following Volstead act of 1920 which exempted sacramental wine making. Kosher Wine was one of the few alcoholic products being legally produced. Unlike Catholics, whose sacrament is given by a priest during a public ceremony, Jews’ consumption of kiddush took place in private homes overseen by the head of the household. Kosher wine was procured by a congregational rabbi to be distributed to his parishioners as requested. As a result, a number of enterprising wine makers shifted their focus from the thankless task of trying to make fine American wine to cranking out Kosher plonk. Membership in Jewish congregations has never been more robust! While there are well documented cases of abuse by Jews of the Volstead Act’s leniencies for  sacramental wine, so too is there ample evidence that the prohibitionists harbored vitriolic hostility against Jews and jumped on any bad press to support their antisemitism. Under this scrutiny, a clever couple of Jewish wine makers, Leo Star and Meyer Robinson, came up with a plan to maximize the clientele for Kosher Wine while bypassing the controversy. After the 18th amendment was repealed in 1930, Star and Robinson cut a licensing deal with the Manischewitz Baking Company, a well established kosher brand associated with healthy, wholesome, and nutritious foods. With the deal signed and shaken on, they started producing  the now eponymous Manischewitz Kosher Concord Grape wine.

Putting on your best sommelier’s voice and attitude, how would you describe the flavor(s) of Manischewitz Concorde Grape wine?

If I were a sommelier I might say that Manischewitz is the John Waters of wine. Crude, coarse, obvious, vulgar, and yet strangely sweet and inviting. The thing is that Manischewitz, by which I mean all sweet Kosher Concord grape wine, does not register on the oenophile’s palate, imagination or effort. To the wine connoisseur and a wine ignoramus alike, Manischewitz, first and foremost tastes sweet and grapey, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. To really appreciate its subtleties, one must have experienced it at shul or at a seder. In which case it might have top notes of bubbe Selma’s high pitched giggle. It might have the velvety body of holding the Torah when being welcomed into the covenant. The bouquet might be reminiscent of the flower arrangements that your favorite uncle Marc always brought on shabbat until he died from some mysterious cancer he got in 1985 (and mom always changed the subject when someone asked her “What kind of cancer did Marc have anyway?”). You might pick up notes of earthy root vegetables, a garrigue of parsley, radish, and dill, and a subtle hit of saline minerality that holds it all together; and the finish is like stewed fruit, laughter, song, and a quest, with a whiff of prophecy on the exhale.

What kavvanot (intentions) are you preparing for this year’s Seder?

Why is this year different from all other years? Well, because it is and that has always been the case. However, this year I think those of us who are entangled in the Jewish project in some way, shape, form, or another are more profoundly aware of our inner Pharoah this year—that part of our heart that hardens even without our permission, that angry impulse that let’s harsh words fly against our better judgment. This year the wine we drink should be approached carefully. We who engage in this ritual must be mindful that wine is our sacred inebriant, and as such it should soften our hearts and boost our courage but beware lest it loosen our fury and increase our hubris. May we remember that even Moses acted like Pharaoh once, hard hearted and murderous—and he spent the rest of his life trying to walk that one back. This year, maybe we can be a little less certain, a little less proud, a little more humble. If we must challenge, let us challenge God to soften and sweeten our hearts, every one, for certainly that would be the greatest miracle of all.  

Maggid Jhos Singer is a frequent contributor to SVARA’s Hot Off The Shtender and has written for Keshet’s Torah Queeries, and the on-line magazines Tikkun and Kill The Buddha. His other work includes contributions to the anthologies Balancing On The Mechitza, Torah Queeries, and ELItalks. He holds an MA in Jewish Studies from the Graduate Theological Union where he produced a thesis with the unlikely title, Judaism In A Bottle: The Life and Times of Manischewitz Wine. He is on the team of Jewish Educators at the JCC of San Francisco, where among other things he designs Jewish themed cocktails as a teaching device for the Jewishly nervous. 


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