The nativist roots of America's quintessential Jewish wine
AT PASSOVER SEDERS across America last night, the ritual downing of four cups of wine was almost invariably accomplished with a varietal so heavy and sweet that it could fairly be mistaken for alcohol-fortified pancake syrup.
Whether it goes by Manischewitz, Schapiro's, or Baron Herzog, this burly potation, which anchors most American Jewish sacramental occasions, is frequently assumed to be the quintessential kosher wine, the very thing Solomon quaffed after a long day of wisdom-making. In fact, basic requirements for kosher wine - that its makers be Sabbath-observant Jews, and that the product does not come in contact with non-kosher foodstuffs - are silent on the matter of taste, color, and texture. And in America, at least, the emblematic kosher wines owe these qualities to a New World grape, the Concord, that was promoted in the 1860s as a nativist retort to European vines believed to have been corrupted by their ancient ''Semitic'' origins.
The story of America's only counter-Semitic grape, is told by Rutgers historian Philip J. Pauly in the January 2005 issue of Arnoldia, the quarterly journal of the Arnold Arboretum. It begins with Ephraim Wales Bull, a Boston goldleaf artisan and amateur farmer who relocated to rural Concord in 1836 at age 30. There, inspired by notions of a pure American civilization whose example would shame debauched Europe, Bull devoted himself to developing varieties of Vitis labrusca, the then-dominant North American grape species that would replace the morally degenerate European species, Vitis vinifera, as the source of American wine.
The problem he faced was that labrusca, while hardier than vinifera, bore fruit that was a natural disaster: small, leathery-skinned, sour, and rank. (Some colonists dubbed it ''Fox grape,'' while others mentioned skunk or feces.) And fermentation only amplified its rude qualities. Bull, however, believed he could turn this scrappy Yankee Doodle of a fruit into a civil, if forceful, sire of an American wine industry in a matter of years.
The legend advanced by Bull, and adopted by a public hungry for foundation myths, manages to nudge every touchstone of 19th-century American exceptionalism. The Concord vine, goes the story, began as a labrusca grape deposited by birds or young boys (Innocence) in a patch of uncultivated ground at the edge of Bull's garden (Nature), where it raised itself up (Self-Determination) in proximity to Bull (Yeoman Farmer of Anglo-Saxon Extraction), who recognized the vine's (Original) qualities and planted and replanted its progeny (Labor, informed by Science) and was rewarded (Graced) in 1849, after a mere two or three generations of development (Only in America), with an edible fruit to which he gave the name of its birthplace - Concord - which also happened to be the birthplace of American independence, literature, and thought.
Scientists have long known that the story's core - the Concord's native purity - was fiction. New World colonists had been planting vinifera for centuries, causing untold hybridizations, both purposeful and accidental. (Vitis is a remarkably libidinous genus.) Writing in Arnoldia, Pauly surmises that given the ardent grape cultivations of Concord's citizens (Bull alone is credited with some 22,000 crossbreedings), even the vine Bull found growing at the edge of his garden is unlikely to have been pure labrusca, or kosher by nativist standards.
While it still made harsh wine, Bull's Concord was soon puffed as ''the greatest acquisition...to our hardy grape'' and the native alternative to its ''too tender Syrian brothers,'' which Pauly calls a ''coded reference to Semitic-Jewish degeneracy'' that had degraded vinifera during its formative millennia ''among Semitic peoples'' in the ancient Middle East. Selling for a stunning $5 per vine, the Concord was planted out to Missouri by 1865, when newspaper mogul Horace Greeley dubbed it America's ''best grape for general cultivation.''
Bull profited little, as propagators across the country sold the vine without paying royalties. He did, however, parlay his agricultural hero status into lecture gigs at state fairs and Harvard College and into election to both chambers of the State House as a herald of the anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant American Partypungently remembered as the Know Nothings. But his wife left him in 1871, and he lived alone and bitter in ''Grapevine Cottage'' until two years before his death in 1895 at age 89. His tombstone in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery was inscribed ''He sowed; others reaped.''
Among those who reaped was Thomas Welch, a New Jersey dentist, inventor, and devout Methodist who believed that his Savior had been a teetotaler and that New Testament citations of wine were perforce references to a non-alcoholic grape drink. Using the new technique of pasteurization and adding copious amounts of sugar, Welch turned the juice of the plenteous Concord into ''Dr. Welch's Church Wine'' in 1869. Under the inspired ministrations of his son Charles, the product became ''Welch's Grape Juice'' in 1893, the first commercially available fruit juice in history and the first American beverage to promise male drinkers sexual advantage (''The lips that touch Welch's are all that touch mine''). Welch's drove Concord production in New York state alone to nearly 300 tons per year by 1897.
The Concord went kosher two years later, when a small-time Polish immigrant restaurateur in Manhattan named Sam Schapiro founded America's first kosher wine operation in a cellar on the Lower East Side. Like Welch, Schapiro appreciated the Concord grape for its price and availability. So did his eventual competitors, though none but Sam thought to boast of ''Wine so thick you can cut it with a knife.'' Today, American kosher wine draws $27 million in annual sales.
Linda Schapiro, a third-generation member of the family that still runs Schapiro's Kosher Winery, estimates the likelihood of Sam knowing the Concord's nativist history - which was news to her too - at zero. He ''could hardly speak English,'' she said. Besides, ''what could he have done anyway?'' she shrugs, as other Jews shrug over the anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot, Wagner, and Heidegger. Kosher is about product, not people.
Pauly, who is completing a book on American horticultural history, notes in Arnoldia that ''cultural hybridization has been a characteristic phenomenon in the history of North America during the last 400 years; it would be surprising if grapes were different.'' On this Passover, as most American winemakers (including some kosher ones) focus on producing high-toned European varieties, it's thanks to cultural hybridizers like Sam Schapiro that the nation still has the Concord wine industry that Ephraim Wales Bull yearned for, sort of.
Ben Birnbaum is an essayist and the editor of Boston College Magazine.