"This is a kosher wine story. When I was doing my research in New York City, I wanted to speak to the grandson of Sam Schapiro, who was a Galician Jewish immigrant who moved to New York at the turn of the century. [He] opened what would become the first big kosher winery in New York City, that catered for the growing population of Eastern European Jews living in the quarter.
Schapiro’s House of Kosher Wine had gone out of business and then it had come back. I’d heard that the grandson was at Essex Street Market selling his wine by the bottle, so I tracked him down there and spent two hours with him while he was selling wine. Their old slogan — I think it’s still the slogan — was ‘Wine so thick you can cut it with a knife,’ and indeed it is viscous stuff, incredibly sweet, and he kept giving me more and more glasses to drink, and I drank them because it was polite.
It was two hours of drinking really potent wine while I was trying to interview him about his family’s involvement in the wine industry and also his family’s activities during the Prohibition era. That interview definitely wasn’t the sharpest I’ve ever done.
However, I did get a couple of nice pieces of information from him, one of which was that indeed his family had had a license to sell sacramental wine in New York during the Prohibition era. And then he said to me, ‘But you know that in the back they had the “juice.”’ He never explained to me what the ‘juice’ meant, so I don’t know if it means they were selling liquor out the back, or selling officially sanctioned sacramental wine out the front, and then if you didn’t have a license you could still buy wine out the back.
The other thing he told me — and this really made me feel like I understood the difficulties of historical research — was that the building on Rivington Street where Schapiro’s had produced its kosher wine for decades, had been sold a couple of years before and was now probably fancy loft apartments, as so many other things are on the Lower East Side. I asked, ‘So were there any records?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, in the basement there was a lot of paper, but it was garbage and what do you do with garbage?’
I just felt my heart sink. I knew there were probably boxes and boxes of fascinating archival information in a landfill somewhere in the tri-state area, never to be seen again. It broke my heart, but it was still a lovely afternoon drinking very sweet wine.”
As told to Matt Philp