The 11th Plague? Why People Drink Sweet Wine on Passover

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Wines like Manischewitz aren't very good—but consumers love them anyway. The story of a uniquely American holiday tradition.

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"A seder without sweet Manischewitz," the comedian Jackie Mason once said, "would be like horseradish without tears, like a cantor without a voice, like a shul without a complaint, like a yenta without a big mouth, like Passover without Jews." To the uninitiated, Passover wine is an ethnic curiosity, or a culinary ordeal on a par with lutefisk. Those who grew up drinking it, though, find in Concord grape wine the taste of Jewish tradition. And that's ironic, because there may be no more thoroughly American beverage.

The central ritual of Passover is the seder, a recounting of the Exodus over four cups of wine. Jewish law stipulates that kosher wine be produced and handled only by Jews, a requirement that initially proved difficult to meet in North America. Early cultivars of native grape species were poorly adapted for viticulture, and imported grape vines succumbed to cold, mildew, and fungi. The few who could afford it imported wine from Europe. Others relied on a stipulation that, in exigencies, allowed other premium beverages to be substituted for wine. So Jews filled their seder cups with everything from hard cider to clear Jamaican rum.

Horace Greeley named the Concord the best grape for general cultivation in 1866, awarding it a $100 prize and declaring it "the grape for millions."

The most popular solution, though, was adapted from a common custom of the old country. Immigrants soaked raisins in water and boiled down the liquid, producing an ersatz wine. It was thicker and sweeter than wine from grapes. Most raisin wine was non-alcoholic, either because American Jews mistakenly conflated fermentation with leavening, which was proscribed on Passover, or because this left it exempt from excise taxes. Some made the wine at home, but production also migrated to small shops and basement wineries. By 1890, the six leading vendors in New York alone sold 40,000 gallons of this Passover wine.

Enter the Concord grape. It was developed by an eccentric Yankee named Ephraim Wales Bull, who was determined to breed a grape hardy enough to thrive in New England by planting the seeds of native vines. In 1849, after six years of labor, he plucked a bunch from an early-ripening vine, and declared success. The Concord grape went on sale in 1854, and rapidly spread throughout the country. Horace Greeley named it the best grape for general cultivation in 1866, awarding it a $100 prize and declaring it "the grape for millions." Bull was immensely proud of having developed the leading "native grape."

In that, Bull was only partially correct. The Concord was "probably the result of at least two generations of mixed breeding," one scholar recently concluded. But if, as the hybrid offspring of immigrant and native stock, it failed to meet Bull's goal of national purity, it nevertheless perfectly embodies our more modern understanding of our national character.

The Concord helped create the category of table grape, and proved well-adapted to jellying. In New Jersey, a Methodist dentist named Thomas Welch decided to pasteurize its juice, to produce a non-alcoholic beverage for sacramental use. Churches friendly to the temperance movement soon embraced Dr. Welch's Grape Juice, which was also touted for its health benefits.  

Much to the dismay of its early backers, though, the Concord produced disappointing wines. In 1869, one reviewer observed that "some were of incredible nastiness, while others, made from perfectly ripe grapes with the addition of sugar, were comparatively palatable, although by no means of great merit." And that was the verdict of an enthusiast.

But to Jewish immigrants, the Concord grape promised an attractive alternative to Passover raisin wine. It was fairly cheap, abundant, and most important of all, local. Controversy raged over California wines arriving in eastern markets, with some influential rabbis questioning whether they could really be trusted. Concord grapes could be harvested, and turned into wine, under local rabbinical supervision. The wine also had another key advantage: shelf-life. "[W]hen I was a little girl," one former denizen of the Lower East Side recalled, "...my father used to buy a gallon and have it for a whole year."

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University, and a lecturer in history at Babson College. He previously contributed to TheAtlantic.com under the name Cynic.

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