"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.
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.