Sweet Concord Wine

"Manischewitz, look at that go!" When Apollo 17 astronaut, Gene Cernan, uttered those words during his 1973 walk on the moon, the kosher Concord wine brand he mentioned was his favorite substitute for a swear word. 

It was only a matter of time, then, before those wines found their way into hipster circles.

Actually, it was a lot of time: more than thirty years. But like the dorky, pink cat-eye glasses I wore in third grade--and the nerdy horn-rimmed ones I favored in high school--the wine that splotched our Maxwell House Haggadahs a distinctive Crayola red-violet is now pretty cool. And not just in Williamsburg. Or with Mad Men viewers.

Turns out, with its low alcoholic content and deep-fruit flavor, it makes an excellent mixer for today's super-inventive, uber-cocktail culture.

It's no surprise that grapey sweetness works brilliantly in sangria, a perfect match for the citrus and other fruits in the drink. And for Hanukkah, Daniel Handler created the Jewish Manhattan: the classic sweet vermouth is swapped out for Manischewitz, which is shaken over ice with rye and Angostura bitters.

A few cocktails combine Manischewitz with gin, fresh lemon juice, along, sometimes, with fresh mint--bracing, sharp ingredients designed to cut through the syrupy stuff advertised by Schapiro's--another kosher Concord wine producer--as "the wine you could almost cut with a knife."

And let's not forget that gorgeous purple it tints the cocktail, as in Asher Klein's superb reinvention, the Jew-Quila Sunrise: 1 part tequila, 1 to 2 parts Manischewitz, and a splash of grenadine or fresh lime juice.

We may have drunk it in thimble-sized paper cups along with chunks of desert-dry sponge cake at post-services Shabbat kiddush, or sneaked enough of it for our first hangover. But like Marjorie Morningstar, for most of us that sweet grape taste immediately triggers memories of Seders past.
And many of these modern cocktails are indeed concocted just for Passover.

Not necessarily kosher for Passover, though: the Drunken Pharaoh that Jill Dobias created for her restaurant JoeDoe (now called Joe and Misses Doe), contains bourbon, which is made of corn, considered kitniyot, and therefore not permissible for Orthodox Ashkenazis on the holiday. But the rest of the drink--Manischewitz, lemon juice, and club soda in a glass rimmed with crushed, sugared matzoh, would do Elijah proud.

In a post called “Don’t Passover the Cocktails,” Amanda Schuster writes about “kosher-for-Passover cocktails you don't have to sacrifice.” Her Red Sea Sour calls for shaking kosher-for-Passover dry gin with ice, fresh lemon juice, and Sweet Wine Syrup, which is made by reducing kosher Concord wine with sugar. Making the syrup, she advises, is “worth the effort” and she suggests using any leftover to sauce a flourless chocolate cake.

But my favorite Seder riff of Dobias's is The Simple Son Rises: shake kosher-for-Passover blanco or silver tequila and triple sec, fresh lemon and orange juices with ice. Strain into a glass half-filled with ice. Then, “using a bar spoon, float [Sweet Wine Syrup] over the top; don’t stir.”

As would be expected in a Jewish culinary universe, food is not given short shrift either. At Thanksgivukkah, there were the requisite turkeys brined in Manischewitz, and of course there are sweet Concord wine ice creams and gelatos.

But sweet Concord kosher also figures prominently in finer fare as well. Austin-based Amy Kritzer, who blogs at What Jew Wanna Eat, devised the divine-sounding Manischewitz-braised short ribs topped with horseradish gremolata. And though no sweet Concord appears on the wine list at Michael Solomonov’s elegant kosher restaurant in the Philadelphia area, Citron and Rose, you can dine there on Lamb Shank Sholet (cholent), an extraordinary riff on the slow-cooked Sabbath dish consisting of lamb braised in Manischewitz and coffee, along with smoked barley, pickled prunes, and a challah-veal kishke.

At Manhattan’s Torrisi Restaurant, a food lover’s favorite, Italian chefs Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone created Grilled Shoulder Lamb Chops with Manischewitz Glaze, which are seasoned with mint, celery and coriander, the fat edge of the chops crusted with crushed matzoh.

Italian chefs? Why not? Concord wine is a thoroughly American invention, after all.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Ephraim Wales Bull developed a grape, a hybrid of the native foxy, musky-tasting labrusca and old world vinifera grapes and named it Concord, where he lived in Massachusetts near the Alcott family. The signature flavor of American grape jelly, Concord grapes thrive in the cool Finger Lakes area of upstate New York, but require a good deal of added sweetening to make a palatable wine.

Immigrant Jews from cooler parts of Eastern Europe already had a taste for sweet wines: the grapes that would grow in their native lands were often of inferior quality and needed a hefty dose of sugar; when they weren’t available, these Jews made do with sweet raisin wine.

Unlike California wines, Concord grape wine was cheap, easily available, and quickly made. Besides, it could be produced under local rabbinical supervision they trusted. Schapiro's opened the first kosher winery on the Lower East Side in 1899, and others followed.

Some non-Jews first became acquainted with the wines as black market hooch available during Prohibition. Because these wines were used for sacramental purposes, wineries were permitted to produce it during this period. (In fact, various Christian denominations have used sweet Concord kosher for the sacrament of communion.)

Other Gentiles learned about the wines from Manischewitz’s highly successful advertising campaign–especially one legendary commercial featuring Sammy Davis Jr. exclaiming, "Man-oh-Man-ishewitz, what a wine!"

Ironically, that wine has never really been a Manischewitz product. Monarch Wines, creators of the beverage, simply made use of the well-known Manischewitz name (the company was most famous for its matzohs) in a licensing deal.

Manischewitz Wines are now owned by Constellation Brands, whose portfolio also includes Corona and Tsingtao Beers, Clos du Bois Wine–but no matzoh.

Sephardic or Askhenazi