The year was 1899, and on the legendary Lower East Side (LES) of New York, where life was overflowing with immigrants and opportunities, restaurateur Sam Schapiro planted the roots of what would later become a thriving New York City wine industry.
A Jewish immigrant from Poland, Schapiro started a small restaurant on Attorney Street. It was here that he started a side hustle making and selling mead, or honey wine, to his customers. The wine became so popular that Schapiro closed the restaurant and constructed one of the country's first urban wineries on Rivington Street. Around the same time, Thomas Welch started using New York’s concord grapes for his Welch’s Grape Juice. Seeing an opportunity to develop a truly "local" product, Schapiro developed a proprietary method using concord grapes for wine. In addition, he decided to have the wine certified "Kosher" to cater to the tastes of the area's rapidly growing Jewish population. With this magical formula, The Schapiro Wine Company quickly grew to become one of the largest and most recognizable wine brands in New York. Far from attempting to downplay its wines’ syrupy sweetness, the company celebrated it with the famous slogan, “the wine you can almost cut with a knife." There was even a famous radio jingle. During Prohibition, the store was granted an exemption to stay open to sell “sacramental” wine. However, family lore says that Sam had a hidden cellar and was "bootlegging" the "good stuff" out of the back room! It was during this time that dozens of concord grape copycat wines launched, including Manischewitz and Mogen David, still popular today.
Schapiro's son, Irving, joined his father and continued the tradition. For generations, Schapiro’s crushed grapes in a series of cellars that ran an entire block beneath Rivington Street. The wine was sold in its flagship store at 126 Rivington, and at wine and liquor stores around the city, state and country. Irving, who retired in the late 1970's, ran the winery through it's golden years and built the business into national distribution by expanding the wine selection. At it's peak, Schapiro's made over 30 varietals, including cream wines, sangria and mead. They even experimented and made various "hard" ciders and grape juices. People were often lined up down the block waiting to fill bottles with fresh wine to take home. Winery tours and tastings became a popular attraction for city residents and visitors. The company even produced wines for the leading Catskill hotels including the Concord, the Nevele, the Fallsview, the Pines, Grossinger’s, Brown’s, and Kutsher’s.
In 2000, Schapiro's sold the building on Rivington Street, and moved production of its wine. Eventutally, the brand faded away like much of the iconic Lower East Side. All that remains of it's existence today is a slowly disappearing mural, painted by famed LES street artist Chico, on the corner of Rivington and Essex Streets. Fast forward to 2018 and the LES is shining again. With a mix of old world nostalgia, and new world tastes, it's time for the 4th generation to lead the Schapiro's return and pay tribute to the family's determination, entrepreneurial spirit and the area's rich history.
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