How the Quintessential American Jewish Wine Became a Crossover Hit

The guilty seder pleasure of many Jews is popular with West Indians and African-Americans, too

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Manischewitz wine ad in Ebony magazine, January 1954. "Quality and taste, that's Manischewiz kosher wine," says Billy Eckstine, reads the ad headline.
Manischewitz wine ad in Ebony magazine, January 1954.Credit: Collection of Roger Horowitz

NEW YORK — For many American Jews, Passover is synonymous with Manischewitz.

The sweet Concord grape wine is widely used to make the Ashkenazi version of haroset, with nuts and apples. And otherwise-sophisticated wine drinkers feature it on their seder tables because to them, it’s just not Pesach without it.

Personally, I can’t stand the stuff, due to its super-sweet, almost syrupy taste. But a recent Facebook post I wrote about disliking Manischewitz elicited an impassioned response. The post had come after a wine store clerk mournfully informed me that they were out of the brand even though I had merely asked to be pointed to the kosher-for-Passover section.

Turns out that a distaste for Manischewitz puts me in the distinct minority. “To me Pesach is Concord grape wine,” commented one friend. “It’s my mother’s guilty seder pleasure,” wrote another. My stepmother’s family seder table always includes a bottle of the classic Manischewitz Grape Concord, and Cream Niagara from competitor Kedem. A friend of West Indian descent wrote that her parents “drank MASSIVE amounts of Manischewitz. I love that stuff.” And another wrote that it’s a key ingredient in Jamaican black cake.

Manischewitz kosher wines, which also include blackberry and elderberry flavors (the latter is among a few of the company’s wines that contain corn syrup and are therefore not kosher for Passover for the most stringently observant), are more popular in distinctly non-Jewish circles than among some “members of the tribe.” (After all, plenty of commenters on the thread share my feelings about Manischewitz).

According to 2016 Nielsen poll data, Manischewitz “is skewing both Hispanic and African-American in addition to the traditional kosher consumer,” said Alicia Laury, a spokeswoman for Constellation Brands, which owns the Manischewitz label along with dozens of other wine, beer and liquor brands.

Constellation sells about 700,000 cases of Manischewitz wine a year, said Laury, primarily in California, Florida, New Jersey and New York, and exports to 20 overseas markets. That’s under two million gallons, way down from its peak of 13 million gallons a year in the 1960s, says Roger Horowitz, a business historian and author of “Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food.”

Roger Horowitz holding his book, "Kosher USA."Credit: Roger Horowitz

Manischewitz wine, like most everything popular that’s Jewish and American, began in Brooklyn, in the 1940s. In recent decades the brand has been sold from one company to another, but retains its foothold in Jewish communities for Passover and in black communities year-round.

As for the syrupy sweet taste, while now a matter of questionable appeal for some, was originally due to innovation in the face of scarcity, explains Rabbi David Zaslow. The “New York Jewish community was too poor to afford the real wine they loved made of various grape varieties,” Zaslow said. “In upstate New York, Concord grapes were already growing. By its nature it made a sweet wine, but to get a quantity of wine for the Jewish community the Manischewitz folks were smart enough to water down the wine and add sugar. Today’s dreck was yesterday’s innovation,” he said.

Nowadays Manischewitz is sweetened with corn syrup during most of the year. But for the four months leading up to Passover, Manischewitz is made with sugar, making it kosher for the holiday for the most stringent Jews, since corn is considered kitniyot, a category of food traditionally not consumed by Ashkenazi Jews. It is also “mevushal,” or boiled, so as to make it kosher according to a strict reading of Jewish law even when handled by non-Jews.

In the 1950s, 80 percent of Manischewitz buyers were non-Jews, writes Horowitz in “Kosher USA.” It was the country’s “first crossover kosher product.”

An ad for Manischewitz wine featuring The Ink SpotsCredit: Collection of Roger Horowitz

Through the 1980s Manischewitz marketed heavily to African Americans, hiring Sammy Davis Jr. In one ad, the entertainer, famously a convert to Judaism, touts the company’s Almonetta flavor, which is no longer made. “They did sustained marketing,” including “extensive advertising in Ebony magazine,” Horowitz told Haaretz. Beginning in the 1950s Manischewitz had a strong export business to the Caribbean, which may be where the genesis of West Indian love for it is rooted.

Lauryn Hill, a founder of the Haiti-influenced hip hop group The Fugees, was raised in South Orange, N.J., alongside lots of Jewish families. She cites it on her debut solo album in “Final Hour,” where she sings “Now I be breaking bread sipping Manischewitz wine.”

An attempt to push Maneschewitz in white Christian circles bombed, Horowitz said, ending after a failed 1950s ad campaign in the Saturday Evening Post. As the California wine industry began to boom and Americans developed more of a taste for dry wine, Manischewitz’s market flattened out, he said, and the company stopped marketing widely. That policy still holds. “We don’t specifically target non-Jewish markets” with advertising today, said Constellation’s Laury.

It has, however, gained steam in Asian markets, reported The Wall Street Journal last year.

Credit: EWNET - Ethiopian World Network

Like all icon-worthy products, Manischewitz has also spawned its own parody commercial, “Are you a Manischewitz man?,” a pop song — “The Mambo Shevitz” by The Crows and Buzzfeed-type wine tastings. In the tribute video below, a Rastafarian who has clearly been tippling (or toking) calls it “Mani,” adding “I wouldn’t call it alcoholic, but it has alcohol in it.”

And it has an imitator: Bartenura Moscato, a kosher bubbly sweet white wine in a blue bottle, whose owner markets to the black community and which is featured in several hip hop songs, including in a music video by DJ Khaled, starring the black Jewish rapper Drake.

Still, Manischewitz retains its popularity, as confirmed by calls to several Brooklyn wine sellers. “We sell a bunch of Manischewitz flavors steady throughout the year,” said Cornell, a salesman at Canarsie Plaza Liquor Warehouse. The store is in a working-class neighborhood deep in Brooklyn, 81 percent of whose residents are black according to the most recent census. “It’s non-Jewish people buying it,” he said. “African-American, Jamaican, people from the islands normally like it, they like sweet wine.”

At Brooklyn Cellars on the edge of Park Slope, “Manischewitz goes fast,” a clerk said.

Christal Forgenie is a friend who wrote on Facebook that she loves Manischewitz. A pediatrician who grew up in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn, her Trinidad-born parents knew to stock up around Passover and Easter time, when the brand is easiest to find. Her mother, Merle, describes it as “a soothing and pleasant beverage to have with almost any kind of meal, especially chicken. It’s versatile,” said Forgenie. “She likes that she can have it cold,” Forgenie said, adding, “When mom would go to West Indian parties she would bring a couple of bottles and they were all about the Manischewitz.”

A New York Times recipe for Jamaican Black Cake, a Christmas season fruitcake and a Washington Post recipe for a Trinidadian version include Manischewitz as an ingredient.

Some Jews, too, have tried to find culinary applications for the iconic Manischewitz beyond Passover haroset. Food writer Amy Kritzer developed 10 different recipes using leftover Manischewitz, from homemade marshmallows, to pink-tinted poached eggs, to braised-tongue tacos. While some of the ideas are a bit far-fetched, even I could get behind a Manischewitz red-wine slushie on a hot summer day.

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