Wine never made its way into my family’s holiday meals when I was growing up. It was given a short shrift to challah, which stole the spotlight. Even bitter herbs and hard-boiled eggs garnered more attention during Passover than the four glasses we were supposed to consume. In wine’s place was grape juice, carefully doled out drop by drop with my pinky finger as we recited the plagues. I never questioned it, nor thought about why wine wasn’t a part of our lives. During Purim, weren’t we supposed to get so drunk that we couldn’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman? Even Friday nights should have gotten a glass, the original happy hour. I didn’t feel its absence because I was never in its presence.
Perhaps because of this, I spent most of my time in college sober, until late into my junior year, when adulthood became a tangible, palpable thing and what had previously eluded me in terms of appeal shifted to a rite of passage. Cranberry juice and vodka, cheap dollar Buds, and shots of Malibu, its sticky sweetness coating my tongue. Oh, I thought, the first time I got buzzed. I see now.
After graduating college, I moved to New York. I can’t really remember what I drank in those tender, early years in this dazzling city. I was too taken with the freedom of being out on a Wednesday night and dancing under the pulsating lights. Or sliding across a buttery leather banquette at 11:00 PM to first have dinner. Work functions, gallery openings, dating: drinks were present at all of them, but nothing truly memorable. Until my mom came to visit.
According to the book Booze and Jews, during Prohibition, a loophole in the Volstead Act allowed wine to be served for religious purposes. For non-Jews, this dispensation — Section 6 — was embraced in the church (as much as anything could be considered legal during Prohibition). But Shabbat takes place at home. Rabbis became importers, and sacramental wine shops mushroomed in Jewish neighborhoods.
Given my family’s track record, it should come as no surprise that wine revealed its importance in my life outside of the house.
I had only been in New York for a couple of years. There was no childhood home anymore. My parents had divorced and moved away, so the only thing I was tethered to was this dream of being a lifelong New Yorker. This was the age where the dynamics of our mother-daughter relationship shifted, my adult self stretching outside the outline of the little girl she held in her mind, the former milestones that marked her as an adult becoming my own. We let the server guide us to a bottle of white wine and went back to our business of appreciating each other in a new way.
During Prohibition, a loophole in the Volstead Act allowed wine to be served for religious purposes.
There’s no rational way to understand how or why the wine had an effect. But it made sense: its energy, its flavors, the way it went with the meal. What just happened? I wondered as we left. The next morning, the experience still embedded in my mind, we went back to the restaurant so I could write down the name of the wine.
I started taking wine classes, first recreationally, then studiously. I went to tastings, networked, and tried to figure out my place in an industry where everyone seemed to know so much more than me. My biggest champion was the one who barely drank: my mom. In true Mom fashion, she would cut out any articles pertaining to wine from the newspaper and send them to me. During one trip to visit her, she requested a buying trip to Total Wine so she could have bottles on hand for when friends came over. She was proud of her little collection — although I should have done a better job advising her to keep them out of Florida’s direct and punishing sunshine, as evidenced by the brown liquid I saw upon my next trip. But she nurtured this interest as it developed from hobby to career, never doubting that I could do it.
Today, I live mere blocks away from what used to be Schapiro’s Wine Company, a prominent kosher wine producer during the twentieth century. During Prohibition, it sold its sweet fermented kosher drink through the front door and bootlegged alcohol out the back. According to a 1996 profile in The New York Times, Schapiro’s was still selling the denizens of the Lower East Side its wine for their holiday gatherings before finally closing at some point around the turn of the millennia. As I’ve gotten older, wine is now a regular presence in my own home. Come seven o’clock on any given night, either my husband or I will turn to the other and say, “Do you want to open something?” It’s a cue to put away whatever we’re doing at the moment; more than picking out a bottle, it’s a signal to start winding down our day and connect to each other. Perhaps we’ll grab a sample sent to us by a winery for evaluation. Or, while rummaging through our wine cellar, we’ll pull out a bottle we brought home from a trip, and open up a memory.
My mom has never been able to explain the temperance of our household. “We just didn’t think to have wine,” she would shrug,the best explanation she could offer. Wine has become a connector for us. Even today, she calls me to tell me she tried a nice Pinot Grigio, stretching out the vowels like taffy, and I feel her love through the phone. Although wine was not part of my past, it was a part of my history. And now, it keeps me firmly in the present moment with those I care about the most.
She is a New York City-based wine, sake, and travel writer whose work has appeared in Fortune, Wine Enthusiast, Saveur, and NPR, among others. She was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer 2020 International Wine Writers’ Awards and ranked one of the “Top 20 U.S. Wine Writers That Wineries Can Work With” by Beverage Trade Network in 2021. She holds a Level 3‑Advanced Certificate from Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Sake Sommelier. Follow her on @shanaspeakswine.