In high school, Elyse Genderson worked as a cashier in her family’s wine store, Schneider’s of Capitol Hill. In 2016, she became its vice president. Through her work, Genderson says she’s carrying on a family legacy dating back to her immigrant great-grandfather.
“I’m fourth generation,” said Genderson, 36, “I mean, that’s so special to me.”
Schneider’s is a few blocks away from the Supreme Court and the Capitol, in the District’s Stanton Park neighborhood. The shop’s cramped aisles are lined with shelves of wine. Schneider’s has more than 10,000 wines in its inventory, with bottles ranging from the $6 Domaine de Subremont to a $5,000 bottle of Chateau Lafite 1900. For Genderson, it’s a dream job. “What’s not to love about wine?”
A narrow corridor and a small flight of stairs leads into the row house next door, where the family’s offices are. It’s here that Elyse’s uncle and Schneider’s owner, Rick Genderson, runs the business. Until Elyse’s father, Jon Genderson, died in 2019, the brothers operated the wine store together.
“He was my brother and my partner,” said Rick, 67. “It was all good. Not that we didn’t fight like cats and dogs, as we have different philosophies. But we were a good team.”
Elyse said her father instilled in her a love of wine and an appreciation of being Jewish. The two are intertwined, she said, and she and her uncle are members of Hill Havurah in Washington.
“I look at [Judaism] as just a way to anchor my values, and wine kind of links to that,” she said. “Wine is always an anchor in Jewish ritual and tradition, especially at Passover,” she said. “And that was driven home by my dad.”
The family business dates back to 1915, when Elyse’s great-grandfather, Rubin Genderson, bought a bar called Walter’s at 10th and C streets, SE. Rubin was a Yiddish-speaking immigrant from Lithuania. He and his family lived above the bar, which primarily sold beer brewed down the street at the National Capital Brewing Company.
Business was thriving until Congress forced Prohibition on Washington in 1917, three years ahead of the rest of the nation. So the Gendersons adapted. They sold non-alcoholic beer and brewed illegal hooch upstairs in their bathtub.
Elyse looks with pride on her family’s resourcefulness. Their ability to adapt showcases “the hustle that we carry on today.”
Rick Genderson sees the bootlegging as good business sense.
“They didn’t have two cents to rub together, and you had to make a living. So he made a living,” he said.
Eventually, Rubin Genderson decided to get out of the business altogether. He became a tailor. But his son, Abe Genderson, opened a wine and liquor shop with his father-in-law, Max Schneider, in 1949. Abe, Elyse’s grandfather, is 101.
Rick and Jon Genderson came on board in the early ‘80s. That was when Sheldon Harris first visited the shop. Harris said that at that time he wasn’t much of a drinker. But he had a friend who was visiting from out of town and Harris wanted to pick up something to drink. He stopped in Schneider’s.
“I figured, they were Jewish,” Harris said. And in his family, “if you have business to give somebody, all things being equal, you give it to the Jews.”
Harris ended up striking up a conversation with Jon Genderson. Over the years Harris continued to visit, shop and say hello, resulting in a long friendship with Jon.
“As soon as you go in you’re comfortable,” Harris said. “It’s a unique place. And when you walk in, you don’t know which senator or House member you’ll run into.”
Rick Genderson describes wine as both his business and his hobby. But back in the ‘80s, his sights were on the elusive Coors Beer. For nearly a century it was only distributed on the West Coast, making it a novelty back east. So he set up a warehouse in Colorado where it was brewed, bought up as much as he could and shipped it back east. Was it legal?
“It was a gray area” and “probably legal,” Rick said. “I figured if my grandfather could be a bootlegger, I could, too.”
In 2019, Schneider’s celebrated its 70th year in business with an assortment of sales and events. It was at one of these events that Elyse Genderson drank the most expensive glass of wine in her life, 1961 Petrus. The store still has a bottle for sale, but it’ll set you back about $23,000.
“You could choose to buy a Honda or you could choose to buy that magnum of Petrus. And it was quite something,” she said, describing it as “everything that you search for your whole life when you love wine” and “a pretty spectacular experience.”
She’s glad the anniversary fell in 2019 rather than 2020. COVID forced Schneider’s to focus on curbside pickup, delivery and online orders. But if her great-grandfather could adapt to Prohibition, Elyse is confident that Schneider’s will adapt now.
“We’re here when there’s an insurrection on the Capitol. We’re here during a pandemic. We’re not going anywhere.”