Meyer Robinson pokes around his heroically cluttered desk, but finds nothing. Muttering a bit, he calls his secretary, goes and pokes around her desk, and finally turns up his objective: a small tape cassette.
On goes the tape, and out comes the voice of astronaut Eugene Cernan. It is December, 1972, Apollo 17 time, and Cernan is on the moon. He sees something especially spectacular and what does he say, with the entire civilized world listening in, but "Man, oh, Manischewitz."
Meyer Robinson has heard this bit of tape God knows how many times, but he still can't believe it. "Isn't that amazing, on the moon!" he says, rising in uncontainable excitement from his chair. "If I had my own brother going to the moon, he wouldn't do it! He'd say, "How could I do such a thing?'"
Truly, Manischewitz seems to lead a life of its own, a life independent of what comes out of the bottle. To most people its name is nothing more than the butt of endless jokes, the sticky-sweet poor relation that haughtier vintages barely deign to notice.
But tonight, tonight is different from all other nights. Tonight is the first Passover seder, when downtrodden Manischewitz comes into its own as the most famous name in kosher wines, when its distinctive square bottle with the rabbi on the label blossoms forth on a thousand holiday tables.
But wait. That all sounds very nice, but it really isn't completely true. Yes, tonight is a big night for Manischewitz, but the company sells more wine during the Christmas season, and its traditional concord grape wine is now outsold by its trendy cream white concord.
Not only that, an estimated 80 per cent of Manischewitz's customers year around turn out to be non-Jews, and an Manischewitz is among other thins the most popular imported wine in Puerto Rico as well as a phenomenal seller in Okinawa, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan and Tokyo.
And this is no humble little New York winery either. Located near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, this is a half-a-million square foot four-city block complex that must be toured by golf cart.
It's an endless string of pungent smelling rooms where 250,000 bottles can be filled in a day and up to 5 million gallons of wine can be handled and stored in huge tanks, including two of the original water tanks from the Woodstock festival.
It's the home of one of the top five wine producers in the country, second only to Gallo among privately owned firms, America's largest producer of fruit wines like blackberry, cherry, elderberry and loganberry -- and a company that in addition to everything else turns out more champagne in a year than is imported into this country from France. And if you want to get technical about it, its name isn't even Manischewitz.
The correct name, explains Meyer Robinson, the firm's exceedingly dapper secretary-treasurer and one of its two owners, is Monarch Wine.* Founded in 1934, right after repeal. Monarch decided to in Robinson's words, "make a wine that would be acceptable to the Jewish people. For that you had to get an acceptable name, and the most acceptable name to Jewish households -- you notice I'm using acceptable three times here --was Manischewitz," a big name in kosher products since the turn of the century. So Monarch simply leased the Manischewitz name and it was in business.
But this was a very special kind of business, for Manischewitz, originally intended as a sacramental wine to be used on religious occasions, had to be made strictly kosher, something that required following specific guidelines set down who knows how long ago in the Old Testament, guidelines that most wineries have never heard of.
The winery must be closed, for instance, on Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. Also, everyone who comes into contact with exposed wine must be an Orthodox, observant Jew, a rule so strict that Manischewitz has two failsafe systems to back it up: the winemaking process is as much as possible a mechanical, untouched-by-human-hands affair, and the very grapes themselves are boiled, which according to Orthodox law means that the wine may be opened by anyone without endangering its kosher quality. And finally, the whole process is supervised by a crack team of rabbis perenially on duty both in Brooklyn and in upstate New York, where the grapes are grown and turned into juice.
In fact, though it will surprise most people, just about the only thing the word "kosher" on a bottle of Manischewitz does not mean is "sweet." Manischewitz is sweet because the home-made sacramental wine it replaced was sweet, and that wine was sweet because the only native American grape available on the East coast was the vitis labrusca family, the same strong, aromatic fruit that caused Leif Ericson to name North America "Vineland." "That type of wine," explains Monroe Coven, Manischewitz's winemaster, "simply fell to us by default."
Reality, however, seems to have little to do with wine sales. "Welch tried to market a concord graps wine that was not kosher a few years back, but he failed," Meyer Robinson says with obvious satisfaction. "His research indicated the majority of concord drinkers were not Jewish, so figured what does he have to put out a kosher wine for. But those people, they wouldn't accept it unless it was kosher!"
Robinson also likes to tell the story or an American who worked in the Far East and went to visit the aged father of a coworker who lived deep in rural Taiwan. He brought the gentleman an expensive bottle of scotch, for which he was thanked, but, the ancient said, there was something else he really wanted, and going out to his barn, dug up a bottle of (what else but) Manischewitz he said he'd been saving for years in the faint hope that an American would turn up. No one at the company seems to know why people in those out of the way places insist on a kosher concord, but a long as they keep insisting, no one really cares.
Nor do the Manischewitz people seem to care overly much that their product is, as winemaster Monroe Coven delicately put is, "out of the mainstream of wine tradition. Even though some of the best wines in the world, like Chateau d'Yquem, are sweet, sweet seems to be a perjorative term. The only word we can really use for this is snobbishness. We consider our wine to be fragrant, with a character all its own. People love it, and no one has a right to foist their taste on anyone else."
More than that, the Manischewitz folks feel that people prejudge their wines, take one look at the label and decide this couldn't possibly be worth their time. Coven enormously enjoys telling of the time "the proprietor and buyer for the largest wine package store in the city of New York" did a blind tasting on TV. "He got the first three wines right, but when he came to the last he said, "This is very good, a German Auslese,' which is a very expensive wine. They uncovered the bottle and it turned out to be manischewitz. The man was so shocked all he could say was Really?'"
Something of a similar situation exists in the champagne field. Monarch is one of the country's top five champagne makers, but only one of the 13 labels it uses in Manischewitz. "The appeal of the name has neven carried over in this field," says Hal Balk, the company's advertising director, who explains it all by describing a test he often tries on his friends. "I take a bottle of Manischewitz champagne home and an identical bottle of one of our other labels Pol D'Argent." he says. "People taste them both and invariably say that while the Pol D'Argent is ideal, the Manischewitz is a little too sweet. What can you do?"
The folks at Manischewitz shake their heads at that one, but really they understand. "It's the image we created," says Monroe Coven, the winemaster. "You wouldn't buy Ronzoni matzohs, would you?"