HE WAS THE SEVENTH WITNESS. He was wearing a gray suit, blue shirt, striped tie and a tie clasp. He was about to testify on a proposed government regulation concerning wine and he was following to the microphone some of the finest winemakers in the country - vintagers with proud traditions and casks so old that school children got the day off just to see them. Meyer Robinson, the seventh witness, was not one of these. When he was called, there were giggles.
"I am Meyer H. Robinson," he said in the accent of New York, "and I am the secretary-treasurer of the Monarch Wine Corp." When he said that there were some more giggles. Some of the people in the audience, all of them associated with the wine industry, smiled at each other, giving the elbow with their eyes.This was going to be funny. Robinson continued. Monarch Wines, he said for the record, was located on Second Avenue in the Borough of Brooklyn and its most famous product, he said, was a sacramantal wine made from the concord grape. It is called Manischewtiz. Again giggles.
Robinson paid no attention to the giggles. He is a baldish man with gray hair and a white mustache. Under his belt he wears a nice, comfortable paunch and he gives every indication that he has heard the jokes before. He laughs at them on the way to the bank. He continued to talk. Manischewitz, he explained, is a kosher wine that is made from the concord grape idigenous to the Eastern United States. In that sense, he said, it is a uniquely American wine. It was developed as a kosher, sacremental wine, he said, but it has found a wider audience. More laughs.
As Robinson talked a woman whispered every word into a funnel that led to a tape recorder. Seven government men sat a long table with microphones before them, listening and taking notes for the questions that would be asked later. This was taking place in a wood-paneled from in a building on Pennsylvania Avenue and it was part of a process called rule-making. The government, in this case the Bureau of Alochol, Tobacco and Firearms, has proposed a rule that covered no less than four pages in the Federal Register and now the wine industry was fighting it. What the rule amounted to, more or less, was a modest attempt to get wine makers to tell the truth.
A hearing like that can be an education. A wine label, you find out, does not resemble anything like full disclosure. A label, for instance, can say Napa Valley wine even though the grapes were grown hundreds of miles away. A bottle can be labeled Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, even though only 51 per cent of the wine in the bottle is from that grape.
It was clear from the testimony that most of the wine makers like things the way they are. The less the customer really knows, the better. For instance, they don't want to date the labels to let you know when the bottle was filled. They said it was too expensive - too cumbersome. Yet they admitted under questioning that they already date the labels - in code. One company does it in invisible ink. Invisible ink, apparently, is cheaper then ink you can see.
Then came Robinson. His wine is not a class one. It is the sweet wine of people who do not know about wine. It is the wine of the housewife and the man who dresses in a suit and white socks. This is why the wine people in the audience were giggling. Robinson talked about his wine. He had a story to tell, he said. He took off his glasses and told about the time that Welch's, the company that makes grape juice and jams from concord grapes, decided to make a wine as well. They made their wine, but they did not make it kosher and it did not sell. Customers look for that word, Robinson said. His wine sells all over the United States and in Australia, Japan and Hong Kong. God only knows what the Japanese think kosher means.
Like the other wine makers, Robinson had problems with the proposed rules. His wine is only about 52 per cent concord grape. The proposed rule would require him to make it 85 per cent. He could not do that, he said. You could not drink a wine that was 85 per cent concord. It would be too sweet - undrinkable, the government men at the long table nodded and then one of them had a question. Would Robinson mind saying on his label that his wine was only about 52 per cent concord?
Now the smiles had vanished. This was something the classy wine makers don't wont to do. They don't want people to know, for instance, that only about half the wine in a bottle is what the label says it is. You get the idea after a while that the reason for this is that the label is more important than the wine - that what people want are the crest and seals and pictures of casks that give the assurance that they have bought a good wine. They do not trust their tongue.
With Robinson and his customers it is a different matter. And so he said that he would not mind saying on his labels that only about 52 per cent of the wine is from the concord grape. It would not hurt his business any. His customers liked the wine because of its taste.
Some people have no class.