Jews who went out to buy their Passover wine this past month were no longer, in this act, so much separated from the American population in general as they may have thought, for over the past few years kosher wine has been becoming almost as widely bought by the general population as the cola drinks. Morris Freedman gives us the facts about this latest example of cultural cross-fertilization on the American scene.
Kosher, once bought exclusively by Jews and only during Jewish holiday seasons, seems on the way to becoming as popular as the cola drinks. Five years ago kosher wine was practically unknown to the general public, and its annual output so negligible that it wasn’t isolated very carefully from the over-all statistics; in 1953, more than 10,000,000 gallons were imbibed, nearly one-tenth of the total American wine production.
Production of Mogen David, one of the two biggest kosher wines in this country, went from 75,000 gallons in 1946 to nearly 5,000,000 in 1953. Large sales records have been established in Midwestern cities with infinitesimal Jewish populations and in the Negro, Polish, and Spanish-speaking sections of large Eastern cities. Sales graphs show peaks at Christmas and Thanksgiving several times higher than for Passover, the traditional period for kosher wine, and when Easter is sufficiently separated from Passover, equal peaks for both holidays. Even such a relatively minor occasion as St. Patrick’s Day causes a discernible rise.
Manischewitz wine, produced under the Manischewitz name by the Monarch Wine Company in Brooklyn, and Mogen David, produced by the Wine Corporation of America, in Chicago, account about equally for more than 80 per cent of the total annual kosher wine gallonage; the rest is made by a host of small establishments. A minute percentage is imported from Israel. Mogen David’s stronghold is the Midwest. Manischewitz leads along both coasts, and in the South. It is the first kosher wine in New York, Washington, D. C, and Detroit. In Los Angeles, according to a newspaper home survey, Manischewitz runs neck and neck for leadership over all wines with Gall a major California product, an exceptionally impressive showing since Manischewitz retails for about sixty cents a fifth more in the West. (In the East, it is about thirty cents a quart more than most California brands.) Various cities have favorite local brands. Mt. Zion is first in Baltimore, Temple in Minneapolis. Leading names in New York, the retail kosher wine center of the country, besides Manischewitz and Mogen David, are Shapiro’s, Old Rabbinical, Welch’s, Mazel Tov, Star of David (not to be confused with Mogen David), Ganeless-Langer, Streit’s, and Hebrew National. The Wine Corporation of America estimates that only 3 per cent of Mogen David sales today are for sacramental purposes, and Monarch figures that only 15 per cent of its customers are Jewish. Monarch has lately received orders for its product from dealers in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Hong Kong, Canada, Brussels, and the Virgin Islands. The Hong Kong man, at first interested in satisfying only his Jewish clientele, recently sent an urgent cablegram increasing his order. The Chinese population, it seems, has found in kosher wine a new Western delicacy.
Like most of the other kosher wine companies, Monarch produced wine for sacramental purposes during prohibition, under special license from the government. It would deliver the wine to the rabbi or sexton of a synagogue who then sold it during the appropriate Holy Days to those of his congregation who did not prepare the wine at home. After repeal, the company tried to establish itself in the retail market. But a good many families, accustomed to getting their wine from their synagogue or making it themselves, were reluctant to fill their needs on the open market: there was supposed to be something about wine delivered by a rabbi in his study, or made in the bathtub and left to ferment on the fire escape, which gave it an essential and inimitable flavor. When Monarch insisted in the early days that its wine was like mother used to make, it wanted to be taken quite literally.
In 1936, the B. Manischewitz Company, of Jersey City and Cincinnati, which had been established in 1888 and is intimately associated with Passover matzot in the American Jewish mind, was looking for a new fermenting agent to improve the taste of its egg matzot. Previously it had been using apple cider. Yeast, which is suitable any other time of year, is forbidden at Passover, being a leavening ingredient. Manischewitz hit upon Monarch’s kosher wine. Although the wine was already certified as kosher by Monarch’s own rabbis, to keep things precise the Manischewitz management sent the rabbis who supervised the baking of its matzot to inspect this new ingredient. Thus it developed that Monarch’s wine became, so to speak, as kosher as Manischewitz’s matzot, being entitled to bear the identical cachet of rabbinical approval. The next step was inevitable. Monarch arranged to bottle its wine under the Manischewitz name, retaining Manischewitz’s rabbis. The Manischewitz name broke down resistance, and sales went up. Monarch still pays a royalty to Manischewitz for the use of its name (under a two-hundred-year contract) and a fee to its rabbis.
Monarch first realized it had more than a seasonal product when retailers who were slow in returning their unsold Passover stock sent back considerably less than those who were prompt. Obviously, the momentum of demand set off by the holiday was continuing a good while after it. In addition, after a few years requests for shipments on consignment came in from bemused liquor retailers in Harlem who reported getting persistent if hesitant requests for that kosher wine that begins with “Manny” and has a man with a white beard on its label. Although the explanation for this unlikely outcropping of demand is simple enough, it took a little time before the retailers discovered its basis and passed their finding along to Monarch: Negro domestics in Jewish homes were exposed to the kosher wine, and liked it. The custom of presenting a bottle of wine on Passover to Gentile help was another factor. (Another delicacy that has become a popular Harlem staple in probably the same fashion is gefilte fish.)
In 1940, Monarch imposed a no-return policy on its Passover shipments to retailers and broadened its advertising. In the middle 1940’s, the decision was made to launch the wine on the national market. Meantime, the Wine Corporation of America, having discovered a latent demand for kosher wine when its unadvertised Mogen David began displacing its heavily advertised California types in restaurant and retail store sales, had begun national advertising in 1947. In New York, Shapiro’s kosher wine also began a general advertising campaign, in 1949, but the company never branched out nationally in the way Mogen David and Manischewitz did. (Interestingly, kosher wine faced its biggest obstacle in the opposition of New York retailers, most of whom are Jewish, who insisted that a kosher wine would sell only for freakish reasons all year round.)
The Manischewitz wine advertising was separated from that for the matzot, which had been, and still is, directed to a purely Jewish audience, and was eventually turned over to the Emil Mogul Company. The account executive is Charles E. Patrick, who has had a good deal of experience in general liquor advertising.
I visited Patrick in the Emil Mogul offices on New York’s West 57th Street one day not long ago. In the anteroom, standing in dramatically lighted recessed niches in the wall, were other products the agency handles. These included a bottle and a tin of Esquire shoe polish; a box of Ronzoni spaghetti; a can of Caffè Vivo, an Italian demitasse coffee; an open box of Gold Label long cigars encased in glass tubes; a man’s shoe designed to make one appear taller, trade-marked “Elevators” a lady’s shoe by National Shoes; bars and bags of Bonomo’s Taffy, a children’s candy; a replica of a New York city street sign indicating the location of Barney’s men’s clothing store; a display of Alkaids, tablets “for fast relief of stomach distress” a can of olive oil and a bottle of whiskey, whose names I didn’t catch in the few moments I waited for Patrick; and a decanter quart of Manischewitz with a cap that flared out like the ceremonial head-covering of a cantor, and a label with Hebrew lettering on it, two small menorahs, the Star of David, and a Jewish elder attired for prayer and holding a prayerbook and a goblet of wine. It was clear that kosher wine, which Manischewitz promotion likes to say is made according to ancient tradition more than 5,000 years old and was once sipped by the high priests of Judea in solemn rites, had achieved its apotheosis and taken its place in the modern pantheon of brand-identified foods, clothing, half-medicines, and candies.
Mr. Patrick, a tall, innocent-looking, red-faced man of English ancestry, told me of the basic problem in introducing Manischewitz nationally. “Obviously we were going to have trouble with the name,” he said. “Most of the advertising had been in papers, or on billboards, that is, people were seeing the name but not hearing it. They didn’t know how to say it, and of course they didn’t want to be embarrassed when ordering it. We used to hear all sorts of fantastic versions. ‘Mani-chevrolet’ was perhaps the wildest; the most sensible thing customers did was to point or ask for ‘Manny’ wine. So we concentrated on dinning the name into the heads of people. The Berlitz method. We dropped almost all the visual advertising and took thousands of radio spot announcements all over the country, just repeating over and over, ‘Man, Oh Manischewitz, What a Wine. ’ We give very careful pronouncing instructions to the announcer.” The name is spelled “Manishevitz” in the copy sent to radio stations, and, at the bottom of each sheet, the pronunciation is further simplified by breaking the word up and indicating the stressed syllables: Man-i-shev-itz.
Mr. Patrick’s Berlitz campaign has been fabulously successful. He unrolled a graph showing sales over the past five years in Pennsylvania, where the retail liquor stores are a state monopoly and exact sales figures are issued periodically. Starting at zero cases in 1949, before the radio advertising began, the graph rises steadily, paralleling the increased intensity of the advertising, until in December of 1953 it shoots precipitously off the top of the page at 17,000 cases for one two-week period.
As a result of this educational program to simplify and make familiar its tongue-twisting name, Manischewitz may already have become as synonymous with kosher wine as Carter’s is with little liver pills. At any rate, the name, combined with the fact that the wine is kosher, has struck radio and television comedians, who may be presumed to be especially sensitive to fashions in popular idiom, as offering a fertile source for their humor. Jack Benny one Sunday night gave a lesson to Bob Crosby in how to pronounce the name correctly (Crosby kept saying “Manishevevevitz”). Bob Hope, on St. Patrick’s eve this year, introduced a quartet, all with obviously Irish names, and then announced that the sponsor of this group was Manischewitz; this was considered hilarious. Last Christmas, Danny Thomas went into hysterics on his television program when an actor playing Scrooge unpacked a basket of cheer to find at the bottom an unexpected bottle of Manischewitz. Company and agency officials insist that they have had nothing to do with these plugs. A favorite intramural gag is that the wine ought to be renamed “Manishégitz,” shaygitz being Yiddish for Gentile. An office story that has not yet reached the public, but probably will, is about the Catholic priest who bought a half gallon of Manischewitz. “Have you developed a taste for sweet wine too, Father?” the retailer asked. “No,” said the priest, “but my communicants like it, and it is supposed to be used for sacramental purposes, isn’t it?” The name Manischewitz keeps getting into popular songs, and recently a record appeared of “The Mambo-Shevitz,” in which the refrain is “Man oh man.”
“Another problem we had to lick,” Patrick said, “was the snobbish way wine drinking is regarded in this country. Unless you served the proper wine with the proper food, you know, you were just ignorant. Most people couldn’t bother learning. Not wanting to be considered fools, they didn’t get into the wine drinking habit. We stress that Manischewitz is good anytime.” He gave me a stapled batch of radio commercials. “You don’t have to be a wine expert to enjoy it,” read one, “you don’t have to worry whether to serve it before meals or after meals or when you entertain. For Manishevitz Wine is perfect all the time. You don’t have to worry whether to serve it chilled or at room temperature. For Manishevitz Wine is perfect any way you like it.” Another commercial even urged listeners always to keep a bottle of the wine in the refrigerator, as outrageous a proceeding in the eyes of wine connoisseurs as putting a banana in the refrigerator is to Chiquita Banana. “We want to bring drinking wine,” Patrick said, “to the level of Coca-Cola. We want to make kosher wine a national beverage.” One indication that kosher wine is inching up on this eminence is the increase in sales of half-gallon and gallon jugs in Harlem and in Scranton; in those places, it would seem, kosher wine in bulk is replacing the handy half-dozen container of soft drinks.
So extensive has the consumption of kosher wine, or “kosher wine” as it really should be designated, become, that it is now classed in the trade as a third type, the other two being table and dessert wines. (Sparkling wines, sometimes considered separately, are included with the tables or desserts, depending on use. Vermouth is sui generis.)
Most domestic table and dessert wines are made from grapes grown in California on vines imported from Europe. Imported wines themselves make up a very small part of the American market, something around 5,000,000 gallons a year. Kosher wine is made from Concord grapes, which are indigenous to America, and are found along the Eastern seaboard and as far west as Michigan. These grapes, belonging to the “fox” group, are characterized by die capacity to keep their grape tang through fermentation. They are high in acidity and low in sugar, a ratio almost the reverse of California grapes. The low acidity of the California grapes causes them to lose their grape bouquet after processing, and also gives them their light, dry quality. Since whatever sugar the Concord grapes have to begin with is almost entirely transformed into alcohol during fermentation, sugar must be added to make the wine palatable, a fact duly noted on every label. It is this heavy sweet quality, referred to by California port people as “syrupy” to distinguish it from their own milder sweetness, which is identified with kosher wine.
Except for altogether unsweetened kosher wine, which is, reasonably enough, called “sour,” there are no “light” kosher wines, most brands coming in varying degrees of heaviness. Shapiro’s kosher wine advertises that it is so thick “you can almost cut it with a knife.” “Malaga,” an especially popular type of kosher wine, is distinguished from normal kosher wine only by its greater thickness. It comes from the same grapes, and should be called a Malaga-type wine; some labels do refer to it as a “Concord-Malaga” blend. True Malaga, which is made in Spain, or in California from Spanish grapes, is white, but it is naturally sweet and comparatively thick. According to kosher wine aficionados, the sugar in kosher wine does not produce the cloying after-taste that accompanies soft drinks, the high fruit acidity and the alcohol somehow canceling it. The alcohol content of kosher wine is 13 per cent, a little more than of California table wines; most dessert wines have 20 per cent.
The sweetness of kosher wine is a main point in its advertising, in contrast to the current strategy of the soft drinks and the beers to de-emphasize their high caloric content. Manischewitz says that it is “sweet as wine should be.” Mogen David, whose advertising runs in a contrapuntal relation to Manischewitz’s, declares that it is “sweet, but never too sweet.” “It’s undoubtedly the sweetness,” Patrick said, “which accounts in large part for the wine’s popularity. America is a nation of candy eaters. The annual per capita consumption is seventeen pounds per person. Meyer Robinson, he’s one of the two owners of Monarch, the other is Leo Star, was among the first wine men to recognize that what this country needed was a good sweet kosher wine.
“The fact that we’re kosher is very important to the Negro market,” Patrick continued. “Also, that Manischewitz costs more than the California brands. It’s well established that Negroes want better things and are ready to pay more for them. The top labels of Scotches, gins, and whiskeys also do comparatively better in Harlem than elsewhere. Kosher conveys quality.”
A few days later I went with Patrick to the Monarch plant in the Bush Terminal buildings in Brooklyn, to attend a party celebrating the installation of thirteen new vats, which will bring plant capacity to 7,000,000 annual gallons. Among the guests were food and advertising writers for the New York daily press, editors of liquor trade journals, reporters from two Negro newspapers accompanied by their own photographers, several advertising agency persons, friends of various people, and a host of miscellaneous photographers. Monarch occupies two long wings of this sprawling commercial and industrial establishment along the water front. Neighbors are a wholesale grocer and a manufacturer of metal signs. As we walked through the wide alley between the two wings, I noticed a big Jack Frost Sugar truck, its tank lifted, pouring sugar like some white fluid into what looked like a coal chute that ran through a hole into the building. A notation on the tilted tank indicated that it could hold 22,500 pounds. Large trailer trucks were backed up to openings in the walls, loading cases of Manischewitz wine that rolled off conveyors. Piles of cardboard and wooden slats lay about on the ground. In a corner, a black Cadillac was parked; its license number was 72-MR, initials which I took to be those of Meyer Robinson.
Inside, the building was damp and dark and pleasantly redolent of wine. We sidled past a large pool in the floor, filled with wine, into which the sugar from outside was flowing. An engine, its insides of gears and belts and wheels revealed, worked creakily away, poised over the center, stirring the sugar into the wine. A deep purple whirlpool marked the point where the fins were churning, and the flat surface around it was covered with a white foam tinged with wine color. A metal staircase rose above the side of the pool, and we made our way up it into the chemist’s laboratory.
This was a small room lined with sagging shelves full of bottles, with a high, plain work table down the middle. The table was covered with an array of straight, curved, and twisting glass. We crowded around the walls and were joined by the plant chemist, Monroe Coven, a tall, round-faced man with glasses and a pale brown mustache that curved with his mouth in a slight, permanent smile. He was dressed in street coat and hat and apologized for not having the testing apparatus bubbling away for us.
“Here we control our wine,” he said. “We get grape juice or, during certain seasons, the uncrushed grapes, which we then crush. At each stage we test to maintain chemical balance. We have samples of every wine we ever made or blended on these shelves, so we can duplicate them. Differences in vintages have been practically eliminated because of improved farming methods. But we still try to compensate for slight differences from batch to batch in order to keep the wine uniform. Depending on the sugar content after fermentation, we add the appropriate amount. A squad of men tests for taste. We control color through blending deeper and lighter batches. Here, also, we watch carefully for foreign matter. Of certain substances, as little as one part to one million parts of wine will cause spoilage.” He went on to explain the processes of decanting the wine from the top of the vats to get rid of most of the particles created during fermentation, filtering and clarifying it, eliminating cloudiness, fixing the wine so no further chemical changes would take place, and pasteurization before bottling. Kosher wine will not go bad if left to stand.
A lady food editor wanted to know exactly how much sugar each gallon contained. “It varies,” Mr. Coven said. When pressed, he said that ten tons is mixed with approximately 25,000 gallons. One reporter promptly whispered to his neighbors that this came to a few ounces less than a pound per gallon. Mr. Coven explained that he couldn’t be more precise because the ratio was a trade secret. (The chemist is a key figure in a winery. A competitor hired away a previous wine chemist at Monarch.)
“The sweet taste is characteristic of kosher wine,” a bald, bland, plump man with a mustache broke in. “When the Jewish people first came to America, Concord grapes or muscadines were what they found on the East coast. They had to add sugar. Kosher wine is made to order for the American taste. Consider how popular the grape juices and jams and jellies made of Concord grapes have always been. People also like our wine because it is unusually pure, particularly since it’s also kosher for Passover. We close our plant on Saturdays, and early on Fridays. Also, we never advertise on the Sabbath or on holy days.” He was identified for us later as Meyer Robinson.
It happens that most kosher wines are also kosher for Passover. In addition to the normal regulations for kashrut, and the involved cleansing procedures laid down for Passover kashrut, a further special injunction applies to wine: since it may be used in performing sacraments, it must not be touched during manufacture by any but Jewish hands. Actually, kashrut regulations are, by and large, so simple and straightforward that if one trusts oneself or a manufacturer to follow them, one does not need a rabbi to attest to kashrut. Thus, Barton’s Bonbonniere candy in New York was accepted as kosher by the faithful long before the company went about getting the usual rabbinical stamp. (Barton’s, incidentally, puts out a sherbert made with Manischewitz kosher wine.)
Strictly speaking, any wine, including the California types, can be kosher, or kosher for Passover, and many are—that is, they are prepared according to the rules. Conversely, there is no reason why kosher wine has to be rabbinically certified as kosher, except for Jews who are particular about such matters; it can be made the same way, from the same type of grape, and have the same quantity of sugar added. Rabbinical inspection, or the contact of non-Jewish hands with the wine, does not affect the taste. Kosher- type wine, however, unlike kosher-type delicatessen, has never caught on. After the boom was under way, a number of companies came out with kosher-type wines, advertising them, quite legitimately, as having all the physical properties of kosher kosher wine, but not mentioning the word “kosher.” They stressed the sweetness, the use of Concord grapes, and their “traditional American taste.” But these brands made scarcely any impression on the kosher kosher wine market. One concern, thereupon, arranged for rabbinical supervision of its product (it was already largely Jewish and so did not have to make any changes in the personnel handling the wine) and added a menorah and the word “kosher” to its advertising. Its product is now established as one of the lesser genuine kosher wines. (There has been a recurrent but perhaps frivolous rumor that one of the big California wineries, Christian Brothers, has been planning to bottle its own kosher kosher wine.) Approval by rabbis has evidently become in recent years as compelling a sales attraction for a variety of items as approval by Good Housekeeping magazine or the AMA. Baby Ruth and Butterfinger candy bars, for example, as well as Tide, Fab, and other detergents, are now all verified as kosher.
In spite of the proved indispensability of the kosher seal, advertising of kosher wines, as it reaches out toward a wider market, seems not quite sure how far to go in slighting or emphasizing their unique character. Mogen David, outside of its name and the six-pointed Star of David, does not harp on the fact that it is kosher. A current New York subway poster shows a bottle of the wine standing in a surrey. At the top, in print reminiscent of the 1890’s, is the statement, “Just Like Grandma Used to Make,” which goes Manischewitz’s early claim about mother one better. Billboards on Midwestern highways, although the Star of David and the name are displayed large on them, show the label, the only place where the word “kosher” appears, practically in miniature. The commercials on the national television program Mogen David sponsors are delivered by a young man unfailingly identified in a rising inflection as Terry O’Sullivan. However, the label flashed on the screen clearly shows a table full of white-bearded patriarchs wearing skullcaps, and the Hebrew letters identifying the product as kosher. (Manischewitz, it will be remembered, has only one bearded man on its label.) One kosher brand issued a recipe booklet with instructions on how it might be used with lobster and roast ham, dishes not likely to appeal to someone concerned about the rabbinical approval of the wine. On the other hand, Manischewitz’s radio commercials in New York, even when rendered in Spanish, as many of them are, declare (to quote from a script): “What’s more. Manishevitz is kosherxs wine. . . . That means it’s so pure, it’s also used for sacramental purposes.” And when an advertising man wanted to present Manischewitz as “the traditional wine for Passover and Easter,” since the two holidays coincide this year, a company man took out “and Easter.” Manischewitz never fails to stress the fact that it is kosher.
When we were through in Monarch’s laboratory, we descended the staircase past the turbulent wine pool, and were guided into the area where the new vats were, beyond a sliding metal door hanging on a concrete-block wall. The vats were sixteen feet high, reaching nearly to the two-story tall ceiling, and oval shaped, twenty-five feet long, and twenty feet wide. Nailed onto the sides were metal letters reading: “50,400 gals.” According to the press release given to us, which quoted Leo Star, the vats are supposed to be the most modern in the world and, except for a few in California, the largest. Workmen were still putting one together. They stood on a platform halfway up to the ceiling and banged away with great wooden thuds at the vertical red planks, around which they were tightening thick iron bands.
“We use redwood,” Mr. Coven explained, “because it is inert. It doesn’t respond to the chemical action taking place.”
We proceeded through a labyrinthine array of rooms. One had vats of much smaller diameter but just as high; they had lost the redness of the new vats and were streaked with black. Slates nailed to their sides indicated in chalk the specific stage of processing of the wine inside. Metal letters on the outside read, variously, “8,350 GALS.” and “24,950 gals.” We went through great areas piled high with filled cartons of wine; on one pile a cat was sleepily sitting. Some of the labels on the cartons were for sauterne and blackberry wine; all read “kosher for Passover.” The bottling room, lit with fluorescent banks, was still; it was lunch hour. Along one wall, like the lines of plumbing in the basement of a large building, were rows of thick stainless steel and glass pipes.
“We can fill the bottles from any one or from all of these pipes,” Mr. Coven told us. “The light-colored fluid you see in two of the pipes is water; we’re washing them out at the moment. The glass is heat-resistant Pyrex. Corning developed these pipes especially for us. We can see dirt better. The wine is bottled at 140 degrees.” He reached over a stack of cartons and lifted a sealed half gallon demijohn from a roller, and passed it around. It was warm.
Limp, dulled, and hungry, the party retraced its steps, following the Monarch people, ducked briefly out into the open air, and then in again. “That felt like coming out of a wine cellar,” a bright young lady said. At the end of a narrow, dimly lit, shabby green hallway, we found ourselves unexpectedly in a brightly illuminated, walnut-paneled pair of offices, with a thick rug, a great leather-topped mahogany desk, a deep leather sofa, and a sideboard, its top cluttered with whiskey and wine bottles. Someone thrust a half-full tumbler of red wine into my hand, identifying it as Manischewitz. It was very sweet, quite cold, and pleasantly grapy; I drank it with pleasure.
We were turned around again, and were marched back through the corridor. After bending down to get through a doorway about four feet high, we found ourselves in an odd, fluorescent-lit room. Windows at one end looked out over the floor of the dark plant below. Silver-painted pipes ran along the ceiling. The walls were covered with framed pictures of such personages as Robert Alda, Eddie Cantor, Jackie Robinson; there were framed letters from them and others, including Governor Dewey and Quentin Reynolds, thanking Mr. Robinson for sending them Manischewitz wine. Someone explained that this was the sales room. Two long tables were covered with cloths, and we sat ourselves down. There were bottles of Manischewitz kosher for Passover sauterne on the tables, as well as of the red wine. I had a half tumblerful of the sauterne, too; quite light, not at all sweet, and chilled. I drank it with even more pleasure than my first glass, and promptly refilled the tumbler.
Throughout the lunch of grapefruit, noodles and meat sauce (which one distressed young lady on a diet thought would be the whole meal), roast chicken, boiled beef, broiled mushrooms, sliced tomatoes, and tea, a steady murmur of conversation kept up. “The chef is one of the men in the shipping and trucking department. His hobby is cooking,” said a voice at the other table. “One thing about Manischewitz kosher wine,” said another faraway voice, “is it’s positively fresh.” “Negroes like Manischewitz,” one of the Negro reporters said, “because it’s like the wine their mothers and grandmothers used to make down South. Scuppernong grapes are much like Concord. You’ve got to add sugar.” ‘Wine like mammy used to make,” someone whispered. Mr. Robinson stood up, welcomed the company, made a few remarks, was told to stop “funfin,” and sat down. Laughter. A comedian named Joey Adams, whose face was as white and smooth as though he were wearing make-up, got up and told some jokes, including one about a mother who was disappointed in the younger of her sons who wanted to become a rabbi. The older was a successful wine merchant. “Being a rabbi is a business for a good Jewish boy?” she wanted to know. Adams was smoking a cigarette in a long red holder on which was printed in gold “Stolen from Joey Adams.” He said this affair reminded him of his Bar Mitzvah, and was joined by a gnarled-faced little man with a Yiddish accent, with whom he engaged in a totally incomprehensible exchange. “Hey, that’s Al Kelly,” the man from the Times said excitedly, “the double-talk expert.” Mr. Robinson and the chef kept appearing behind each person to ask whether everything was all right. The daily press left to make their editions. The bottles of sauterne and kosher wine had been finished. “Sid Caesar works from eight in the morning to eight at night, seven days a week,” Joey Adams said, sitting in his place now. “I wouldn’t want a weekly TV show for all the ulcers in the world.” “Give him the money and he’ll take the ulcers,” an agency man said. “I ration every minute of my day, from eight in the morning till eight at night,” Emil Mogul said. “A spot announcement on the Show of Shows is $28,000 for one time,” the agency man said. After a while, an elaborate cake was brought out in honor of one of Monarch’s young executives. His birthday, it was announced, coincided with the press party. The young man, flushed, jumped up and kissed Mr. Robinson on the cheek. The two posed for a photographer while holding a knife over the cake. A flash bulb went off, and Mr. Robinson cut the cake. “The noodles he gives us big portions, the cake he’s stingy,” a voice called out.
Robinson, a graduate of Brooklyn Law School, class of 1927, joined the firm in 1935 on the death of his brother, who had been, with Leo Star, an old wine man, part owner of Monarch. Star supervises production and internal affairs, and Robinson is in charge of sales and promotion. The company, which had its original plant on Manhattan’s Wooster Street, moved to its present location in 1939, renting 20,000 square feet. Today, it has 100,000 square feet. It puts out eight different-sized bottles of kosher wine. A champagne magnum was recently discontinued as was an oddly formed round bottle with a curved spout and an indentation in its side in which an ice cube could be placed to cool the contents.
Robinson has an unusual collection of wine glasses and wine accessories, which, learning I live on Long Island not far from his home, he invited me to examine.
Late one Saturday afternoon I drove out to Lawrence, a small township in Nassau County, just beyond the Rockaways. Robinson lives in a long, two-story, ten-room clapboard house that extends almost the width of his property, on a winding, tree-lined street of small estates. Next to the black Cadillac with the license plate 72-MR in the open garage was a tan one with 71-MR. Airconditioning units stuck out of several windows. Three teen-aged girls in dungarees were standing with bicycles near the kitchen door, where I was greeted by a jovial Negro houseman wearing an apron, who invited me in. Robinson, who had apparently been napping, greeted me, took my hat and coat, and then led me to a china cabinet in a corner of the formal dining room. His manner combines a relaxed geniality with sudden bursts of energy and enthusiasm.
“I began this collection,” he said, opening the glass doors, “some ten years ago. I’m not systematic about it; whatever I see interesting, I pick up. It’s probably worth near ten thousand dollars by now. Look at those two wine glasses; I bet you never saw anything like that before.” Against the rear of the cabinet, in the corners, were two glasses with heavy stems perhaps three feet long. Inside the stem was an intricately braided pattern. “They’re old English wine glasses. You keep them on the floor at your side. Here are two silver goblets from the Civil War. They belonged to the attorney general. We had the inscription To the Attorney General’ taken off, and we put on my first name and my wife’s.” He gave them to me to examine. “Maybe we should have left the inscription on, heh?” he said, glancing at me when I returned them. He took out and passed to me a variety of objects, including a silver decanter in the shape of a bird with a mouth that could be opened for pouring, several other intricately worked silver decanters, a French wine basket woven of silver strands, a silver wine trolley which had been used at early 19th-century banquets to roll two decanters along a table, and a silver strainer from France to catch sediment. Some of these things carried dealers’ tags guaranteeing their authenticity. On top of the cabinet were two big champagne buckets and a silver barrel on its side with a small faucet. On a sideboard were two ornate Iranian glass decanters, as well as a plain glass one hanging upside down in a wrought-iron stand. To get wine out of the latter, you have to push up a long needle that protrudes from the bottom with the inside of your wine glass, just like working a soap dispenser.
Mrs. Robinson passed through the room, and Mr. Robinson introduced us. “Did you show him the basement, darling?” she said. “We’re going there,” he answered.
The basement was immense. A long built-in sofa curved along the wood-paneled walls, and behind it on a ledge were various other decanters and glasses of coarser materials than those upstairs, including a Manischewitz-labeled bottle that had been painted. Mr. Robinson called my attention to the ceiling; it was papered with sheets of Manischewitz labels. On the bar, in another corner of the basement, stood an empty but sealed half-gallon jug of Manischewitz in a display rack urging you to buy it. Mr. Robinson moved behind the bar to show me various glasses standing on shelves. He paused at the seltzer apparatus. “Want a two-cent glass?” he asked me. “You can have an ice-cream soda, too, if you want.” Hanging over the indirectly lit shelves were clusters of varioussized dark and light grapes. “Wax,” Mr. Robinson said. Two round tables with lazy susan shelves and surrounded by captain’s chairs were in the center of the floor near the bar. In a great room off the main area was a table almost filling it with an elaborate layout of model trains. “That’s my son’s,” he said. “He’s nine. My girl’s fourteen. She went to the Brandeis School, that’s the one run by Rabbi Irving Miller of the Zionist Organization of America. She’s in Lawrence High School now. My boy is at Brandeis. I’m a member of both the Conservative and Orthodox temples in town, though I am more active in the Conservative. I’m president of a wine trade organization. Also, I head the Wine Division of the UJA and Federation drives. I got plaques last year for my work.” He pointed out a tiny billboard for Manischewitz wine along one of the track beds.
“We’ve lived here seven years and do a lot of entertaining,” he said, leading me upstairs. “I belong to the Friars. Joey Adams and Al Kelly are personal friends. Occasionally I go up to the Glen Oaks Golf Club, to which I belong. I’m a great baseball fan. We have a box at Ebbets Field, and we sometimes visit the Dodgers at their training camp. The whole team has been out to the factory, and many members come here, too, for barbecues. When Eddie Stanky retired from active play, he sent Sandy, that’s my boy, his glove. Come I’ll show it to you.” He took me upstairs. On the wall of Sandy’s room, framed to become a kind of plaque, was Stanky’s letter accompanying the glove. Stanky guaranteed that it would never miss a grounder. Clipped to a bulletin board was a sports columnist’s poem of praise to the Dodgers, mentioning Manischewitz. We went downstairs again, and then outside. On a shelf in the study, through which we passed, I noticed a stack of copies of COMMENTARY. In a cluttered room behind the garage, the walls were covered with irregularly hung pictures of dozens of baseball players, all of them inscribed to Robinson, and some of them showing him and Sandy with the players.
Before I left, he gave me two gift-boxed bottles of Manischewitz, which he took out of a carton in the trunk of the black Cadillac. I thanked him, walked back to my Chevrolet, and, as I drove away, snapped on the radio. “Man, Oh Manischewitz,” it said.