The other day I took a walk through Wally's, my local wine emporium's autumn sale and was bottle shocked by the number of kosher wine choices on display—Ninety-seven Jewtique labels. From Israel to Australia to the Valley of Napa, there are rabbis rendering grapes right for Jewish tables the world over.
Although pleased as wine punch that my brethren can sip with confidence from so many vineyards at all the holiday tables to come, I felt drowned in a sudden wave of nostalgia, for, over in a less popular corner, I spied some "Man Oh Manichewitz -- What a Wine" languishing, neglected for a mere $4.99 in its own dust.
And a flood of bittersweet tasting memories ensued of my parentally enforced Prohibition--the years of my youth when I was served Welch's grape juice in a grown up glass at the holidays to placate my longing for fermentation. I sipped the faux, while the elders were schlurping Manichewitz, the manna of the God, the only choice in that era, with lip-smacking satisfaction. I'd lift my grape laced goblet, trying to prove I was worthy of the grown up grape, toast and boast—'Lookit! Lookit how fast I can drink it!" And I chugged it with fervor and oh, baby, did I get hooked on the ritual.
Bad habits were setting in so soon in my life. I had just licked the thumb-sucking addiction, and here I was mainlining the gateway drug, grape juice to ready myself for the real deal. My aunts and uncles would laugh and applaud. Oh, how I could guzzle the stuff down, purpling my mouth with flavor, longing for lipstick like my mother wore-- Joan Crawford style, well beyond the outline of her real lips. Her lipstick on a wine glass seemed the height of adulthood to me. I couldn't wait to grow into them both. When finally deemed a woman at age thirteen I was served Manichewitz Concord Grape for the very first time. "Today I am a Womanichewitz," I declared.
"Today I am a Womanichewitz," I declared.
It was so warm and sweet like a lollipop, my criterion for good things at that time. How much like lollipop could a thing taste? Jello was swell; Koolaid was incredible; Hawaiian Punch was lollypop primo; those flavored colored waters that came in waxed little soda bottles were scrumptious-- and Manichevitz was the bestest yet. I slurped it, and other versions of it and extra helpings and paid a price as the aftermath was not so nice
Flash forward to me lifting the bottles to read their labels—Cherry, Concord Dry, Black Cherry, Blackberry, Loganberry…Elderberry? The latter won't be gracing my table, you can count on that! But, now from the vantage point of a vintage age, having toured and understood the wine making process as it involved grapes, I had new curiosity. How were the logan and elder harvested and kosherized, I pondered. Were rambunctious rabbis doing the kazatski to klezmer music, juicing their feet on all sorts of fruits for fermentation in happy vats somewhere? Where were these very berry wine vines and how could I visit?
My curiosity became so intense that I decided to track down an expert to help get me some answers. I called Glen Curtis at the Widmer Winery in Naples New York for some insights, as he has harvested the Manichewitz bottles since the late 1980s, when Manischewitz was the best-selling brand name in kosher wines. He gently explained that there are no joyous rabbinical feet smooshing the fruit in madcap berry dances to hava nagila. Rather, loganberry and elderberry juice are unromantically grown and purchased through the proper channels from Washington State, cherry and blackberry juices from Europe. The process of fermentation is done with great sobriety in massive containers to prepare them for bottling. Rabbis from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America supervise and ensure everything is done in accordance with "halacha" or Jewish law. I doubt they listen to hava nagila during their supervision sessions, but it would be nice to think that they did.
Armed with my new found understanding of kosher wines I returned to Wally's to scope out the vast selection. But for some reason, I still wasn't interested. The merlots, the sauvignon blancs, and the Bordeaux of the kosher variety may have come with all the bells and whistles of current trends, but the only wine that was calling my name was poor little Manichewitz in the discount bin. I brought "Manny" home with me and have decided that he's going to be my drink of choice this holiday season, and for the rest of the seasons to come for that matter. And if no one wants to hoist a glass of my Manichewitz for imbibing, if no one tears up thinking of their first sip or chooses to chug ‘er down like I do, zigesundt! I'll simply smuggle it into all my heimishe good cooking in the holiday months to come.