A couple of weeks ago I stumbled on an article reporting that “Americans like sweet wines, but nobody talks about it.” The article piqued my interest because my first encounters with wine came as a child, when I’d be offered1 Manischewitz Concord grape wine at traditional Jewish Friday evening meals at my grandparents’ home and, of course, at Passover, where wine plays an important role in the seder (the dinner that retells and celebrates the story of Exodus).
Manischewitz is unapologetically sweet, and — especially in the three-plus decades I’ve been with Sandra, a born-and-bred Californian who certainly appreciates good wine (and knows a lot more about “the grape” than I do) — there have been a few occasions when I’ve had to bite my tongue and not admit to oenophile friends and relatives that I still enjoy that sweet stuff. (Oops! I just blew my cover.)
In preparing to draft this post, I did a bit of research and discovered one salient (for present purposes) fact: Manischewitz wines didn’t merit even a passing mention in any of the sweet-wine articles I looked at. I should note that these articles did not approach the subject with dry-wine snobbery. Quite the contrary. They were seriously appreciative of a wide selection of sweet wines, well beyond the obvious candidates like Sauternes, Riesling, Moscato, Port and ice wines. But they totally ignored Manischewitz, giving it the same silent treatment accorded the widely disdained Boone’s Farm non-vintage “vintages.” (Hint: Don’t fail to click on the Boone’s Farm link — you will ROFLYAO.)
But I was not to be deterred in my quest to learn something more about Manischewitz. I Googled the word directly, and found surprisingly long discussions of the brand’s origins, how it’s made (yes, they add sugar!) and other kosher wines.2 The discussion of Manischewitz and competing sweet kosher wines notes that they came into existence thanks largely to the availability of Concord grapes in the Northeast, home to many Jewish immigrants (for whom wine was a serious tradition) who had arrived from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and to the fact that without added sugar these wines are often unpalatable. (Regarding palatability, see this link too.)
But one thing I failed to discover online was any mention of a sweet wine I had the good fortune to sample back in the mid-1970s in Lithuania — a country not exactly in the first rank of our planet’s wine-growing regions.
At the time, I was posted to the U.S. consulate-general in Leningrad (today St. Petersburg), and in those Cold War days, despite the policy of the United States and virtually all West European countries to refuse to recognize the legality of the Soviet occupation of the three Baltic nations,3 their capitals — Tallinn, Estonia; Riga, Latvia; and Vilnius, Lithuania — were all considered part of America’s official Leningrad Consular District. So I traveled to all three cities once or twice a year.
On one of my visits to Vilnius, my Soviet-Lithuanian hosts offered me a taste of a locally produced wine. I was surprised, initially, to discover that wine was even produced in such a northerly location.4
However, that surprise was dwarfed by my tastebuds’ utter astonishment. The stuff looked and tasted just like Manischewitz!
My grandparents’ generation of immigrants from that part of the world5 was a natural market. And the experience makes me suspect that even if no-added-sugar Concord wine were palatable, the extra sweetness of Manischewitz makes it taste much more like the wine my ancestors knew in the Old Country.
So now you know the whole story — at least as much of it as I do. Stay tuned, however. Next week I’ll be writing about two other non-vodka alcoholic adventures in the USSR.6
- Initially, I’d be offered a drop or two; as I got older, I was given a little more. By the time I got to college, alcohol, for me, was not exciting. I rarely got high and never got sick. For many of my classmates, however, it triggered a lot of experimentation, not all of which could be considered successful (unless you count embracing the porcelain throne as a success).
- Yes, the laws of kashrut apply not only to meat and dairy products, but also to wine. An explanation, which I suspect most readers will feel tests the outer limits of the arcane, can be found at this link. In any case, those who enjoy dry wines might be interested to know that Manischewitz and its competitors do not have a lock on the tastebuds of those who wish to drink only kosher wine. Many dry kosher wines are produced not only in the United States, but also in France, Israel and a surprising assortment of other countries.
- All three Baltic states are inhabited by non-Slavic peoples. Estonia is just across a narrow arm of the Baltic Sea from Finland, and its people speak a language closely related to Finnish, one of the few languages in Europe that does not belong to the Indo-European language group. Farther south lie Latvia and Lithuania, whose languages comprise the Indo-European group’s Baltic branch. During the 18th century, the territories in which the people of all three nations lived had been conquered by Czarist Russia. Following the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and Civil War (1917–1921), the three Baltic nations won independence. That lasted just two decades. It ended when, in a secret protocol to 1939’s Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany (Stalin’s “green light” that made it safe for Hitler to invade Poland, starting World War II just nine days after the pact’s signing) Germany agreed to allow the USSR to swallow up the Baltic states. Following a series of brutal Soviet ultimatums in 1940, all three were forced to “request” their annexation to the USSR. No respectable Western power — neither the U.S. nor any major West European nation — recognized the legitimacy of these takeovers, which quickly led to the execution, imprisonment and/or Siberian exile of tens of thousands of Baltic citizens (an estimated 60,000 from Estonia alone). For the next five decades, the United States maintained this stance, recognizing the three Baltic governments-in-exile (headquartered in Washington) and allowing U.S. diplomats to travel in an official capacity to only the capitals of the USSR’s Baltic “republics” — Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius — where U.S. policy was not to allow our diplomats to meet with local officials at the vice-ministerial level or above. As it happened, on one of my visits to Vilnius, a vice-minister of the Lithuanian “Soviet Socialist Republic” buttonholed me. In the ensuing half-hour discussion, I disputed whatever it was he was trying to persuade me of and told him our country knew full well how Lithuania had been swallowed up by the USSR, Hitler’s gift to Stalin. (In accord with the State Department’s “rules of engagement” regarding such matters, I reported the conversation in writing on my return to Leningrad.) When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the Baltic nations all reestablished their independence. Sandra and I spent several days in Estonia following our trip to St. Petersburg in 2006, and I can tell you the difference in the appearance of Tallinn between my visits in the mid-1970s and 2006 was breathtaking. It had shed its former Soviet gloom and torpor, and metamorphosed into a colorful, thriving butterfly of a city. It was wonderful to see these changes.
- Vilnius is just a bit south of the 55th parallel, as northerly a location as Omsk (Siberia), the Aleutian Islands, the Alaskan panhandle, Hudson Bay, Labrador, Londonderry (near Ireland’s northern tip) and Copenhagen.
- My paternal grandparents were both from Lithuania — from a shtetl, Vizun, in the area of Kaunas (Kovno in Russian, Kowno in Polish), a little north of Vilnius. My mother’s mother came from the Grodno area in what is today Belarus; my mother’s dad came from Balta, Ukraine, about 100 miles north of Odessa.
- Some of my vodka adventures are recounted here and here. To protect “the innocent,” others will not be recounted.