By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 11, 2008
REFLECTIONS OF A WINE MERCHANT
By Neal I. Rosenthal
Farrar Straus Giroux. 257 pp. $24
In August 1977, Neal Rosenthal quit his “stagnating career as a lawyer specializing in the arcane rules and regulations of corporate and international tax law, and, in a desperate attempt to maintain some semblance of financial stability, . . .purchased the remnants of my parents’ retail business, a neighborhood liquor store” in “a tiny cube on the corner of Seventy-second Street and Lexington Avenue” in “the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a tony residential quarter.” The store’s selection of wines and Rosenthal’s knowledge of wine were limited, but he set about improving both, with impressive results: He and his wife, Kerry Madigan, are now co-owners of Rosenthal Wine Merchant, a “little importing company” that is “little” only in the sense that it serves a limited clientele, one that appears to be knowledgeable, choosy and rich.
This exclusiveness must be kept in mind as one ventures into Reflections of a Wine Merchant, Rosenthal’s memoir of his three decades in the high-end wine business. It is quite a good book — well written, informative, agreeably opinionated — but it is about a world that precious few of us are in position to enter. Though Rosenthal is maddeningly coy about money matters — I cannot recall that he mentions even once what he paid for an order of wine or charged for a bottle, and his company’s Web site does not include wine prices — one does not have to be a genius to conclude that since he specializes in the most elite wines from the most elite districts of France and Italy, we are talking about far bigger bucks than most of us are able to spend. If you are, as I am, someone who regards the purchase of a $25 bottle of wine as a rare and extravagant occasion, you probably are going to feel, as I do, that Rosenthal is off somewhere in terra incognita.
Or, more accurately, terroir, the “concept that the particulars of a zone — the combination of soil, climate, grape type, and, perhaps, human history — are responsible for producing very special characteristics that are unique to a quite specific spot.” Rosenthal is a passionate believer in terroir and, equally, a passionate disbeliever in the mass production of wines without regard to the specific character of the place in which the grapes are grown. He operates by standards that can only be called rigorous. Here he comments on one French grower’s insistence that his daughter “never, under any circumstances,” sell a small vineyard called Les Ménétrieres:
“This sentiment is the ultimate expression of someone’s love of the land, recognition that nature is king and we are only its caretakers, that land is eternal and we are not. It is why I insist on working with estate-bottled wines; it is why I require our growers to be as specific as possible when labeling their wines so that our clients and the ultimate consumers of these hand-made, limited production wines can have a better understanding of the magic that takes place when the vine is planted in a special place and cared for by the proper steward.”
It is here that Rosenthal separates himself from the herd of wine snobs whose interest ultimately is less in the wines themselves than in the prices they fetch, the labels they bear, the prizes they win. His commitment to terroir is deep and ardent and rises from a conviction “that nature makes the wine and man acts as its steward.” Among his most appealing characteristics is his infectious love for the particular places where fine wines are grown and for the people who grow them.
It helps as well that Rosenthal is honest and reasonably modest about his own education in the subtleties of wine and the business attendant to it. He started out, in 1977, with “a two-week sabbatical in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts accompanied by several cases of wine and a bunch of books on the subject,” returning “with a scintilla of wine knowledge” that provided the foundation for what he has built in the ensuing years. His nose and palate seem to be exceptionally keen: “No one ever taught me how to taste wine, nor did I learn from someone else what is good and bad. I brought my own talents, developed my own standards, and jumped into the fray. I had no business plan; instinct was my guide. I naively believed that allegiance to quality would carry the day, and I trusted my own taste. I have always said that if I couldn’t sell the wine I was purchasing, at least I would be happy to drink it.”
His taste, by his ready admission, is conservative: “I am curious about the new and different, but I am most at home with the tried and true. Ultimately, my portfolio of growers and their wines reflects my search for wines that are part of classical tradition. As a result, we may be out of the mainstream.” It therefore is no surprise that Rosenthal was chosen as a spokesman for traditionalists by the makers of “Mondovino” (2004), a controversial Belgian film that excoriates the mass-production wine industry from a decidedly left-wing and anti-American point of view, a slant of which Rosenthal may well have been unaware when he was interviewed. In his memoir he laments that wine is no longer the “gentleman’s business” it was (or so at least he imagines) when he began, a business dominated now by big money and “a need to fashion wine that will be most appealing in its youth and brought to market rapidly.” He writes harshly about today’s wine critics, who “provide fodder for the marketing of wines,” and about what the wine culture has become: “So much of today’s brave new world of wine and food is often no more than a game of smoke and mirrors, more bravado than substance, a world where young chefs with a couple of years of study at a fancy food university display their lack of discipline by piling all their lessons before you on every plate, and itinerant winemakers bring their formulas fresh from the laboratory to make wines of flash that cannot satisfy, which have to be gobbled up instantly before the deception is discovered.”
There is more than a little truth to that, though not a syllable of it will find favor in the trendy places where hot new fashions in food and wine are inhaled by those who now pass for tastemakers. Still, Rosenthal fails to come to terms with the realities of today’s marketplace. Wine produced by growers such as those with whom he works is and always will be a luxury available only to the few, except, perhaps, to those living in the places where it is made. His notion that there will be a return to the old ways on a larger scale is, to put it charitably, naive. It’s not going to happen. The wine industry wants to grow, not to shrink into a niche market for wealthy connoisseurs. The best that can be hoped for, in light of the inescapable realities of production, distribution and marketing, is that people will still be able to buy wines of acceptable quality at acceptable prices.
The truth is that many such wines are available now. Rosenthal turns up his nose at just about all wines made anywhere except in his treasured terroirs of France and Italy, but I have often been steered by knowledgeable wine salespeople to eminently drinkable and affordable wines from South America, Australia, South Africa, the West Coast and other places that Rosenthal generally disdains. It is a pity that his admirable loyalty to terroir and those who worship at its altar blinds him to the facts of life with which less fortunately situated people must deal.
Still, there is much more to praise than to condemn in Reflections of a Wine Merchant. Rosenthal clearly has a gift for friendship, and his accounts of his dealings with growers and their families can be touching as well as informative. Being a wine merchant is harder than most people imagine, and he does a good job of describing its quotidian details. Most of all, though, this book is the testament of someone who, through a combination of talent, determination and good luck, has been able to spend his working life doing exactly what he wants to do, and doing it well. That is a blessing not often bestowed, and Rosenthal’s gratitude for it is evident on every page. ·
Jonathan Yardley’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.