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Reflections of a Wine Merchant

Reflections of a Wine Merchant

by Neal I. Rosenthal, Neal Rosenthal

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A leading importer of limited-production wines of character and quality takes us on an intimate tour through family-owned vineyards in France and Italy and reflects upon the last three decades of controversy, hype, and change in the world of wine

In the late 1970s, Neal I. Rosenthal set out to learn everything he could about wine. Today, he is one of the


A leading importer of limited-production wines of character and quality takes us on an intimate tour through family-owned vineyards in France and Italy and reflects upon the last three decades of controversy, hype, and change in the world of wine

In the late 1970s, Neal I. Rosenthal set out to learn everything he could about wine. Today, he is one of the most successful importers of traditionally made wines produced by small family-owned estates in France and Italy. Rosenthal has immersed himself in the culture of Old World wine production, working closely with his growers for two and sometimes three generations. He is one of the leading exponents of the concept of "terroir"—the notion that a particular vineyard site imparts distinct qualities of bouquet, flavor, and color to a wine. In Reflections of a Wine Merchant, Rosenthal brings us into the cellars, vineyards, and homes of these vignerons, and his delightful stories about his encounters, relationships, and explorations—and what he has learned along the way—give us an unequaled perspective on winemaking tradition and what threatens it today.

Rosenthal was featured in the documentary film Mondovino and is one of the more outspoken figures against globalization, homogenization, and the "critic-ization" of the wine business. He was also a major subject in Lawrence Osborne's The Accidental Connoisseur. His is an important voice in defense of the individual and the artisanal, and their contribution to our quality of life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Neal Rosenthal is a source of the kind of wines that I have always looked for, wines that speak to me not of marketing trends, but of the places where they were grown and the people who made them. Whether rustic or elegant, Neal's wines are wines of character, of taste. His lively book, which displays the spunky personality of the author, shines light on how character and taste may be bred into wine.” —Victor Hazan

“There have been many books about wine, but rarely one as absorbing and as wise as this one. Rosenthal tells of his travels in France and Italy, of his friendships with wine growers, and of his own growing understanding of this ancient business that combines both art and commerce. He writes so well, one can taste the wines he loves.” —Charles Simic

Bryan Miller
Rosenthal…has resisted composing a 250-page jeremiad on industry trends. Instead, his book is a warm, personal, eloquent celebration of the people and places where tradition still survives. The perception of a traveling wine buyer as a gentleman in a fine blazer, notepad in pocket, enjoying a semi-vacation of congenial sipping, is punctured by the reality of fast-paced barrel tastings (often starting right after breakfast) in cold, dank cellars. And, unlike many wine-professional journals, Rosenthal's book is mercifully uncluttered with industry argot.
—The New York Times
Jonathan Yardley
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…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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

The 2008 vintage qualities remain undetermined, but with this title by New York City wine importer Rosenthal, the still-young year yields one of the outstanding wine books of recent memory. From long experience, the author writes that wine should be first understood as an expression of soil through fermented grape juice and begins his memoir of a tradesman's life with a short manifesto on that expressive quality called terroir. Then, Rosenthal takes us on an autobiography of his life as a wine merchant, starting with the opening of his Manhattan shop in 1978, from early misadventures and small-scale successes to the ferreting of significant discoveries far off the paths habitually beaten through France and Italy in particular. His and his wife, Kerry, had a knack for finding the hitherto unknown, and he narrates these discoveries with physical and social details that bring moments to vivid, sensory life. The period he chronicles was one of enormous developments in wine, from California through globalization, and he writes intelligently of the problems that came with progress. Yet neither the trade nor this title is romantic: Rosenthal makes clear the hard, often unpleasant work of winemaking and its trade and the setbacks that are part of the process. Through his business, he has had and been responsible for countless wine-related experiences of exceptional quality; he has now provided a literary one. B&w photos. (May)

Copyright 2007Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A purveyor of fine wines offers his thoughts on the correct way to get the best reds and whites from Europe's cellars to New York's sellers. Rosenthal demands exclusivity, no filtration and full fidelity-and he indicts those who fail to meet these requirements. Like a realtor, he declares that the most important consideration is location: Terroir, where the grape lives, is of the essence when it comes to concupiscible vintages. Having no interest in wines of the New World, the author has always concentrated on the small family vignerons of Italy and France. He recounts pleasant meetings leading to palate-delighting discoveries with the local cognoscenti, growers, rascals and rogues in the fellowship of the vine. Tastings engender lavish descriptions. Forget simple "nose" or "legs"; his wares merit greater eloquence. Rosenthal depicts one vintage that, when properly mature, is "of stunning complexity with aromas that recall summer's most pungent and sweet flowers and herbs, accompanied by notes reminiscent of well-worn saddle leather and animal fur; the flavors are of licorice and burnt cherry and chocolate and tobacco [with] the almost tangible feel of a light coating of mineral-infused dust." What serious oenophile can resist such evocative and romantic appellations: Chambave Rouge from the Valle d'Aosta, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva, Hattenheimer Nussbrunnen Trockenbeerenauslese? Connoisseurs of a particularly highfalutin bent will no doubt savor this celebration of the vintner's art; the hoi polloi may prefer Sergio Esposito's more accessible expressions of enthusiasm in Passion on the Vine (2008). Exudes the supercilious attitude of a high-end sommelier who deigns to dispensesuperior wine wisdom.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Reflections of a Wine Merchant

By Neal I. Rosenthal

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2008 Neal I. Rosenthal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-53178-2



I admit to a firmly held prejudice. I have a distinct preference for the traditional wines of western Europe and a matching skepticism about most of the wines produced in the New World as well as for those wines made in the Old World that seek to imitate the characteristics of their New World brethren. My perspective, once so common in the wine trade, is now shared by a small, probably aging, minority of wine merchants. Nevertheless, I am content with my choices.

When I first stumbled into the wine business in late 1977, learning about wine was essentially a series of geography lessons. The market for wine, small as it was at that time in the United States, consisted almost exclusively of the wines of western Europe, with a smattering of wines, mostly of rank commercial quality, from a few other grape-growing regions such as the vast central valley of California, where volume rather than quality was paramount. It was a given that the finest of wines came from the Moselle and the Rhine in Germany; from Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Loire and Rhône valleys of France; from Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy; and on the Iberian peninsula, from the Rioja in Spain and the Porto district in Portugal. There were hints of possible worthy competitors elsewhere, but the game was to be played on the European fields.

The romance of European wine was, for me, like the experience of map reading in which the names of far-off places stimulated the imagination. The seemingly infinite series of villages, little communities that gave their names to the wines produced there, whether in Italy or France or Germany or Spain or Portugal, created a library of potential stories. And, as I dug into the reference works and scanned the labels on the bottles of wine and engaged in an endless series of tastings, it became clear to me that a wine was a creature of its geographical origin; for if it were not, then there would never have been any reason for this memory-straining list of appellations and subsets of appellations, all providing with greater and greater specificity the details of a wine's birthplace.

In many ways, that era was a simpler time. There were perhaps a handful or two of American importers of the finest wines; harvest time occurred from mid-September through early autumn, sometimes extending into November or perhaps December for the curious eisweins of Germany; everyone knew the names of the great growths of Bordeaux and the group of powerful family firms in Burgundy or the Rhône or Tuscany that controlled much of the production in those regions; and there was usually a retailer or two in each major American city who had branched out beyond the sale of spirits to embrace the snobbish trade in fine wines. This was the world of wine in the States at the moment of my almost inexplicable immersion in the commerce of wine.

Much has changed since the late 1970s. There has been, in the intervening years, an explosion of interest in both the making and the consumption of wine. Vineyards have proliferated in places where the grapevine never existed before or where European influence may have placed only an occasional grapevine to maintain a cultural habit. There are vast tracts covered with the vine throughout the west coast of the United States, from Washington State through Oregon and on through much of California. The valleys of Chile produce massive quantities of wine, as do the plains of Australia. There are vineyards to be found almost everywhere now, including China and India. We are awash in wine and there are, as a result, armies of wine merchants plying this new-growth industry. Harvest now occurs in February and March in the southern hemisphere, and six to eight months later in the north. Our understanding of vintage quality is a more difficult feat to master. The wine market is a veritable souk with a different set of rules — or perhaps with no rules at all.

To simplify this jumble of wines and places and traders, initiates now more often start by reading about, or hearing, the litany of grape varieties. The list is a short one, certainly when compared to the large number of wine appellations that have been recognized and authorized. This approach makes comparable, and comprehensible as well, an Australian Chardonnay, a Chardonnay from Meursault in Burgundy, and a Chardonnay vinted in Sonoma County, California. The geography of wine, the standard with which I grew up, becomes submerged in, and perhaps even obliterated by, this simplified approach to wine.

This is more than unfortunate; it is blasphemy. Learning of chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah, and the other grape varieties is an exercise in botany. It is interesting, but it doesn't become compelling until the vine is married to the place where it can flourish. More important, it is a list that, for me, lacks the drama and the history of the rules of geography upon which I built my love of wine. To contemplate the reasons why a wine made from the chardonnay grape planted on a particular hillside in the Côte d'Or of Burgundy differs so markedly not only from its kin harvested on a slope in Australia thousands of miles and a hemisphere away but also from its sister wine made from grapes harvested by the same grower just meters away is to begin to grasp the logic of the phenomenon known as 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 turns the consumption and the study of wine, as well as the commerce in it, into more fascinating and ultimately more satisfying activities. It also reveals the truth about wine and anchors us to a respect for the natural world that is fundamental to our well-being. The most satisfying of wines reveal their characters slurp by slurp as they speak of their origins and their traditions. The best of wines always proudly tell you from where they come.

There are isolated voices in the wine trade that decry the existence of terroir, yet, by and large, the wine community not only believes in the concept but considers it fundamental. That is why, for example, in those areas where growing grapes for the purpose of making wine is relatively new, there is an ongoing search to define places that appear to produce wine of special character. Regard, for example, the decades-long and still incomplete process of delineating territories in northern California, first separating Sonoma as an appellation from Napa and further refining Napa to carve out the Stag's Leap and Mayacamas Mountains and Rutherford Bench areas, just to name a few. All of this is based upon the rational European ideal that finds its most complex expression in the rigorous appellation laws that not only define special geographical areas known after centuries of farming to be the source of special vinous habitat but also control what grapes get planted where and often even in what proportions. Despite the modern notion that man can create miracles given enough money and time and expertise, and despite the extravagant praise thrown at wines that appear on the scene without a scintilla of heritage, to truly understand the hierarchy of wine we must reference the trinity of soil, climate, and grape that is canonized in rules established by the Europeans.

It is that set of standards that has disciplined my efforts over a thirty-year career as a wine merchant. My selections as a wine merchant are grounded entirely on my understanding of those rules, and I marry that discipline to my personal tastes to assemble a portfolio of wines to present to the public. I am comfortable within this world of wine. My tastes have been honed by wines bearing allegiance to these concepts, which explain the prejudice that informs what I do.



Wine appeared in my life as happenstance and I am grateful for its presence. It has given muscle and intellect to my senses; it has invaded my thoughts much as a benign bacterium settles into milk to create pungent cheese. It is a subtle process, this immersion in wine, particularly when done according to the European rules of engagement. The proper study of wine requires both physical and mental skills, an ability to taste and distinguish among many wines, and a vast memory that facilitates the making of comparisons between vintages and among appellations. But a true wine merchant brings a set of gustatory standards to this practice as well, and he applies those preferences when selecting wines to present to the public. A good wine merchant acts as an editor for the public, presenting wines that reflect one individual's notion of what is good and bad — or at least not as good. As a wine merchant, I buy according to my preferences and I never buy for some imagined public taste. I exercise a belief system. The commerce follows from that.

When I was a novice in the trade, the most talked-about wines were the great growths of Bordeaux. Everyone knew the details of the 1855 classification system, which estates were at what level, the tale of how Mouton-Rothschild managed to crack the barrier to join Latour and Lafite and Margaux and Haut-Brion as primus inter pares. Prestige was garnered by the ability to recount the times one tasted the '47 Cheval Blanc and other legendary wines of Bordeaux. But for all the glamour that attached to these wines from the Médoc and Saint Emilion and Pomerol, the mysteries of Burgundy, that part of eastern France lying between Auxerre to the north and Lyons to the south, were seen as the ultimate challenge, and to master Burgundy was to have reached the pinnacle of the trade. It seems to me that Burgundy remains the grand attraction even today. Amid all the moaning about the uneven quality of Burgundy, about the lack of value to be found, about the difficulty of remembering the vast array of place names that can appear on the label of a wine from that region, there is not a wine merchant, nor I think a savvy and wise wine drinker, who is not awestruck by the evanescence of fine Burgundy. I would go even further, to say that there is an almost palpable scent of jealousy and of unrequited desire somewhere in the psyches of those who trade in, or collect, other wines but long to indulge in Burgundy.

I loved Burgundy, both red and white, from the outset. I was bewitched by its complications, both in its nuanced geographical underpinnings and its difficult-to-pin-down essence. The flavors and certainly the incandescent aromas, the very poetry of Burgundy, all provide enough reason to grant it preeminence, but it wasn't until I actually became engaged in the business of Burgundy that I understood the complete truth of its seduction.

There is a battleground to cross to enter the realm of Burgundy. To understand its complexities, the ethereal interplay between soil, grape, and climate, requires immense dedication. It is also a costly game to play since the scarcity of many of the wines begets high prices and the fickleness of the marketplace makes commerce less than reliable. To facilitate the trade in Burgundy, there is a bevy of négociants in Burgundy who issue wines that they have blended under the name of each appellation. Wine merchants who deal with négociants, or consumers who buy wines that bear the label of the négociant, eliminate the necessity of having to sort through the maze of wines that are produced in often minuscule quantities. For many years, certainly at the time of my entry into the business, the wines of the négociants completely dominated the trade in Burgundy.

Early on, I became fixated on this notion of terroir, and the logic of the terroir argument led me to conclude that the only way to properly secure wines that spoke truly of their origins was to buy from the person who actually grew the grapes. It struck me that the purity of a wine was compromised when wines from several sources were mixed together. That was the work of the négociant. So I set out to deal in what are known to the trade as "estate-bottled wines," wines produced by the person who tends the vineyard, harvests the grapes, then makes and bottles the wine. A négociant may in fact own its own vineyards, but more often the job of the négociant is to source wines from the growers with small holdings who do not commercialize their wines in bottle. The négociant then blends different batches of wine to make a "house cuvée." It may be good, honest wine; it may even be excellent wine; or it may be a muddled mess that doesn't taste at all like it should. But at a minimum it will never have the precision of an estate-bottled wine. My task was clear: ferret out the growers whose wines appealed to me.

I discovered a curious kind of anticommercialism among the Burgundian growers that places fidelity, knowledge, and personal character before the desire to make an economic exchange. Business in Burgundy does not always come down to the simple proposition that you can purchase what you are willing to pay for. Burgundians apply a certain value to their wines that is not defined simply in monetary terms. I think this attitude comes from fairly common personal histories — most of the growers with whom I work are second- or third- or fourth-generation farmers whose ancestors may have started out as vineyard workers or small landholders. The domaines took form over time. Once someone realizes that his or her family has spent multiple generations building, bit by bit, their vineyard holdings — a row of vines here in the village appellation, a few rows more in the prestigious premiers crus, and perhaps, if the cosmos has been well ordered and there has been a particularly wise forefather who risked much to acquire a shred of the best land, the handful of parcels that merit the highest denomination of grand cru, some microscopic section of this finest of vineyards may complete the family holdings — a sense of pride forms, an arrogance perhaps, that makes the choice of commercial companion more complicated than the mere calculation of potential profit. This rigor, the quest for more than monetary satisfaction from the sale, is a trait that creates the special ambience that makes Burgundy different, and challenging.

I made my first buying trip to Burgundy in January 1980. It's hard to imagine now, when the language and customs of the United States are ubiquitous, that there was a time when, to properly navigate one's way around another land, one had to cobble together the skills to converse at least minimally in another language. My French was meager then. I had to make withdrawals from the memory bank built on a few years of high school and college French in order to make appointments with strangers. Despite a deficit-ridden skill set, the miracle of conversation occurs: the awkward introductions, the mumbled brief personal history, the "why" of one's arrival, in effect the necessary and limited formal dialogue that must occur in order to establish the most elemental human rapport, without which one cannot descend into the cellar and tackle the chore of tasting. The partner in this exchange is the quintessential and fearsome Frenchman, infamous to all who venture to France as the terrifying native whose sole goal in life is to intimidate and embarrass the supposedly sophisticated and rich traveler who is illiterate in this beautiful language of his. The reality, at least in my experience, is that this humble farmer silently admires the effort made by the supplicant before him, knowing that were he to swap sides, he could not do what has just been done. So at least temporarily, there is balance to the exchange, an equality between seller and prospective buyer, that must exist in order to arrive at the next stage.

In 1982, I had just begun to scratch the surface of Burgundy and was in the very initial stages of compiling our portfolio of growers. Perhaps seven or eight suppliers had already signed on. My goal was not to dabble in Burgundy but to be a real purveyor, to represent practically every appellation from the simplest Beaujolais to the most royal of the grands crus. Each village was a research project with numerous growers to visit and wine upon wine to taste.

In late September of that year, I introduced myself to Gaston Barthod, president of the syndicate of growers for the village of Chambolle-Musigny. I was on the hunt for another supplier of these most seductive of Burgundies, the queen of the Côte de Nuits. I had developed a bit of a network and heard news of who was doing what through conversation with my new-found comrades. There was buzz about Barthod, although his wines had not yet made their way into the commercial world. He had a few private clients and, like most of the growers whom I had met, he was selling major parts of his production to the négociants.


Excerpted from Reflections of a Wine Merchant by Neal I. Rosenthal. Copyright © 2008 Neal I. Rosenthal. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Neal I. Rosenthal was born in New York City in 1945 and was educated at Rutgers, Columbia, and New York University. He lives on a fifty-seven-acre farmstead in Pine Plains, New York, which produces organic eggs, buckwheat honey, fruit, and vegetables.

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