review of Reflections of a Wine Merchant by Neal Rosenthal (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)
It hasn’t always been so, but today it is the great paradox of wine that something so simple as a glass of fermented grape juice should be at the center of such impassioned worldwide considerations of taste and style, history and tradition, craftsmanship and global marketing. In my job as a sommelier, I live in the constant presence of this paradox. I make a living buying and selling wine, gauging levels of quality, weighing in tableside on the latest curiosity, recycling stories about great bottles and the great people who made them.
And yet all of this must seem gratuitous—even silly, to lots of people whose faces conceal none of the stupefaction they seem to feel when people start talking about wine. For many, when the conversation turns complex and philosophical about wine—it’s all much ado about nothing but a simple little drink. But to those who do fall under the mysteriously beguiling captivation wine can conjure, it is a source of never-ending nuance, intrigue and even controversy. From beginning wine drinkers moving through a tasting room schedule in Napa to old hands debating the relative merits of two vintages of Burgundy from the 1970’s, the universe of wine can seem like an interminable series of unanswerable questions. What makes this taste this way? Why does that taste so different? Why is that wine so expensive? Will this bottle be even more spellbinding in ten years than it is now?
Under the surface the considerations seem more momentous and more complicated, some of them cutting straight to the core of how people taste, what sort of work we value, how we regard our relationship with the natural world. Wine is the world’s lone example of an agricultural product, theoretically available in every corner of the globe, which has as much to do with artisanal human stewardship as it does with what the soil and the sun yields. With a little prodding, fields produce wheat and corn and apples and tomatoes, but wine production requires a vastly different quality of human effort—both physically and mentally.