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.
For this reason, the state of wine production seems to a number of people with interests in gastronomy, the environment, art, and human culture at large as a monumentally important window to the human soul. When someone in the wine trade tastes a wine from Tuscany which seems clearly to have been made, intentionally, to taste like a wine from Bordeaux or Napa, he or she might feel a pang of defensiveness for the centuries-old traditions of Tuscan winemaking. Many of us are glad to know that we don’t have to eat food from McDonald’s when we’re hungry. We’re also grateful that global wine production remains relatively de-centralized, and that there are thousands of practitioners all over the world who exert their skills and tastes particularly, in the name of their homes and traditions.
We have been waiting patiently, since wine became a truly global commodity in the 1980’s, for someone to tackle these issues and others head on, from the perspective of experience and with the passion of one who has spent decades devoted to the preservation of greatness and diversity and the study of the wine market’s evolution. There are not so many Americans with feet in both the new and old worlds who might have been capable of assuming such a responsibility.
Neal Rosenthal’s recently published “Reflections of a Wine Merchant,” culled from three decades of experience buying wines from Europeans and selling it to Americans, is everything we might have hoped for. Filled with stories about his efforts to introduce the character—and characters, of the old world to dinner tables across the United States, readers of this book will be regaled with tales of winemaking families from Burgundy to Umbria and with cultural impressions borne of those experiences.
It is the book about wine that we have needed direly, and one which helps immeasurably as we try to hold our bearings—gastronomically and otherwise, in a world growing faster and less personal by the minute.
* * *
I first came to know of Neal Rosenthal when I was working as a server at a restaurant called Campanile in Los Angeles. I had become enamored there with a wine that came from Umbria in Italy and was made by a man named Paolo Bea. It had a colorful, iconoclastic label that looked as though it had been hand-scrawled, it tasted completely unlike anything else I had ever tasted, like it had lots of different flavors, and it was utterly delicious.
There was a label bearing Neal’s name on the back of those Paolo Bea bottles that would come to seem ubiquitous to me soon after. I found a job as a sommelier at another restaurant, and I was suddenly in charge of finding a few hundred different wines to buy for the wine list. For reasons that were mostly political, I could not have filled that list only with wines that had been imported by Rosenthal Wine Merchant, but I quickly realized that just about every one of my favorite imported wines came from Neal’s portfolio.
It would have been a strange coincidence had it been just luck. I bought imported wines then from as many as ten or twelve different purveyors, and most of them sold good wines at fair prices. But the wines that were consistently the most distinctive and luscious, and those which most of the time seemed to deliver the most quality for the price, consistently bore the Rosenthal label.
The portfolio was full of French and Italian producers who seemed to me, in my early-career naivete, that they must have been among the leading producers from their respective areas. There were the Brovia wines from Barolo, those made by Jacques Puffeney from France’s Jura, Ghislaine Barthod, Jean-Marie Fourrier and Edmond Cornu from Burgundy, Philippe Foreau’s Vouvrays, of course those mysteriously delicious Umbrian wines from Paolo Bea.
As I began to put months and years under my belt as a wine buyer, what were once suspicions about the consistent quality in the Rosenthal portfolio became some of my most deeply held convictions. I learned at one point of a word called ‘typicity,’ which is a word used to describe a wine that tastes as it should based on the place from which it comes. While producers from areas all over the globe have in recent years made wines with the ostensible purpose of seeing them compare favorably with highly-rated, thick and juicy Cabernets from Bordeaux and Napa, Rosenthal’s producers seem to demonstrate no such envy. They don’t lack ambition or greatness, but neither will anything stand in the way of them remaining true to their viticultural origins—which in many cases are centuries in the making.
The more I learned about wine—about what it takes to make it well, about the endlessly complex world of the global wine market, and about fine wine’s stature as one of the last examples of widely appreciable artisanal products in the world, the more I came to understand that the distinctiveness of Neal’s wines had nothing to do with coincidence. To the contrary, the composition of the Rosenthal portfolio and its longevity can only be the result of a number of radical commitments: to quality, to diversity, and to families and traditions.
* * *
The core of the success of Rosenthal’s career and also of his book can be traced to a chapter called ‘Loyalty,’ in which he describes the early days of his experiences buying wine. He writes specifically about his efforts to build relationships with producers from the French region of Burgundy, which is legendary as both a source for many of the world’s greatest wines and also for the frustration it promises for those foolish enough to expect any degree of consistency from it. Burgundy is one of the northern-most regions in the world that sometimes produces superior wines, and is the old-world home of the red grape pinot noir, which suffers considerably in weather which is either too hot or too cool. In Burgundy especially, the famously fickle pinot noir behaves like a moody Broadway diva who occasionally delivers performances of a lifetime.
Because of its geographic position and weather patterns, summers in Burgundy are sometimes glorious seasons of warm days and cool nights, but more often than not something happens—a hailstorm in early September or unremitting heat from June until August, which gives people the impression that a Burgundian vintage has been less than ideal. Vintages thought to be mediocre have vastly outnumbered those thought to be great. Some might say global warming has had an opposite effect in recent years—it’s been a long time since Burgundy had what was considered to be a terrible vintage. But still grape-growing conditions there carry no more guarantee than they did in the 1930’s and 40’s, when, an older winemaker once told me, there were years when conditions were so poor that wine simply could not be produced.
When Rosenthal was courting Burgundy winemakers in the mid-1980’s, the region had recently experienced a spate of challenging vintages. With the exception of excellent wines from 1978, production from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s was inconsistent at best and critically rejected at worst. By the time he arrived to taste the uneven results of the 1984 vintage and the better 1985’s, the producers with whom Rosenthal had been working were glum from a string of tough years. It was, he writes, an important turning point.
“A farmer’s fate is tied to the weather. To survive, a grower needs a proper partner, not someone who is there when the sun is out but heads for higher ground alone during the flood. It was clear to me what I had to do. I had to buy the 1984’s just as I had purchased the preceding vintages, in the same quantities but at a slightly lower price. I did precisely that, and although we struggled to sell through those wines (many of which, by the way, were quite pleasant) and suffered a good deal of financial pain, that decision was one of the most enlightened and productive of my career.”
What is expressed explicitly in this section is that it made good business sense for him to approach his developing relationships with the consistency he describes. He realized that his growers could not afford to lose entire vintages which were deemed, rightly or not, to be sub-par, and he demonstrated his willingness to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in tough times. For proof that this mentality was indeed valued by his winegrowers as much as he suggests, one need look no further than the longevity of his relationships. In an era in which many producers and importers suffer ruptured business alliances every few years or more often, the Rosenthal portfolio is full of wines which have been imported by Neal Rosenthal, exclusively, for twenty years or more.
It goes without saying, especially in Burgundy, that these relationships have lived through vintages of all sorts of different qualities and complexions. There have surely been thousands of conversations between Neal and his producers, at different points in different growing seasons, about what to expect based on what had already transpired, and about what surprises might have been lurking around the corner. Together, they have shared countless hours of hope and optimism and have endured difficult stretches of worry and despair. Together, they have arrived at the market to present—literally—the fruits of their labor. The story of how they managed hasn’t ever been the same, but it’s always been true. Sometimes the sun shone brightly and sometimes it rained. Sometimes the music sounded like Mozart and sometimes, it sounded like Little Richard.
And what Neal, for all of his achievement, might still be too humble to acknowledge, is that this is the real source of Rosenthal Wine Merchant’s success and of its power–his indellible thumbprint in the wine market. What he stops just short of saying is that his company, and indeed the world, actually thrives on the ‘down’ years. He has known this better than anyone. We need them the same way we need rainstorms in the summer, the same way we need rest after activity, and for the same reason we love tragedy in drama as much as comedy. A world without variation is a world without context, and quite obviously, a world without flavor. A wine market in which every bottle is a ten out of ten every year is a market that might as well be trading oil or copper.
I have no wish to take anything away from legendary wines or great vintages—god bless masterpieces of all kinds, be they painted on canvas or corked up in bottles. But ‘great’ wines also come with expectations, and in my experience it has often been the case that the most profound sips of wine have also been impossible to predict. Raise a glass of wine that someone has described as one of the greatest wines ever made, and your mind will set to analyzing and gauging whether or not the juice is really so perfect. It goes without saying–this isn’t any fun at all. It’s entirely preferable to get lost in something complex and beautiful and anonymous. (Once or twice, I have even exploited this dynamic by seeking out wines from notorious vintages which were reputed by critics to be particularly terrible. “Foul barnyard aromas have long beset this wine,” wrote Robert Parker about the 1970 Chateau Leoville-Poyferre, which he awarded 65 points and which a friend and I thought was pretty tasty.)
The wonderfully unlikely upshot of off-vintage wines is that they can often be more fun than the more heralded wines which are made before or after them. A friend of mine in the wine business was sitting at the bar at my restaurant having dinner one night last year and looked up at me with a canary-eating grin when I asked him how he was doing. “I’m eating a burger and drinking off-vintage Cornas,” he said, referring to the wine I had recommended from the traditional little village in the Northern Rhone. “How could life be any better?”
* * *
The wine my friend was drinking at the bar that night was a 2002 Cornas ‘La Geynale,’ made by Robert Michel, who has been a stalwart in the Rosenthal portfolio since the mid-1990’s. If not for his wines, I’m not sure I would have the impression of the syrah grape that I do, and neither would the French word ‘sauvage’ be the integral part of my wine lexicon that it is. I believe I probably discovered that word, which the French use to describe wines that are a little rough around the edges (and perhaps which are beset by barnyard aromas), when I was in my first job as a wine director and tasting a wine made by Robert Michel and doing some research to try and figure out how to explain Cornas, and these flavors, to my staff.
Sadly, as described in the closing pages of Reflections of a Wine Merchant, Michel two years ago announced his retirement to Rosenthal and his intention to close his winemaking career with the vintage of 2006. He had had a falling out with his wife, and his only son gave no indication of wanting to carry on his father’s work, and so there was eventually no choice but to cease production and sell his vineyard holdings. Someone may carry on tending the vines in the La Geynale vineyard in Cornas, but when the last 2006 Michel wines disappear from retail shelves and restaurant lists around the world in a few years, a style will be lost forever. Cornas is a tiny village with a mere half-dozen serious producers, and perhaps one or two of them share Michel’s taste for the classical sauvage qualities of Cornas syrah.
It is hard to say exactly what the world will be missing following Robert Michel’s retirement. Certainly it does not spell any sort of larger end in the world of wine. French syrah will continue to be produced at a very high level of quality, and even some wines which Michel himself would have been proud to make will surely remain after his are no longer available. And of course also it is easy to become too sentimental, to ascribe too much importance to one person’s work and elevate the importance of his contributions beyond what is reasonable.
But to characterize what is at stake with an even hand, I think, is to acknowledge the value of a winemaker who has spent a lifetime working to hone a particular sense of taste. We tend in this country to celebrate lifetimes of achievement in medicine, in politics, in work conducted around film cameras, and those disciplines surely are worthy of the respect they are accorded. America’s relationship with matters of taste has never enjoyed quite the firmness of footing as have those more empirical enterprises.
Neal Rosenthal, for one, has spent most of his life in the service of America’s taste, and in recognition of its importance. He has worked tirelessly not only to promote and preserve the great winemaking traditions of Europe, but also to make them accessible and discernable to a public with a famous appetite for speed and a penchant for forgetfulness. Perhaps it is this very juxtaposition that lends his memoir such compact force, delivering extraordinarily poignant and prescient cultural criticism in 200 short pages. And perhaps it is the same juxtaposition that fuels the inexhaustible drive of a man in his mid-60’s who reflected, upon the recent retirement of his lone Cornas producer: “Our ledger in the northern Rhone is now in deficit. We compensate by fleshing out our selections in other places, the curious wines of the Jura, or those of a committed grower in the northwestern reaches of Champagne, or an undiscovered fanatic in the less-heralded Loire appellation of Menetou-Salon. But the loss is there, it is deeply felt, and I will continue to explore, hoping to find someone, young or old, who will surface from the granite soils of Cornas or the seductive earth of Hermitage to satisfy our taste for these important wines.”