- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

REFLECTIONS OF A WINE MERCHANT

By Neal I. Rosenthal

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24, 257 pages

REVIEWED BY ERIC WILLS

Who wouldn’t envy Neal Rosenthal? In the late 1970s’ he was a frustrated New York lawyer who specialized in the unglamorous field of corporate and international tax law. He quit his job and opened a wine store in his father’s old pharmacy on the Upper East Side. Mr. Rosenthal knew practically nothing about wine, but he had a good nose and ample joie de vivre. He soon built a thriving business - Rosenthal Wine Merchant - and along the way enjoyed quite the adventure.

Mr. Rosenthal spends much of “Reflections of a Wine Merchant” recalling how he dashed around picturesque Italian and French villages and discovered outstanding but obscure local winemakers. And how, over servings of polenta and coq au vin, he struck deals to import their wines.

Mr. Rosenthal’s book is more than just a nostalgic remembrance of his career, however. It’s also a scathing indictment of how globalization has changed - make that devastated - the wine industry. Mr. Rosenthal adores wines made with Old World techniques that have aged to subtle perfection - wines he spent a career importing. “There is a real magic at work when a man gets so deeply involved with his grapes,” Mr. Rosenthal writes. “His soul seeps into the wine.”

Compare the artistry of old with the homogenization of today, he says. Eye-popping labels are the norm, but today’s wines are largely mediocre and stripped of any originality. Winemakers, beholden to market forces, generally concentrate on crafting young, fruity and bold offerings intended to impress now instead of later, Mr. Rosenthal argues. None of this is news to aficionados or those who saw the 2005 documentary film “Mondovino,” in which Mr. Rosenthal and other traditionalists argued that the emperor - today’s wine establishment - has no clothes.

Mr. Rosenthal’s prose sometimes fails to sparkle like his wines - “Reflections of a Wine Merchant” needed better editing - but he documents a rapidly fading world in which small families prune vines, clean barrels and produce a wonderfully idiosyncratic array of wines.

The book shines as Mr. Rosenthal describes his delicate dance with potential clients. In September 1982, his career still in its infancy, Mr. Rosenthal stood in a damp, dark cellar with Gaston Barthod, the taciturn and balding president of a syndicate of growers in the small French village of Chambolle-Musigny. Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Barthod exchanged brief introductions - Mr. Rosenthal had used his network of contacts to track the winemaker down - before the tasting commenced.

Mr. Rosenthal’s challenge was this: Tell the difference between the simple village wine and the premiere cru. Favor the village wine and Mr. Barthod would label him a rube and sell him the inferior product at high-end prices - a quick way for Mr. Rosenthal to lose his shirt.

Mr. Rosenthal did identify the superior wine. And as darkness descended he sat with Mr. Barthod at his kitchen table and tasted yet another wine. This time Mr. Rosenthal made a mistake. He correctly identified the year - ‘78 - but mistook Mr. Barthod’s Bourgogne Rouge (even lower than a village wine on the hierarchy) as Chambolle Village. Only he did so intentionally.

“The mistake was … on the order of a good chess move, sacrificing a pawn to get at the queen. I had proved that I knew enough to determine the vintage and I threw him a compliment at the same time, upgrading his Bourgogne one notch to the equivalent of a village wine.” Mr. Rosenthal’s reward was a satisfied smile from Mr. Barthod and a successful 20-year partnership.

Terroir. It’s what made Mr. Barthod’s wines so striking, and it’s Mr. Rosenthal’s rallying cry throughout the book. Loosely translated as a “sense of place,” terroir holds that grapes grown in a specific spot will produce a wine that reflects the climate, soil and topography of its birthplace.

As an example, Mr. Rosenthal describes the exceedingly rare ‘61 Chambave Rouge that he imported: “One could smell the skin of the hares that scamper through the vineyards and the gentian and juniper that fill the surrounding fields; the taste captured the myriad berries, black and red and blue, that grow in abundance on the mountainside, and lingering in the background … is the stern minerality of the slate-infused soil.”

Today, Mr. Rosenthal says, wines are aged in new barrels that infuse flavors of oak, vanilla and spice. They are cleansed of impurities. They are designed to appear “grand” but “deflate as soon as they are opened, like blow-up dolls.” In short, they are robbed of their terroir.

“Much of what has gone on lately in the wine world reminds me of the steroids scandal in sports. The goals are to be the strongest or the fastest or, in the case of wine, the most powerful and flamboyant,” writes Mr. Rosenthal. “Yet the heavens are made beautiful not just by the brightest and biggest stars but because of the infinite array of stars, some twinkling, some shimmering, some only occasionally visible.”

Why the dramatic shift in priorities? Winemakers today cater to the tastes of an influential cadre of critics, many of whom prefer the oak flavor of wines aged in new barrels, Mr. Rosenthal says. Moreover, many family-run wineries have joined conglomerates and exchanged the old methods of production for economic security.

Lest he be labeled elitist, Mr. Rosenthal makes clear that he’s thrilled with the growing audience for wine. And he admits that the old methods of production sometimes produced weak and insipid wines, an outcome today’s technological advances help avoid.

That said, he occasionally lets his emotions cloud his objectivity as he argues the case for Old World winemaking. Given the scope of his career over the last few decades, that’s certainly understandable.

But all is not lost. There are still families in those remote Italian and French villages making wine the traditional way. Mr. Rosenthal is still tracking them down. And there is still a market for their wines.

By writing this book, Mr. Rosenthal may inspire a few dilettantes to sample those wines. At the very least, he has given us a glimpse of a fading era in winemaking. As Jean Forey, whose wines Rosenthal imported, says: “L’ancienne époque était plus humaine.” The old days were more human.

Eric Wills is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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