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Reflections of a Wine Merchant
By Neal I. Rosenthal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
HC, 272 pgs. US$24
ISBN: 0-3742-4856-7

The land and the grape are one

By Steven Martinovich
web posted July 28, 2008

Reflections of a Wine MerchantWith all that it takes to be knowledgeable about wine, the average person can perhaps be forgiven when their eyes begin to glaze over on talk of obscure plots of European land, varieties of grape or proper fermentation methods. Most want to simply enjoy the stuff without a lecture on how a humble farmer, whose methods haven't changed much in decades or centuries, produced the vintage they are drinking.

Neal I. Rosenthal isn't that man, though perhaps that's not a surprise since he operates Rosenthal Wine Merchant Ltd., an elite importer of European wines to the United States. His memoir of his days in the trade, Reflections of a Wine Merchant, illustrates his belief that wine isn't just to be enjoyed, its origins also to be obsessed over. It's not enough to know about wine, a true aficionado judges a wine by the very soil it's grown in – soil that can change characteristics from one foot to the next.

Devoting an early chapter to this, Rosenthal writes that the expression of soil in the final product is called terroir – how "the combination of soil, climate, grape type, and, perhaps, human history" are responsible for a wine's characteristics. "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 characteristics slurp by slurp as they speak of their origins and their traditions. The best of wines always proudly tell you from where they come."

From there Rosenthal moves onto his humble beginnings in the wide trade. Fleeing a failing corporate law practice in 1978, he takes over his parents' small liquor store in the Upper East of Manhattan. The store boasted few wines and Rosenthal's knowledge about the subject was limited. Determined to improve both, he threw himself into the wine world and soon found himself visiting French vineyards in search of the best wines.

"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," he writes.

Much of that education took place in the vineyards of France and Italy as Rosenthal spent countless hours meeting growers in then obscure villages looking for undiscovered treasures, back when this was still possible. Mostly eschewing technical details, he instead relates the personal story of these encounters, how each side gently tested each other on their knowledge and commitment to the craft. Rather than turn his book into a journalistic exercise, Rosenthal instead focuses on bringing his story to life for the reader – attempting to capture the moment.

Reflections of a Wine Merchant sometimes seems like a case of score settling for Rosenthal. He has little love for wine critics who he accuses of facile commentary thanks to grading systems that have gained popularity over essays. He has few kind words for the big operations which import wine into the United States which don't take the care that smaller businesses – like Rosenthal's – do. Several chapters are dedicated to wine growers who have disappointed him in past dealings – one is described as "ugly, with horse-like features and legs as thick as a country table" – and although he does it as gently as possible he does excoriate them for their actions. Nor does he care much for wines made anywhere but France, Italy and perhaps Germany.

It would be difficult to come away from Reflections of a Wine Merchant believing that Rosenthal was the typical wine snob who measures their knowledge in the prices they pay for a bottle of wine – though it's clear if unspoken that the wines he imports fetch a dear retail price. It is clear that Rosenthal's commitment to his terroir philosophy informs all the choices he makes and it's obvious he makes few concessions in the pursuit of the best wine – even if he defines that as only his beloved French and Italian wines. Just as clear is the fact that Rosenthal has a gift for bringing his chosen profession to life the same way a farmer grows his grapes; with much love. ESR

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

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