Reflections of a Wine Merchant by Neal Rosenthal

by Stevie on July 28, 2010

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Wine is fantastic, though is it possible to ever get too much of a good thing? Well, not if you’re Neal Rosenthal.

His exciting book, Reflections of a Wine Merchant, describes his career as an independent wine merchant in New York with a penchant for Old World wines. In the mid-Seventies, Rosenthal was a disillusioned attorney looking for something new. Luckily for him, his parents were set to retire and wanted to turn over their small pharmacy in the Upper East Side to a successor. They’d always sold a bit of wine to their customers. So it was only natural that this budding vinophile took over the place and started his very own wine shop.

could these ships be filled with fine French wine? I sure hope so!

This book is more of a delightful wine travelogue than anything else. Somehow I’d never put two-and-two together before, but, duh, a big part of the business of being a wine merchant is having wine to stock your shelves. It hadn’t really donned on me just how challenging getting that fine wine into your store could be. I’d always just imagined that it simply materialized there, year after year, new vintages miraculously appearing in maritime shipments from across the globe, like clockwork. LOL 😉

It turns out that it’s all about who you know, and persistence helps, too.

Rosenthal didn’t really know much of anyone when he started out, though that wasn’t as huge of a deal as it sounds. As he says himself, American wine importing from Europe was sort of in its infancy then. California was just beginning to develop its now well respected reputation as a place for fine wine production and imports from other New World countries weren’t much.

Things certainly have changed but Rosenthal seems to have stayed ahead of the curve and managed to remain in the fine wine business for more than thirty years. That’s very impressive.

He’s obsessed with red Burgundy. I most enjoyed his descriptions of early wine visits to the Côte d’Or. Clearly fond of Burgundians, it’s also quite obvious from what’s written here that as a group they’re slow-to-warm-up bordering on xenophobic. Though from their point of view, I suppose that you’d be leery of a strange American attorney showing up at your doorstep out of the blue, asking in broken French to taste then sell your wine. You might want to test their mettle, too. Of course, Rosenthal passes the tasting and spitting tests with aplomb. But it’s a wild ride.

The book focuses on wine makers and wineries predominantly in Burgundy and the Rhône in France and Tuscany and Piedmont in Italy, though he does venture further afield. It’s thrilling “traveling” with him on his twice-yearly pilgrimages throughout these glamorous wine lands. He has an intriguing chapter on early contemporary wine production in California but doesn’t seem to be that much of a fan overall. Well, no one’s perfect.

As an importer/merchant, Rosenthal offers some insights into special issues related to the industry. For example, he suggests that an importer can be an “interventionist,” someone who “actively insists on imposing a style or methodology on a producer.” Apparently he’s tried not to be this way with his stable of producers. Another area of controversy surrounds the question of what to do with wine from poor vintages. The immediate thought of most importers is to refuse to buy the lower quality stuff. Rosenthal looks at it in another way. His goal is to build loyalty among his producers, so he sticks with them through good and bad times.

That’s a noble sentiment that seems both practical and old-fashioned. He lost me with his blanket dismissal of New World wines. There is a lot of good juice out there these days. Why be such a snob? Rosenthal Wine Merchant still seems to be active in New York. I was able to google their address and even find a blog sponsored by the company. There was no web site, though, and the wine blog appears to have had limited postings, only in 2008. That really is old school.

New or old, I adored this book. I highly recommend it.

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