YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A culture uncorked

Wine, says Neal Rosenthal in his new down-to-terroir memoir, lets us reflect on patience, quality and life well-lived, one sip at a time.

May 13, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

PINE PLAINS, N.Y. — WRITING, AND talking, about wine can be so mannered it has become a figure of fun for decades now: The vocabulary of the outlandish tasting note -- in which the taster attributes bizarre scents and flavors to what's in his wine glass -- was justifiably parodied in the movie "Sideways."

But a few wine writers have struck literary gold. After all, the selling of wine, in a neighborhood shop or a winery's tasting room, typically involves telling stories -- about the wine's makers, its region, the history of an obscure grape. Wine takes so long to make, from the planting of the grapes to the harvest to the bottling, that it's a natural for narrative. With uncooperative weather, marauding animals and scheming capitalists, there's often plenty of drama.

Neal Rosenthal, a wine importer whose new memoir, "Reflections of a Wine Merchant," was just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is trying to join the small shelf of books that can be read for pleasure outside the subculture of wine geeks. With its search for the great neglected winemaker or hidden mountain vineyard, the book belongs in what Jay McInerney calls "the wine quest-story genre," a field whose masterpiece is the 1988 "Adventures on the Wine Route," which made a wine world personality out of Berkeley-based importer Kermit Lynch.

His own book is about patience, said Rosenthal, who, with his wiry, upbeat nature, seems more about racing ahead than waiting around.

Yet it's the result of a long, patient quest of his own: Three decades ago, he was a young, disaffected lawyer, weary of the long hours in the library coming up with ways to save corporations money. He dreamed of writing a novel, following in the footsteps of his idols, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, and he had a cabinet of stuff he'd never shown anyone. But he was ending a marriage and had an infant daughter to support. He was, in short, a frustrated writer.


Proponent of handcrafting

Rosenthal IS now not only a respected importer of wines from Europe but also among the fiercest and most dedicated advocates of artisanal wineries and the notion of terroir, or sense of place. To his critics, he's a zealot, a puritan trying to stop time.

"We're not trying to turn back the clock," he said, chopping shallots and potatoes in the kitchen at his 57-acre farm, about 100 miles outside New York City and surrounded by rolling hills on which farmers raise asparagus, squash and cattle. "What we're trying to do is to preserve an element of our culture. We need special things, and those can only come through handcrafted, individual effort."

This means, of course, that he's uninterested in the vast majority of the world's wine, which comes from either New World appellations or industrial production in the traditional Old World of France, Italy and Spain. To him, the issue -- like his book -- is bigger than vineyard techniques.

"With modesty aside," he said, "I would hope that the book is seen as more than about wine. It is about wine, but inside that, it's about values, about culture, about tradition, and it's about human failings and human triumphs. I try to use that setting to make points about how I live and how to live one's life."


A growing passion

IN the 2004 movie "Mondovino," in which Rosenthal plays a brief but crucial role, he describes the global wine world as "a battle between the Resistance and the collaborators." It's hard to understand that kind of high-pitched talk without looking at Rosenthal's early years, about which he's fairly nostalgic.

"One of the lures was the idea of geography," Rosenthal recalled of his middle-class childhood in New Jersey, in which wine was something you saw on other family's tables. "When you look at the labels, it opens up this fantasy world, this world of the imagination where you're effectively traveling when you pick up a bottle."

Seeing those labels from Western Europe sparked his curiosity. Years later, when his pharmacist father looked to sell his tiny, modest liquor store on New York's Upper East Side, Rosenthal, then bailing from his law career, moved into the business. Within a year he was trolling Piedmont, Italy, for the perfect Barolo.

He expected this to be temporary, a way of financing a writing career. But he's since, as the book makes clear, fallen in deep.

Though he stands up for tradition and an aristocratic lineage, Rosenthal makes a funny reactionary. Lanky, intense and fit -- until recently he ran marathons -- he projects enthusiasm and pride in his accomplishments, but doesn't take himself as seriously as he does the mission he feels he is on. Maybe it's his sense of humor, lingering Jersey accent or casual body language, but he could be a stand-up comedian of the kind who appeared on David Letterman's show in the 1980s.

Los Angeles Times Articles