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BOOK REVIEW

Old School values

Reflections of a Wine Merchant; On a Lifetime in the Vineyards and Cellars of France and Italy; Neal I. Rosenthal; Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 272 pp., $24

May 19, 2008|Matthew DeBord | Special to The Times

THE SUBGENRE of wine-importer memoir boasts one other notable effort, the justifiably beloved "Adventures on the Wine Route" by the Berkeley-based merchant Kermit Lynch, published in 1988. So it's a daunting task Neal I. Rosenthal has set for himself in "Reflections of a Wine Merchant," because it's never a good thing to be the lesser player in a field of two.

It's in Rosenthal's favor that there's way more going on between the covers of his book than mere recollection. It arrives at a moment during which a battle is being waged in the wine world, and Rosenthal has nominated himself to be the standard bearer for what comes across as winemaking's reactionary fringe.

His goal: to impede the forward march of the global wine industry, which is using technology and modern viticulture to produce wines that share certain desirable characteristics but that, to Rosenthal, are eradicating old-fashioned, natural values. Rosenthal insists that the popularity of the so-called international style in wine -- bold, rich, early-drinking reds and whites -- is killing the more idiosyncratic Old School winemakers of Europe and creating a global thirst for wines that have lost their connection to agrarian values of terroir.

"The geography of wine, the standard with which I grew up, becomes submerged in, and perhaps even obliterated by, this simplified approach to wine," he writes. "This is more than unfortunate; it is blasphemy." Unlike Lynch, whose book was a catalog of adventures set among a band of fiercely independent vintners, Rosenthal's is a snooty meander through the sensibility of a high-end merchant who wishes to roll back the clock. "I long for the days when wine was written about rather than scored," he maintains, "when poetry, not the bluster of a handful of catchphrases marked by words like 'monumental' and 'hedonistic,' fired the imagination."

Rosenthal is certainly entitled to his perspective. He has spent decades traveling in France and Italy, tracking down wines that would have otherwise stayed close to home. He isn't chasing wines for the masses, but seeking undiscovered gems that he can brand as selections unique to his sensibility.

However, Rosenthal's preferences rule out happy consumption of most of the wine produced today. This is nothing new; he has consistently opposed the dominant, fruit-driven style that has been in favor since the 1980s, and he has proudly made his case before: in Lawrence Osborne's "The Accidental Connoisseur" (2004) as well as in Jonathan Nossiter's controversial 2004 documentary "Mondovino."

He's also skeptical of the profit motive that many winemakers discover when they become successful; although Rosenthal certainly wants to make money off the wines he imports, that's not necessarily what defines his quest.

So pity the winemaker who unapologetically goes for the green. For example, despite a foray into California during the early days of his business, it was pretty much game over for Rosenthal and the wines of the Golden State by 1979.

"The wine culture there in the 1970s seemed a natural extension of the . . . attitude of the 1960s," he writes.

"But it was a short-lived utopia. . . . It seemed as if each time we hooked up with a crazed producer who was doing his 'thing' just for the hell of it, as soon as a whisper of success or a note of astonished pleasure from the press arrived, prices rose and allegiances were forgotten."

He goes on to label this condition an "American malady: loyalty sacrificed on the altar of greed." Others might liken it to the American dream.

Rosenthal is a lapsed lawyer, and -- like the lapsed lawyer mega-critic and publisher of the Wine Advocate, Robert M. Parker Jr. -- a slinger of arguments. (Parker came into his superstar status by insisting that the consumer was being had by those vintners and merchants who were charging too much.)

Despite the crotchety tone of much of the book, each of Rosenthal's sketches (including of Lynch, a onetime partner, and an unnamed Parker-esque critic) is precisely and humanely drawn. He's also run into more than a few colorful characters during his travels.

Particularly memorable is Nino Aita, an early collaborator with access to fine European wines. According to Rosenthal, Aita "fit the stereotype of the scheming ne'er-do-well from the south of Italy" who was eventually indicted in that country on money laundering charges. (Rosenthal doesn't report on whether Aita was convicted.)

A personality like Aita should enliven the pages of such a memoir, but even he can't bring entertaining balance to this book, because hovering always at the periphery of the narrative is Rosenthal, waiting to reprise his terroir argument or settle some old scores.

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