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Stories in a bottle: Reflections on winemaking

TODAY wine columnist Edward Deitch reviews the memoir of American wine merchant Neal Rosenthal,  in which he details his experiences in the vineyards and cellars of France and Italy.
/ Source: TODAY

Whenever someone asks me how to go about selecting a good wine in an ocean of possibilities, one of my answers is to look for bottles brought to this country by certain importers who have a passion for finding the most authentic expressions of wines from the regions in which they trade.One of these importers is Neal Rosenthal, whose wines, I have discovered over the years, are almost always in that category, from prestigious Burgundies to more modest Côtes du Rhônes and vin de pays, or country wines, that offer unusual quality at even $10 or so.How he has gone about finding these wines for the last three decades is the subject of a compelling memoir, “Reflections of a Wine Merchant” ($24, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), that I have just finished reading while on my own visit to some of the vineyards of France for a few weeks this summer.At least three things are at the heart of this process. The first is Rosenthal’s belief in terroir, the concept, as he puts it, “that the particulars of a zone — the combination of soil, climate, grape type, and, perhaps, human history — are responsible for producing very special characteristics that are unique to a quite specific spot.” It is part of what differentiates the wine made by one grower, for example, from that of his neighbor; what makes a pinot noir from Burgundy completely different from one grown in California.The second is Rosenthal’s belief in his own taste and preferences, regardless of whether his wines attract critical attention. “A good wine merchant,” he writes, “acts as an editor for the public, presenting wines that reflect one individual’s notion of what is good and bad — or at least not as good.” As for journalists, he has little use for them, at least those, including some of the most prominent, who sum up wine with scores. Ditto for those retailers who rely on “this type of report-card criticism” to sell their wines. (I, for one, have always maintained that wine is much more than a number, preferring a narrative approach to why I enjoy a wine, which is, after all, a story in a bottle.)A third part of what defines Rosenthal’s work, and sets up the narrative framework of his book, is how he established contacts with his wine growers in France and Italy (through curiosity, energy and luck) and built and maintained relationships with these men and women. At times triumphant and sad, the stories of these “collaborations” chronicle the slow passing of an age, for better or worse, from one generation to the next, with winemaking traditions upheld or, at times, jettisoned for what is in vogue.

In one of the more memorable stories, Rosenthal recounts how one of his long-time producers in the Rhône Valley, the Ferraton family, sells 50 percent of the domaine to Chapoutier, a big wine company. Shortly after this change, instead of the intimate tastings he has conducted with the family for years, he finds himself “confronted by a phalanx of Chapoutier personnel” and wines that have become “mediocre, characterless affairs.” It was time to move on.

Through it all, Rosenthal remains true to his outlook and his palate, to wines that impress more “through delicacy than through power.” He has little tolerance for “eugenics in wine that creates high yields and brilliant colors but fails to capture the essence of place,” or for the overuse of new oak barrels in aging that imparts a sweet woodiness to wine but masks its fruit.For me, the book serves as a refresher course on honest and original winemaking. Like a glass of wine that is balanced and nuanced, it’s hard to put down and keeps inviting you to take another sip.

Edward Deitch is the recipient of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Best Multimedia Writing. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at