In the opening montage of Mondovino, Jonathan Nossiter’s 2004 documentary chronicling the impact of globalization on the wine trade, Neal Rosenthal and two of his employees attempt to explain the concept of terroir. Framed by cases of wine stacked 20-feet high inside the sprawling Rosenthal Wine Merchant warehouse, one of the employees, J. P. Jean-Jacques, uses the example of fruit grown in his native Haiti. “In my country, you may have two different tastes from [the same] mango tree,” he says. “The side where the sun comes up in the morning tastes different from the side where the sun goes down.”
For most of us, even those of us who shop at health food stores, eat organic, buy local, and generally try to do the right thing when it comes to our taste buds, our health, and our stewardship of the planet, a mango is a mango is a mango. (It doesn’t help that mangoes are picked unripe and shipped in refrigerated trucks from Florida, Mexico, or beyond to markets across the US. The fact that mangoes from India might have a different flavor from those grown in the Philippines probably never occurs to us.)
According to wine importer Neal Rosenthal, in his recently published Reflections of a Wine Merchant (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux), this simplified philosophy of equivalence is also guiding the global market for wine—an Australian Chardonnay is comparable to a Burgundian Chardonnay which is comparable to a Napa Valley Chardonnay—and destroying the natural expression of terroir in wine. “This is more than unfortunate; it is blasphemy,” Rosenthal writes. “Learning of chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah…is an exercise in botany.” Rosenthal goes on to explain terroir as “the concept 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.”
His zeal for wines that express their terroir led him to start his own importing business shortly after hanging out his shingle as a wine merchant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 1978. (In Reflections, Rosenthal describes his reason for opening a wine shop in unglamorous terms: “stagnating career as a lawyer…desperate attempt to maintain some semblance of financial stability.”) Not content with the wines being offered by the handful of importing companies then (as now) dominating the wine trade, Rosenthal set off to France in 1980 on his first buying trip, blindly knocking on doors and introducing himself to a number of skeptical Burgundian producers in the hopes of finding limited-production wines he could bring back to the US under his own imprint.
During a conversation at his 57-acre farmstead outside of Pine Plains in late May with myself and Ken McGuire, wine buyer for In Good Taste in New Paltz, Rosenthal explained that he suspected all along that wines superior to the standard-issue French imports existed. He had read Frank Schoonmaker’s classic Encyclopedia of Wine. “Nobody could write this beautifully about this stuff and have the wine be so average. I knew there had to be better stuff out there, and I was going to go and find it.”
Rosenthal’s first trip to Europe is played mostly for farce in Reflections—a scheming Italian wine merchant, his libidinous 20-year-old son, and an Alfa Romeo figure prominently. He did find some “better stuff,” however, in the wines of Gaston Barthod. A taciturn Burgundian, Barthod invited Rosenthal into his cellar and then tested the fledgling importer’s palate. The quiz, which Rosenthal passed, concluded with a Chambolles-Charmes ’59, leading to a lyrical passage that underscores Rosenthal’s argument that point scoring—the system widely used in the wine media that simply assigns a numerical value to a wine—is descriptively and morally bankrupt. Rosenthal: “What could you possibly understand about a wine by reading a point score?” Point scoring, according to Rosenthal, feeds a tendency among vintners to create wines that please a very particular critical palate—thus ensuring a good point score and inflating the price, but eliminating the true expression of terroir; the very antithesis of Barthod’s Chambolles-Charmes ’59.
“As soon as the wine was poured, the royal stink of red Burgundy exhaled from the glass,” writes Rosenthal. “This is a multilayered aroma that can come from nowhere else on the planet....This smell, this physical presence that brings the near-tactile sense of the sun, the sweet pollen of pinot noir, the sap of the vine, the damp, leafy forest floor of the autumn season—it was all in the room that night.”