May 18, 2011

Appel on Wine: Wines from Rosenthal give drinkers link to Old World

By JOE APPEL

Draw the battle lines. On one side, the globalized tendency toward consolidation, industrialization, depersonalization and convenience, all activated to exert intense downward pressure on price. Opposed, those who seek a return to a way of life that is human-scale, made by hand and requiring a degree of work and attention by all participants.

click image to enlarge

Neal Rosenthal furthers appreciation of the sense of place in wine-making in his book "Reflections of a Wine Merchant."

Courtesy of MacMillan

The first drives us all mad: As we fight to stretch increasingly tight budgets, we're pushed to buy products made by people we don't know, under conditions we abhor, distributed along channels we don't understand, at outlets that barely recognize our humanity.

The second tantalizes, but seems far off. The way life should be is, it's implied, the way life used to be before all this late-capitalism mess.

Today it's easy to buy inexpensive wine that tastes decent enough, but usually at expense to your spirit.

It's inoffensive fermented grape liquid built to move. When you (truly) have just a few dollars to spend on wine, you buy it and certainly don't look to wine writers for guidance.

Neal Rosenthal stands for a different, older approach.

Rosenthal is a pioneer in the U.S. wine world, having helped, in the late 1970s, to usher in a new era of appreciation for wines emphasizing purity, delicacy, clarity, and above all sense of place.

It is because of the heroic efforts Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch, Robert Chadderdon and a few others made to seek out European wines of character that we now enjoy such wide access to them.

The desolate state of American wine appreciation before Rosenthal et al. came along is past, but the threats from faceless wine are still with us.

So while he has done much to educate Americans' palates in those 30-plus years, it's a measure of the everything-old-is-new state of things that Rosenthal can still be considered a pioneer.

"I have a total and complete dedication to terroir," he told me.

A wine from Rosenthal, regardless of origin, expresses that dedication, and connects the drinker with a world of mutual respect for land, appreciation for the handmade and emphasis of, as he put it, "nuance over flamboyance."

Still, I came away from my interview in big-picture mode, inspired as much by ethics as aesthetics.

"I see myself as an educator," Rosenthal said, "or a preacher. I'm trying to show people there is another way of looking at the world. We have to re-educate. More and more people do get this. This new generation getting very much involved (with knowing) the producer of their food and wine this is a bright spot in what's generally a grim political culture."

That statement's alignment with "farm-to-table" sentiment is not the falsely comforting, by-the-numbers trend that receives the most attention, however.

Taking on his self-described preacherly zeal, Rosenthal said, "The 'new' phenomenon of the locavore is misinterpreted as eating things within a 50-mile radius of (your) house. Since the earliest moments, there has been trade. You can't grow vanilla or cinnamon in Maine; you go out and manage to get them. The fundamental element of the locavore movement is the connection of producer and consumer."

The ironic effect of economies of scale is that often that closer connection raises the price.

Rosenthal's wines are not always expensive, but they reflect the real costs of maintaining true, close relationships with winemakers, distributors, restaurants and retail.

Cut corners there and the wines taste like corner-cutters.

"There are many factors involved in setting a price for a wine," Rosenthal explained. "I've always believed in buying less and buying better. And you know, to get expression of terroir, you need to reduce your yields, plant the right grapes in the right places, take care in transport and storage, and so on."

(Continued on page 2)

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