Neal Rosenthal, Farmer, Beekeeper, Wine Agonist, pt.2

Ξ June 19th, 2009 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine News |

We begin this second part of my moving interview with Neal Rosenthal of the Mad Rose Group by picking up just where we left off, with the discussion of the struggle for quality and respect for the land. But I must first implore readers to enjoy part 1. This second part is no less detailed. Listening to Mr. Rosenthal is an interesting exersise in paying attention . He uses a great range of intonations that no diacritical marks could capture. He is a subtle, emotive speaker. He moves from sorrow to joy in a single sentence. To get a sense of this I again suggest folks watch the Authors@Google video. In any event, my talk with him is among the favorite conversations I’ve had in a very long time. A very rich acoustic experience, indeed.
 
The writing of the following was greatly enhanced by my evening’s companion, one of Mr. Rosenthal’s selections, a 2006 Vercesi Del Castellazzo, the Pezzalunga. A lovely wine.
 
Neal Rosenthal My growers are extremely conscientious that way. Some are certified organic, others I know work in a 100% organic manner; those who don’t, who are not 100% organic, would like to be. As a practical matter they may not be able to be at this point. For the moment that is good enough for me. Nothing is ever good enough for me. I don’t like compromise, but I do think we have to understand there is a continuum here, there is a spectrum. We want to get as far along the spectrum towards organic as we can. There are certain practical elements that one has to at least recognize.
 
And the worst thing of course, is to kid ourselves and put blinders on and just accept the notion, accept statements that people make about them being biodynamic or organic when we know that, as a practical matter, it’s impossible to do so.
 
You know there are certain negociants that claim they’re practicing biodynamic methods. How does that work? Chapoutier says, I don’t want to pick on anybody in particular, but let’s just take this as an example because it is a striking one to me. Chapoutier claims their wines are biodynamic. But most of the wine that they sell is negociant wine. They purchase grapes or purchase wine or purchase something; and unless they have complete control over that vineyard, to claim the mantle of biodynamie I think is incorrect. And the fact that the group of people who participate in biodynamic agriculture in France will allow that, will allow that their membership to be, if you will (maybe this is the wrong word, maybe it is too harsh), polluted by the presence of somebody who could not possibly be 100% biodynamic, I think at least has to raise a question.
 
That’s a very generous way of putting it! It doesn’t help matters that biodynamics with respect to grape growing was unknown to the movement overall. Rudolf Steiner made no mention of grapes or wine as such. It’s all ad hoc.
 
NR But it’s an idea. It’s an idea and it’s a concept. It is a system that presumably can be applied to any agricultural effort.
 
The metaphysics are a bit of a struggle.
 
NR Well, they’re fascinating. It’s wonderful to explore this kind of stuff to make wine better; that’s another aspect of the inquiry.
 
Now, with respect to…
 
NR If I may just continue. There are people who claim that they won’t…, there are consumers who won’t buy anything that is not labeled organic. I mean, there are some terrible organic wines out there, undrinkable stuff. Well, just because it’s organic doesn’t make it good.
 
And often times it is the organic distinctions, well, they are not quite as rigorous as one might imagine. It was taken over by the FDA, of course, some years ago.
 
NR Who knows what goes on, what’s claimed to be organic.
 
It’s like the making of laws or sausages. One of the difficulties with organic is that there is a list of herbicides and pesticides allowed. Some are broken down in the environment very efficiently, but because of that they may require more frequent applications.
 
NR This is not a simple subject. And it is not black and white.
 
Perhaps this is a tangent, perhaps it is a river. How do you think the wine world has changed, if at all, since Mondovino hit the screen?
 
NR I don’t think the wine world has changed. Look, I adore Jonathan Nossiter who was the producer/director/creator of that movie. And I enjoyed participating in it. Whether it had the impact, I think the positive element, the positive impact that Mondovino has had is that it engaged more people, it stimulated more discussion. And I think there is a growing…, there is more awareness of the tension in the marketplace between large and small, the surge of homogeneity and the contrary movement towards more unique, specific limited production wines, I think that is all to the good. If anything it maybe accelerated the conversation. But the conversation had already had begun.
 
And I don’t necessarily think it has changed what has happened in the marketplace. What will have a greater impact in the marketplace, I think, is the miserable economy. I don’t want to deny the impact of Mondovino. I think Mondovino is probably less popular here in the United States than it was overseas, certainly in Europe.
 
It also made known to the wider public certain important players in the industry, Michel Rolland, of course, and Robert Parker; many Americans had never even seen the latter gentleman.
 
NR That’s true. But how many people actually saw Mondovino? From my point of view, not enough! Not a sufficient amount of Americans saw Mondovino. It didn’t get the kind of distribution I think it deserved.
 
You must do various tastings outside of your own portfolio. What is your feeling about blind tastings?
 
NR Oh, well, you know, that’s interesting. I’m in an advanced stage of my career. I’ve been in this business 33 years, and my eagerness to immerse myself in large tastings has waned. I’ve less energy for that, I’ve less interest, to be honest with you. In the early days I did an many tastings as I possibly could because it was the only way I could broaden my base of knowledge. I do far less of that now.
 
I find the tasting experience, I’m referring specifically to the moments where people have 30, 40, 50, 60 different wines in front of them, I find that to be horribly tedious. It’s not fun. I don’t think it leads you to find Nirvana. I don’t think it leads you to find the best wines. I find this fascination with tasting process to be overdone. I don’t like it.
 
I think wine is meant meant to be consumed. Wine is at its best when it’s sitting at the table surrounded by food, and can be enjoyed by a number of people together. That is the role of wine for me in my life.
 
I think this process of merely tasting wines, taking a sip here and a sip there, and spitting the wine out, is effectively an insult. I think it has to be done. I think it’s an important… there’s a professional element here. Look, I do it all the time. I go over and visit my growers. I’m tasting wine, I’m not drinking wine every time I with my growers or else I wouldn’t be in this business anymore. So there is a role for that. I think he people who have made themselves into “wine critics”, that’s their job. I think for the general public it’s a tedious bunch of nonsense.
 
It has this quasi-scientific quality to it that I find amusing.
 
NR I don’t mind sitting in front of five or six wines at a time, taste them, try and determine what I like and not like about certain things, and to try to understand an appellation, if you will, I think that’s an important process, particularly for somebody who’s in the business. But I can tell you this, right now, at this stage in my life it is rare that I get involved in those things.
 
I asked Dan Berger whether he made wine. I was surprised to learn that he made many different wines over the years. And he actually entered them in competitions, quite successfully. Have you ever tried winemaking?
 
NR Well, I abhor the whole idea of winemaking. I never use the term ‘winemaker’, not with respect to the people with whom I work because they are not winemakers. A winemaker to me is somebody who takes wine and then turns it into something else; takes something and makes a wine out of it. I work with growers. They are people who grow their grapes, they harvest their grapes, they crush their grapes, they take that juice, and then it becomes wine. It’s a twelve month a year process.
 
A winemaker, to me, is somebody who goes and maybe buys some grapes here and buys some grapes there, or buys some wine here and some wine there and then puts it together and makes a wine. That, to me, is less interesting. It’s not what I do. Winemaking, to me, is a technical accomplishment.
I’m not saying the wines that result are not good. It’s just not part of the business I’m involved in.
 
Of your farm, do you have an extensive wine cellar?
 
NR Yes, I do. Yes. And most of it is full of wines I purchased for commercial reasons over the years, but my whole modus operandi has been, from the very get-go, to buy wines I personally like. I don’t sell wines that I don’t like. So, my cellar is full of a lot of stuff over the years that I’ve collected, some of which I’ve not sold, squirreled them away, and I drink them on a regular basis. Yeah.
 
Are you an accomplished cook?
 
NR Yes. I consider myself a good cook. I enjoy it. Whenever I have a free moment we like to cook together here. We’ve managed to carve out a really, really nice little life for ourselves. We own a 57 acre place in Up State New York, about a 100 miles North of New York City. It’s in a beautiful part of the world. We don’t budge too much from here. We don’t have to.
 
You know, it’s funny here on the West Coast. I remember seeing an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s ‘No Reservations’ featuring New Jersey. I was utterly stunned, it shows you my ignorance, when he went to Up State New Jersey and went to a cheese producer, a bread producer, visited magnificent farms…
 
NR (laughs) You know, New Jersey is known as the Garden State. New Jersey has been the home to what we refer to as ‘truck farms’ for generations, many, many generations. There’s wonderful agricultural land in a lot of places.
 
When people think of New York they think of New York City. I’m New York City born and raised, and I happen to love New York City; I like claiming to be a New Yorker. But the fact of the matter is New York State is immense. It’s not as big as California, but it is very, very beautiful. People don’t appreciate the fact that we have magnificent Nature in front of us all the time here in New York. You don’t have to go very far away to see it.
 
What is your take on wine blogging? You touched a bit on it earlier. Some people, Mr. Parker and even Michael Broadbent find them wanting. They want their expertise to count for something.
 
NR Their expertise does count for something. It doesn’t diminish their expertise that there are bloggers. One doesn’t have to be defensive about that. You earn your place. You know, Robert Parker started out as a little nothing also back in, I don’t know, the early ’80s or late ’70s. I remember meeting Bob when he was just starting to get involved in this, starting to put out a little newsletter, and he was an “amateur” at that point. Everybody starts somewhere.
 
Exactly. The sense of the passage of time is one thing the net is quite weak at capturing. You get just these impressionistic impulses, fragments of thought; but what folks have to perhaps remember is that there are real people behind these keyboards. They, too, are slowly accumulating experience and understanding.
 
NR Exactly. Look, I don’t like the exchange of uneducated opinions. That does not interest me. If somebody is writing with a good degree of curiosity and intellect, I think that is wonderful. It stimulates good discussion. The thing that always astonishes me, to be honest with you, Ken, there are people who are not earning their living in the wine business who enjoy writing and talking about wine more than the people who are in the wine business. That argues for two things. One, it argues for the worth of wine, that it is a compelling enough subject that people want to be involved in it even though they don’t earn a living at it. The second question that pops into my mind is what else do these people have in their lives? They are so unhappy with their own work that they’ve got to be involved in this. Maybe they ought to do this for a living? But that’s an aside, that’s for them to decide. It doesn’t diminish the worth of these things. There is good work being done in the blogosphere.
 
Do you follow blogs?
 
NR Very rarely will I do it. I don’t have the time for it. I’m busy enough trying to keep my own life together.
 
Gardening itself is time consuming.
 
NR Gardening takes up a lot of time. I’m a serious runner; there are other things I enjoy being involved in. Wine has never been 100% of my life. Although I love it very, very much, it has been a great source of reward, both financially and emotionally, and intellectually, it is not the only thing in my life.
 
But I think the blogosphere is interesting. It has alot of potential; and like any other endeavor, quality surfaces. The best quality comes to the top. And people ultimately, hopefully, will recognize it. The search should always be to look for the highest quality.
 
There has been sort of an eclipse of the importance of the retailer in their relationship with the customer. Blogging and mags perhaps have cut into this relation.
 
NR That’s really unfortunate, in my opinion. A good retailer is an extraordinary source of information. And I have always felt that the job of the wine retailer is to be the editor for that person’s client. The nice thing about being a retailer is that you’re exposed to almost everything that’s in the marketplace. And in that role you should use your judgement, and people will frequent your place because they what you are selecting.
 
I always thought retailers lost their way when they started to rely on the point scores and the shelf talkers created by the wine critics, whether it be the Wine Spectator, the Wine Advocate, the International Wine Seller, whatever it is. It is not even a matter of being critical of these people. That’s not the point. The point is that the retailer forfeited their rightful place in the market. If it is only a question of ‘I have this 92 point wine for a dollar less than the other guy’, well, if that’s
all it is, then why exist.
 
Again, about the blogosphere, but also with marketing generally, and the glossies, It is always a question of getting the ‘customer’ to listen. The reverse is true with respect to the wine retailer. They are essentially the ones who do the listening. So while everyone is furiously generating content, what is believed to be content, in fact, the retailer in the one island of quietude where the customer can actually speak.
 
NR And have a back-and-forth conversation. If you’re not listening, you’re not learning anything. I do think that the dialogue between client and retailer and wine merchant is very, very, very important.
 
Frankly, I think there is a wonderful revival now of the small, independent wine merchant. I see it in New York; it’s marvelous what’s going on in New York City. There are terrific, terrific wine merchants in the business in New York that are just driving the marketplace. They are head and shoulders above the more generic, larger wine shops. There are some great, new voices out there on the wine retailing side of things, and not just New York. I see it in lots of other places. I’m very excited about it. That’s really where the future of the wine business is.
 
Well, is there anything you’d care to add? I’m thrilled with what we’ve touched on.
 
NR This is a never ending subject. I’m flattered that you felt my voice was an important one to talk to. I mean, I have lots and lots of very strongly held opinions and ideas about how the business should work. And, certainly, I have very strong opinions about quality in wine and what I look for in wine. I am elated in a lot of ways with the direction that the wine business is moving in right now. I think we are moving away from, at least there is a good, strong fight, against homogeneity. I think people are recognizing terroir for its validity, and the truth of terroir is better understood by the consumers, and I think in a lot of ways, by the producers. That’s where it really starts.
 
A lot of producers have lost their way out of a fear, a fear of competition. A lot of them have made the mistake of trying to be directly competitive, I’m talking about the Old World versus the New World in this sense. They’ve lost their way because all they really have to sell is their terroir. They’re never going to make wines as powerful, as rich, as fruity as some of the things that come from the New World.
 
There is this on-going, not a battle, this on-going tension in the marketplace, probably healthy in a certain way. The doors remain open to the kind of wine I like, the kind of wine that I buy. These are subjects that never end.
 
I will add something that has been on my mind lately, the loss on the part of some important grape-growing areas, in my opinion, some of the greatest areas for producing wonderful wines, like Burgundy and Bordeaux, I think those two standard-bearers, have lost their place in the hearts and the minds of some of the newer consumers in the wine world. And I think the Burgundians and the Bordelaise have to do some really hard work to get back to where they belong.
 
Another subject that is a great, great concern of mine is the fact that everybody drinks wine young now. Frankly, if you’re spending a year of your life taking care of vineyards so that you can make a wine that’s going to age a long time, then the wine gets consumed immediately, what’s the purpose? What’s the purpose of all this stuff? We talk about the greatness of certain grand crus and premier crus, from great vintages, and then you see those great vintages slapped on a wine list within seconds of the wine being released from the estate, and it gets consumed the day after because nobody stocks anything in the cellar anymore. So what’s the purpose of that? It’s offensive to me, frankly. And I think it is an extreme disservice to the public and to the grower.
 
We have, and I’m not going to pat myself on the back, we have a program internally in our little company where we hold wines back, where we delay release because we just don’t feel the wines are ready to drink. They shouldn’t be in commerce, actually, at this point.
 
A small point, here in Santa Cruz I’ve spoken to many folks who never lay anything down anymore.
 
NR Well, I can invite you over here. I may even have a ‘77 Durif from Ken Burnap. (laughs) I’ve certainly got old vintages of California wines from the ’70s that I’ve had over the years. And I adore these wines. They prove what California is truly capable of in certain areas. This is the joy of great wines. And it is an experience a large percentage of current consumers will never have. It’s a tragedy.
 
At any rate, I hope this proves a useful conversation. I wish you good luck with you’re blog. And we will continue to follow what you are doing.
 
Thank you so very much for your generosity.
 
NR Terrific, Ken. Thank you very much.
 
Admin

 

3 Responses to ' Neal Rosenthal, Farmer, Beekeeper, Wine Agonist, pt.2 '

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  1. michael said,

    on January 2nd, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    i’d really really like to know which wine stores in nyc n.rosenthal is talking about.

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on January 2nd, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    Hi, Michael. I’ll write Mr. Rosenthal and ask him for a few names. Thanks for reading.

  3. Valter Pereira said,

    on August 7th, 2010 at 3:50 am

    Dear Sr,

    My name is Valter Pereira and i´m from Brazil. I’m a wine entusiastic ans starting to know this fantastic world. Right now i’m reading your very intersting book “Vinhos de Butique” the title here in Brasil.

    Sory for the english.

    Regards,

    Valter Pereira

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