Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Conversation with Neal Rosenthal - Part 2

More conversation with Neal Rosenthal:

Finished with our tour of the grounds, we went inside the house for a look around. Neal showed me his root cellar, where he grabbed a bunch of his potatoes for our lunch. There were rows of jarred tomato sauce and other preserves, made from the fruits of his farm.

Also many rows of Italian food products - anchovies, honeys, olive oils, and more.

NR: These are food and cooking products that we import from Italy. I haven't figured out how to sell them yet (he shrugs).

BG: (picking up a jar of utterly beautiful rosy pink anchovy fillets) These look beautiful! Are they for cooking or for eating?

NR: I cook with them, but you could just eat them.

Then we passed a large shelf where 50 or more bottles of wine stood.

NR: These are wines that we'll drink soon.

BG: Nice! I have a bottle of that wine, the 2004 Pradeaux.

NR: The Longue Garde?

BG: Yup. I have the regular wine too.

NR: The Longue Garde is a very special wine. It's made only in the best vintages, and it's old vines pure Mourvedre. It's a spectacular wine (he smiles).

At that moment, and via that exchange, I felt like I understood something about Neal Rosenthal that cannot come through simply by reading this dialogue. He was genuinely happy. Perhaps because I have the wine, perhaps because he enjoys telling people about his wine, but it seemed to me, that he was happy just because the wine exists.

BG: You'll taste these all in the next few weeks?

NR: Kerry and I drink a bottle of wine with dinner every night. We have to drink our wines in order to see where they go, to keep up with them. They are evolving constantly and I need to understand them. I've made a career on tasting wines young and having a sense of whether they will age well, or be better young, but I have to check on them to follow their development.

BG: Do you drink wines from outside of your own portfolio?

NR: Of course. It is the height of hubris to think that your own wines are the best or among the best wines if you don't drink the other wines.

Now we walked upstairs and through the living room, into the kitchen. Neal told me to sit down at the table, and he began to make lunch.

He opened a bottle of wine for us to share, the 2005 François Gaunoux Meursault 1er Cru La Goutte D'Or. He began washing and cutting potatoes, and cooking them in a cast iron pan. He seasoned them simply with salt, pepper, and a bit of dried red chili flakes. Neal made the egg batter for our omelets, and we talked some more while he cooked.

I noticed that there were no lights on in the house. There was no need - it was a sunny day and the windows allowed in a lot of natural light. We didn't discuss this, but I'm sure that he enjoys not having to turn on the lights.

BG: So, do you read about wine on the internet?

NR: I do, but not so much. The thing is, I'd rather read online than read the boring repetitive useless stuff that the critics write in those magazines, you know the ones, they come out every three months or so. Their wine vocabulary encompasses 20 descriptors and a point score. That is useless. Wines shouldn't be written about that way. They write only about the physical characteristics of a wine, but they don't discuss the exuberance and joy of drinking the wine.

BG: So what are the internet sites that you like?

NR: There are a few, but you know, on the other hand, a lot of what's online can be fairly uneducated and that can be dangerous. I'm occasionally tempted to write a response when I think that some one is misunderstanding a wine, misinterpreting it. But I don't because once you do that, it becomes argumentative and that's not where I want to be.

BG: So how do you keep building your wine knowledge?

NR: By tasting and drinking. I cannot spend as much time tasting as I used to, there's just not a lot of time. Most of the tasting I do is in Europe with growers, the growers I work with and others who I don't work with too.

BG: I know that you don't do trade tastings. Can you tell me your thoughts about that?

NR: The only way to understand what we do is face to face, not in a mass group tasting experience. We like to get 10-12 people together and drink wine, talk about it. If you have hundreds of people in a room sipping and spitting hundreds of wines, what's the point of that? You cannot understand our wines that way. Not only don't I need to do tastings like that, I despise them. They reduce wine to the most base commercial level.

Neal stopped cooking and looked at me.

NR: We have to protect what's best about wine. It is ancient in our civilization, it is a perfect mix of the intellectual and the sensual, it enriches our lives. The beauty of great wine is that it lives inside of you after you've had it. It's a stimulus for memory. What it tasted like, but more importantly, what it made you feel, why you drank it, what you talked about while drinking it, and with whom. Wine is a social event, not fodder for criticism.

We sat down to lunch. There is no yellow or orange food coloring in that omelet - the eggs were very fresh.

NR: Do you like the wine?

BG: I really do. When you opened it I could smell it before you even poured it.

NR: It's very old-school.

To be continued...


Scott McCulloch said...

Brilliant post, BG--your best ever. So simple and straightforward.

I teared up a bit when I read Neal's description of wine is and isn't.

Thanks so much.

Scott McCulloch

Anonymous said...

I'm the anon of the first post that picked up the thread of the commercial risk taking. And you alerted me, BG, that the next post would emphasize another side of NR. How right you were! This is pretty close to poetry. So, an interesting mix revealed in a guy who needs to meet a payroll (we were introduced to some of his staff in "Mondovino")and yet maintains core belief in quality (in the Robert Pirsig mystical sense of the term). Thanks again so very, very much.

Evan Dawson said...

Wonderful. What an outstanding way to write about your interaction with NR, who is, himself, a stellar writer. His book is among the very best ever written on wine. Thanks for this post - and looking forward to more.

Iron Chevsky said...

Neal's perspective on trade tastings is something that I think about often. I do go there, because frankly, I don't have access that he does to tasting those caliber of wines any other way, but I do agree that it's a poor way to judge wine, and I far prefer a small number of wines, over food, in a small company of folks who can pay attention to what they are eating, drinking, and to each other.

Weston said...

trade tasting, I must say this year I went to less, and went to more smaller tasting like he said 10 people or so put on by the local importers, so much more interesting and you can actually taste the wine better understand it

Joe Manekin said...

There is a transparency in Mr. Rosenthal's lifestyle, his interests, his philosophy, that completely seems in sync with his business model and the products he chooses to sell. After seeing him in Mondovino and reading his book, NR's portrayal in your interview is my favorite and the one that will likely stick in my mind. Great job, Neil.

ben wood said...

Thanks man- This series is a great thing- getting a little more into the head of a great wine importer, who clearly loves what he does.