American Wine Importers That Changed the Game

Posted on Posted in Articles, DeForville, Domaine Ghislaine Barthod, Domaine Lucien Crochet, Jacques Puffeney, Luigi Ferrando, Occasional Thoughts, Paolo Bea, Wine Press
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Neal Rosenthal throws open the door to his upstate New York farmhouse. Two red-tinted standard poodles spill out from either side of his legs and begin their inspection. I hold out my hands in greeting—one to Neal, one to the dogs. “You made it!” he exclaims, sounding as surprised as I feel.

I had just driven up from the city in inclement conditions and was shaken. What began as a charming dusting had evolved into a formidable snowstorm, and my flimsy rental car refused to make purchase, cutting a skittish path across the country roads. “Come on in and warm up,” he says.

Neal walks inside and relaxes into an armchair; the dogs settle to the floor to either side of him. The building we are in is but one part of a large farm that he has dubbed the Mad Rose Ranch. It functions both as headquarters for Rosenthal Wine Merchant and home of Neal and his wife, Kerry Madigan, the “mad” to his “rose.” We occupy the cozy, firelit corner of an open floorplan that links living room, kitchen, and dining room. Outside, beneath the thickening white, chicken coops, nut trees, and a large garden slumber. These are no mere affectations of a city kid turned gentleman farmer; come spring, all will be put to work. Enterprising even in his leisure, Neal sells Mad Rose honey and hazelnuts from the Rosenthal website.

Neal Rosenthal with his dogs

We chat about his entry into the business. “I’m a New York kid from the Upper East Side,” he begins. “My father ran a pharmacy in the Silk Stocking District, an elite and wealthy part of the city. It was one of those classic joints, with a luncheonette and a soda fountain. When someone needed a prescription, my father would mix it up himself.” Days at the pharmacy were long, and his father’s hours regularly ran from 6 am to midnight. Even with help, it was an exhausting schedule, and after a certain age, he simply couldn’t keep up. “At one point, my father got sick and converted the pharmacy into a liquor store, which had better hours. And because we were in a fancy neighborhood where people knew about these things, we had to carry a few nice wines.”

Meanwhile, Neal attempted a different path. He attended Columbia Law School, obtained a Masters in taxation from NYU, and was practicing at the highest levels of corporate law. He was also deeply unhappy. “And so I quit. In 1977, I just walked away.” He decided to reinvent himself as a writer and pen the next great American novel, but needed a source of income to sustain him. “Around this time, my parents were looking to retire, so I offered to buy the store from them and run it until I got established as a writer.”

Though he effectively grew up in the store, Neal had only a passing familiarity with wine. He remembered pondering the labels as a younger man, especially the exotic European ones, where the only clue to their contents was a foreign geographical reference. In a bid to learn more, he threw himself into the written material of the day. He became especially fond of Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine, which described the fine wines of the world in florid, emotional prose that was catnip to the aspiring writer. “But very quickly, I was once again unhappy. Wine seemed like it was supposed to be magical, but the quality of the wines I was tasting didn’t match up to the quality of the stories I was reading.” Neal had fallen in love with the idea of wine only to find the thing itself lacking. “I decided there must be poetic wine out there. And I went out chasing it.”

At this point, we move our conversation to the kitchen, where Neal starts fixing a light lunch. I lean against the refrigerator while he washes potatoes, tearing off pieces of home-baked bread and popping them into my mouth while he recounts his early adventures in wine. Though its edges have clearly been sanded by years of education and travel, Neal’s accent is unmistakable. We may have been discussing Umbria, but his softly nasal a’s and half-dropped r’s carry us southward, to the hot concrete and brunoised skyline of New York City, Neal’s very own appellation of origin.

The search for poetic wines led Neal first to Italy, by way of East Harlem. There, the Daniele brothers, a now-defunct importing outfit, kept a warehouse full of aged treasures. Neal quickly befriended the duo and would regularly stock his shelves with their selections. Through them, he learned the ecstasy of mature Nebbiolo (Spanna from the ‘50s, Ghemme from the ‘60s), and of old wine in general. “I’m disturbed now that wines get put on the market so fast and gobbled up so quickly. And winemaking has changed to adapt to this. Even for important wines, their capacity to age now is much less than it used to be, and I find that very unfortunate.”

Neal continues, “I also find it unfortunate that the young people coming into the trade don’t know the glories of drinking older wines.” To that point, releasing library vintages is something of a calling card of Rosenthal’s. But while that is certainly in keeping with Neal’s drinking preferences, it wasn’t purpose-built into his business plan. “We age wines, but often because we buy things and then can’t sell them. It can take a while to find the right community for particular wines,” he shrugs, “and then we have verticals!”

Italy was also the primary destination of Neal’s first overseas buying trip in January of 1980. At this point, the idea to import his own wine had not yet formed; he was on an approximation of today’s buyer’s junket, visiting producers from existing portfolios. In Tuscany and Piedmont, he toured with Nino Aita, a charismatic and nefarious importer of Italian wine; in Champagne, he visited with Billecart-Salmon, which was already being brought into the states by Robert Chadderdon; and in Burgundy, he spent the day with Becky Wasserman. In a similar spirit, he traveled across France with Kermit Lynch shortly thereafter. On many of these trips, he set off on some side explorations, meeting producers he would later import himself.

Neal brought in his first container of wine the following year. As the New York State Liquor Authority forbids a retailer from holding an import license, Neal put the necessary permits in Kerry Madigan’s name, whom he had just begun dating. “We were operating on the cusp of legality,” Neal recalls, with a clear rebellious pride. “In the early days, we would actually unload the containers directly onto Lexington Avenue.” Initially, he was importing just to supply his own store, but this quickly proved impractical. “The store was in a precarious position—we weren’t making any money. And restaurant people had begun to inquire after our wines. So we switched gears and created this whole new clientele.”

The first container of Rosenthal imports included wines from Lucien Crochet of Sancerre, Amiot and Chapuis from Burgundy, Château Hortevie from Saint-Julien, and a handful of others. Shortly thereafter, he added the Carema and De Forville estates in Piedmont, producers Neal picked up when Nino Aita’s criminal activities caught up with him. As with so many other importers, he grew his portfolio mainly via connections his producers made to their likeminded colleagues. Though occasionally, inspiration came from unlikely sources.

In the early days, one of Neal’s biggest private clients was the music agent Tommy Mottola. Mottola is perhaps unfairly remembered as Mariah Carey’s ex-husband, but he also managed such ‘80s hitmakers as Hall & Oates, Carly Simon, and Diana Ross. Through him, other members of the New York music industry got to know Neal’s store. “One day, Daryl Hall’s brother-in-law came into the shop. He said, ‘I just came back from Italy and I had the most amazing wine,’ and he gave me a bottle.” Neal stops to shake his head, “People were always saying that to me, and 99 out of 100 times, the wine would be terrible. But I fell head over heels for this one.” The wine in question was from Paolo Bea.

With no website to guide him, Neal set off to track down Bea. He managed to connect with his son, Giampiero, and they made an appointment to meet in a piazza in Montefalco during his next trip to Italy. But Neal had miscalculated the drive and showed up two hours late. “I got to the piazza and no one was there. I had neither cell phone nor address but didn’t want to go home empty-handed.” He walked into the nearby market and asked if anyone knew the Beas. Being both a smaller village and simpler time, the grocer knew the family well and called their home. When Neal got to the estate, he found a rustic and self-sustaining farm that matched the feral spirit of the wines, which had never really traveled beyond Montefalco. Neal convinced them to sell him some wine starting with the 1985 vintage. Over 30 years later, Bea remains a showpiece of the Rosenthal portfolio.

In the beginning, Neal struggled to find an audience for Bea’s “rowdy, wild wines.” He estimates that he and Kerry drank a significant percentage of them until demand quietly met, and then surpassed, supply. He remains unsure as to what caused this transition but has his theories. “I believe that, at a certain moment, too many wines out there were too modernized. They were too alike in their sameness. And it made the traditional wines stand out.”

The script for his foray into the Jura reads similarly. An early fan of his portfolio was Jean-Georges Vongerichten, “a rare chef that had a deep knowledge of wine.” The executive chef at Jean-Georges shortly after its opening, Didier Virot, was a wine enthusiast from Paris, particularly passionate about the wines of the Jura. On one of Neal’s trips to Europe, Virot armed him with a list of quality producers, which Neal took as marching orders. On that first visit, he met with Jacques Puffeney, whose wines would also become a staple of the Rosenthal book. “Everyone told me not to buy from the Jura; nobody wants them, they are too oxidized.” But Neal was smitten with the idiosyncratic wines and invested heavily, though it often took him three to four years to sell through a single vintage. Today, sommeliers clamor for these wines, and the portfolio has expanded to include seven different Jura producers.

But not all of Neal’s gambles paid off. Sometimes he was simply too far head of the curve. In 1992, with international sanctions freshly lifted and apartheid’s end imminent, Neal jumped a plane to South Africa. Thrilled by what he tasted, he cobbled together a container that featured a handful of producers including Warwick and Bouchard Finlayson. “We started showing these wines and people looked at us like we had three heads. They didn’t even want to talk to us!” Neal eventually gave up on the idea, moving the unsold wine to his personal cellar. “I tell you what, those wines are still stunning today,” his whimsical tone traced with regret. “The potential there is extraordinary.”

Neal and his fuzzy color guard walk the plates over to the dining room table. Our meal consists of scrambled eggs from Neal’s own coop, roasted potatoes from his garden, and bread he baked himself. Simple food, simply prepared—a philosophy that extends to his approach to wine. “I remember one of the first lessons I ever learned. Gaston Barthod told me in his cellar in Chambolle, ‘Laisser le vin se faire.’ ‘Let the wine make itself.’ This, to me, is essential. The greatest wines I’ve ever had were wines where people didn’t touch them too much.” For Neal, a crucial element of this is not filtering, something he asks of all his producers. “There were stories floating around of Burgundy producers whose wines were rejected from America because they threw deposits, so some took years to convince.” In part to assuage them, and partly to educate the public, Neal addresses the issue on each of his back labels: “You may find that a sediment forms in the bottle. This is a natural occurrence.”

As we tuck into our lunch, I can’t help but marvel at the stage that Neal, a self-identified writer, is setting. It is as if he is trying to recreate for me the intimate connection he feels with his producers. Most scenes in that book he finally wrote, Reflections of a Wine Merchant, take place over meals like this one. He even ups the hospitality by matching wine to guest. Aware of my interest in aged California wines, he produces a 1975 Tulocay Cabernet Sauvignon from his cellar. The wine, like so many Napa Cabernets from that decade, is extraordinary, with a loquacious bouquet and velveteen texture. It also, he tells me, played a key role in his evolution as a wine buyer.

In 1979, less than two years after taking over from his parents, Neal and his then-girlfriend Kerry closed shop and headed to California for two weeks.

Neal with Bill Cadman of Tulocay

As he was still struggling to understand wine, the West Coast seemed a more digestible first trip than Europe. In Groezinger’s, the famed Yountville wine store, Neal had purchased a bottle of the 1975 Tulocay Cabernet. The producer was already on his list of people to check out, but this was his first taste of the wine. Its remarkable quality transfixed the young couple, who emptied their bank account, purchased as much wine as proprietor Bill Cadman would sell, and hurried back to New York to spread word of their find. “The 1970s was such an incredible time to be in California wine. I don’t work with domestic wines anymore, but I still have so much respect for that era.”

“You have to understand,” he continues, with a building intensity. “I grew up during the 1960s—this was an incredibly revolutionary time. When I went to Columbia Law, the school closed for two of the six semesters, one because of a student strike, and one because the students were protesting the bombing of Cambodia.” He pauses and considers the wine in his glass. “I think a lot of what happened in the ‘70s was the leftover revolutionary attitude of the ‘60s. And I think this informed what was going on in California wine. People were stopping, dropping out, and doing what they wanted to do. Wine was a reflection of working outside of the system. At least that’s what it was to me. All I wanted to do was write, but wine just took ahold of me. And wine has been so generous to me. I am deeply grateful.”

Neal has now got himself properly worked up, drumming his fingers on the table while he talks, fingers that still seem inclined to form a fist. “We are on the precipice of losing the soul of our civilization!” he exclaims with intensity. “If we lose our artisanal touch, the joy and creativity of seeing individual work, we will turn into a culture that is totally driven by advertising and money.”

Wine, he feels, is especially vulnerable to this influence. “One of the big fears I have is that, because wine has become so important as a cultural marker, and the effect of money is so dominant, that fewer and fewer people will take the risk necessary to make truly extraordinary wine.” In his estimation, the riskiest action is often none at all. “We have the science to control it, the money to control it, but the process of making wine is not that complicated. And I think you can really ruin things by intervening.”

Our lunch finished, we linger over the final sips of wine. I contemplate the man in front of me. With handmade Italian shirt and his fingers laced genteelly over crossed knee, he hardly paints a revolutionary portrait. But his whole lifestyle, from his portfolio of wines to his bespoke clothes, represents a rejection of the mass-produced, anonymizing mainstream. And the meal he prepared was twice labored over—once when he grew the ingredients, and again when he made it. Neal continues, unaware of my mental wanderings. “Wine is, above all, an agricultural product. And when you get away from that fundamental principal, you lose something.”

Later, during my journey home, I continue the conversation in my head. As wine is an unstable middle ground between juice and vinegar, it is also a fundamentally human product. And as much as it connects glass to ground, it links people together, too. These thoughts, the wisp of wine in my system, and the memory of my day, keep my mind off the whipping snow as I drive back to city, nourished.

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