It was before I began my wine career that I first tried a wine imported by Rosenthal Wine Merchant. There was a tasting of all RWM wines in early 2004, right after Spirits Wine Cellar opened. At the time I didn’t really know what I was drinking, just that they were different and much better that anything I’d had before. I can’t remember everything that was served that night but the Jean-Marc Morey Chassagne Montrachet ‘Les Chaumes’ is a wine that sticks out in my mind (and one that I love to this day).
Almost three years into working at Spirits I had the opportunity to visit Rosenthal’s warehouse while on a trip to New York. We were told that Neal doesn’t normally attend such meetings anymore, as he was 30+ years into his importing career and starting to take a “step back,” spending more time at his farm in upstate New York (where he and his wife raise honey bees, chickens for eggs, and grow organic fruits and vegetables) and with his winemakers, traveling regularly to various regions of France and Italy plus a few areas in Switzerland and Spain. As we were about to sit down to sample a line-up of around 30 wines (with the second-in-command at the time and Trey Stephenson, our regional sales representative) one of the massive garage doors opened up (it was a snowy January evening), an old beat-up Volvo pulled in and Neal Rosenthal got out of the car. He was an unassuming man with friendly eyes and rosy cheeks- probably due to the cold weather. Neal said his time was limited but he would stick around for a bit; we began to taste through the massive (and to me intimidating) selection while he spoke of his position and producers.
Terroir was the primary subject that he covered- the core of his philosophy- he has devoted his entire career to the concept that wines must reflect their origins and offer a “sense of place” and his portfolio is comprised of only those that adhere strictly to this policy. He spoke of his dedication to small, family-owned and operated producers; most have been making wine for generations and passed down their holdings, traditions and customs from father to son and mother to daughter, some encompassing many lifetimes. He enumerated on the globalization of the wine business, talked of trends- both current and past- and the adversity that he has faced while clinging to his principles.
As I listened, trying my best to absorb every word, and tasted one wine after the next, most new to me and perhaps over my head at the time, something clicked- I began to realize that this business of selling wine is about more than just putting products on the shelf and watching them move out the door- it is about painstakingly hard work, devotion, family, tradition, passion, productivity and pleasure. Similarly to RWM and all but one of their producers (which is operated by nuns), Spirits is family-owned and operated; Neal and his wife Kerry Madigan are partners in business and in life, just like Matt and me.
Neal left about half way through the presentation (he was headed up to his farm and needed to get on the road before the weather got worse); I had one moment to speak with him, just enough time to shake his hand, introduce myself and tell him I’m from Tuscaloosa; however, my wine views were permanently changed from that point forward.
When we drink wine at home 1 out of 2 are imported by RWM; this is because I know what to expect, that they will over-deliver, that for the price the wines are always better than others from “better known,” “flashy,” or perhaps “trendy” producers. Just as a “rose is a rose is a rose” a Rosenthal wine is a Rosenthal wine.
(This year Neal Rosenthal was nominated for a James Beard Award- Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Professional- along with four others. He didn’t win, but of course I believe that he should’ve.)