Merchant of Vino

Neal Rosenthal’s storied awakening

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PHOTOGRAPHED BY DEENA FEINBERG

When I ask the esteemed wine importer and author Neal Rosenthal how a kid who grew up in the city, in a household where wine was not served, developed such a confident palate and an innate understanding of terroir—the trinity of soil, climate and topography that gives wine from a particular place a unique identity—he says, “I’ve searched for an answer, but I’m not really sure why. Maybe somewhere back in my ancestry there was a guy with a donkey and wheelbarrow carrying slivovitz (plum brandy) to the next shtetl down the road somewhere in Eastern Europe.”

Perhaps a more convincing case could be made from the fact that some of Rosenthal’s relatives who emigrated to America from the Ukraine were in the fruit business, but it still doesn’t explain how when he started working in the wine industry in 1978, he was able to grasp a concept once so fundamentally alien to this country: that wine is an agricultural product.

Now Rosenthal, owner of the Mad Rose Group and nominee for multiple James Beard Awards for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional, may be at the top of his game in the wine and spirits industry, but just a few decades ago, particularly in the late 1970s when Rosenthal got his start, the state of gastronomy and wine knowledge in America was pitiable. It may seem hard to remember living in a time before farmers markets, heritage edibles and natural wine, but back in the 1970s even cosmopolitan New York City was, to put it fairly, a nascent marketplace for fine food and beverage.

Indeed there were a few lonely outposts. One of them was a small wine shop on the corner of 72nd Street and Lexington Avenue that Rosenthal purchased in 1979 from his parents, Bernard and Elsie, who had run a pharmacy at the same location, complete with an old-style lunch counter, while Rosenthal was growing up. Rosenthal remembers ringing up sales on one of those ornate old-fashioned cash registers when he was just six years old—early training for a soon-to-be merchant. The grueling hours eventually took a toll, so his parents decided to convert the luncheonette into—somewhat ironically for teetotalers—a liquor and wine shop. But unlike most of the plonk found in wine stores at that time, thanks to its location on the tony Upper East Side, the shop was stocked with a better than usual selection of European varietals for the neighborhood’s well-heeled residents.

This led Rosenthal to an initial and fundamental insight: “I had studied history in school and loved maps, so I would go in the store and look at the labels on the back of the bottles and see Gevrey- Chambertin or Gigondas [both French red wines],” he recalls. “What struck me is that it wasn’t only the name of a wine but the name of a place. I somehow understood preternaturally that wine was all about a sense of place.”

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Neal Rosenthal patiently waiting for the coming spring and all that comes with it.

EXPERIMENT IN TERROIR

Beyond his natural curiosity and interest in history, Rosenthal is also an avid reader who harbored aspirations to be a writer, but having a family to support, he chose to channel that sensibility in other ways. After holing up in the Berkshires with a bunch of wine books and a few cases to give himself a crash course before he took over his parent’s Manhattan wine shop, he read descriptions of wine in journalist A. J. Liebling’s writings and Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine, which convinced him that poetry can be found in wine terroir.

With a view that mediocre wine doesn’t inspire good writing, and believing there had to be something better than most of what he was tasting at the time, Rosenthal took matters into his own hands and went to Europe to find wines worthy of good prose that pleased his palate. Some of the growers he met on his first trip to Burgundy and Piedmont in 1980 are with him still, a testament to loyalty and longevity that is unusual in the world of wine. Rosenthal, seeing an untapped opportunity in an emerging wine market, moved out of the retail business and into the realm of imports and distribution of everything from wine to what was then termed “gourmet foods.” Unlike many Americans susceptible to the latest fads, Rosenthal doesn’t follow trends. He is steadfast and patiently waits for everyone else, including the market, to catch up. It’s a fitting trait for a merchant who describes his wines as traditional and classical. When I ask where his confidence came from, he says, “All the credit goes to my parents. They gave me a sense of conviction in my own taste. I didn’t take wine courses or go to sommelier school. We didn’t even drink wine at home. I just knew what I wanted and what I liked.”

Anyone who has tasted a “Rosenthal” wine, like the Château Valcombe from Côtes du Rhône or Monsecco from Italy, will agree that they are expressive of their terroir and share a characteristic leanness and acidity. The fruit is there, but it’s never out front. A taste preference that’s clearly innate: “My mom used to worry about me when I was a kid because I would eat the watermelon all the way through the rind,” he remembers. “I was looking for the acid in the fruit.”

When asked how his wines compare to those of other known importers, Rosenthal says, “We are not afraid to stick to what we believe in. It’s a rare thing because most people are searching for what the market is going to do, but they each have a philosophy and a palate. I’m more northern. My wines are leaner, more chiseled, they are more difficult and not as welcoming.”

That description sounds a lot like the man himself, who also happens to be a competitive runner. However Rosenthal contradicts such assumptions: “I’m actually a very gregarious person, but my wines are more restrained.”

It takes a certain kind of person to be a serious athlete, a point Rosenthal makes in his memoir, Reflections of a Wine Merchant: On a Lifetime in the Vineyards and Cellars of France and Italy: “Fast times and good races are the result of miles of training. Talent is important; discipline is essential. That last statement sums up my attitude when it comes to my work as a wine merchant.” Perhaps not a conclusion one expects from someone working in a glamorous profession prone to excess.

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THE VINOUS CHAPEL

Meeting Rosenthal for the first time last fall as he presided over a special dinner of his new Alto Piemonte wines at Franny’s rustic pizzeria in Brooklyn didn’t completely prepare me for what to expect when, one Saturday afternoon in early December, I drove to the Pine Plains home he shares with his wife and business partner, Kerry Madigan.

Set in the rolling hills of the Shekomeko Valley in Dutchess County, Mad Rose Ranch is typical of the kind of rural farmsteads that have been resurrected by New York City expats looking for their Arcadia in the Hudson Valley. A former converted barn set on 35 acres Rosenthal and Madigan bought in 1994, the original footprint has gradually expanded to include an additional 22 acres of wetlands, beaver ponds and woods they purchased five years later, which they keep forever wild as a refuge for birds, deer and other wildlife.

They made improvements to the original barn in 2008, adding a wing with bedrooms and a serious chef-worthy kitchen with a walk-in fridge. A couple of years later as their business grew, they added an extension to house the growing Mad Rose offices built out of ocher-colored stones with a silo-like entrance that wouldn’t be out of place in the European countryside. Although her name is not on the Rosenthal labels found on the back of their bottles, Mad Rose Group—the parent company they run that includes Rosenthal Wine Merchants and a selection of specialty foods imported from Italy—gives Madigan top billing since the company name is a shortened acronym of both their last names. Below this structure lies one of the finest wine cellars in America, a long subterranean space far more tidy and elegant than the dank, cobweb-ridden caves chronicled in his book where he tastes with his growers. Below ground are thousands of bottles stacked two deep on sturdy wooden shelves with cases heaped on the gravel floor. When asked later via e-mail if he knew how many bottles he has stored, Rosenthal responds: “Goodness, I’ve never counted how many. It seems to grow week by week!” A problem we all wish we had. Inside this vinous chapel lie original bottles from his longtime growers like a 1961 Chambave Rouge from Ezio Voyat, a 1978 Clos de la Roche from Hubert Lignier and a 1947 Vouvray from Foreau. There is also a 1962 Carema from Luigi Ferrando, a wine from the foothills of the Italian Alps—one of the geographically smallest appellations in the world—that, as we learn in his memoir, he would choose above all others for embodying the defining characteristics of his palate: finesse, restraint, balance and elegance.

Some who think Rosenthal strictly a Europhile might be surprised to learn that he also has some prized Californian bottles from his early importing days, including a 1970s Tulocay that he pulls out for his European growers when they visit to show off the potential of American terroir. “California can and has produced great wines,” he says. “The 1970s was a great era because they didn’t know what they were doing. They just harvested the grapes, let the fermentation happen and watched instead of doing all this manipulation.”

Along with the fruits of his cellar, Rosenthal enjoys the fact that he lives in the heart of New York State’s apple country. “The beauty of the climate here and what makes the apples so great is the fall season, when it gets crisp and the air bristles with energy. It finishes them off and suffuses them with so much energy.” He has plans to craft his own hard cider and, to that end, has planted dozens of heirloom varieties himself like Fameuse, Eastman Sweet, Blue Pearmain and Smokehouse. His method? “Harvest, crush, throw it in the barrel and let it happen!” he says with visible glee.

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Mad Rose Ranch in winter mode

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GENTLEMAN FARMER

On the Mad Rose property there are orchards. Not just a few token trees to give the place a more bucolic air, but along with apples, dozens more plum and cherry trees fanning out across the hillside, including 140 native hazelnuts, 42 black walnut trees, 7 varieties of table grapes and a large 100-by-75-foot vegetable garden that, in spite of being under snow in December, was still producing kale and arugula. “Up here we play at being farmers,” he says, pointing with great pride to the eight varieties of garlic he has planted and bedded down for the winter with hay.

I think “playing” for most of us might mean something distinctly less ambitious, not the kind of intensive operation that grew from a small kitchen garden to a farm producing heirloom varieties that chefs like Zak Pelaccio of Fish & Game in Hudson and Serge Madikians of Serevan in Amenia use as inspiration for their acclaimed menus. Even when it comes to his piano playing, Rosenthal tells me, “I don’t think of myself as a hobbyist. I plunge into it and that’s how I like to live.” Zak Pelaccio concurs: “Neal is very passionate about what he does and the way he lives his life. His creativity is seamlessly integrated and infuses everything he does.” Madigan, who Rosenthal credits with having the greener thumb and being his farming mentor, is no slouch either. She’s in charge of their 200 heirloom tomato plants, along with the maintenance of the garden and greenhouse where they grow everything from seed.

Rosenthal handles the potatoes, garlic, melons, chickens and beehives, planting cover crops like winter rye in the fall and buckwheat in the summer, a great nectar source for his bees. (Yes, he’s also a beekeeper.) “One of the most amazing things I got from Rosenthal was a native species of hazelnut,” Pelaccio tells me. “They are not easy to grow, but he’s been able to make it happen. His nuts are not as fat as those you’d find from the West Coast or Italy, but they are wonderful, delicious and full of flavor.” Given Fish & Game’s ambitious goal to source within a 50-mile radius, Pelaccio didn’t expect to have local hazelnuts on his tasting menu.

“Basically, I gave Neal carte blanche to send me whatever surplus he had because he’s growing interesting things that no one else is growing,” Pelaccio says, praising Rosenthal’s beautiful Suyo cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes and shallots. Although Pelaccio is happy to make the drive down to Pine Plains himself, one of the many benefits of being an importer is that Rosenthal can throw his produce in the back of the truck en route from his warehouse in Queens, which stops at his farm before making deliveries to upstate restaurant and retail accounts.

Not many know that besides wine, Mad Rose also offers an extensive collection of specialty artisanal foods like anchovy fillets, jarred sauces and olive oil, along with organic Mad Rose buckwheat honey from their own hives. All this bounty is stored in a large root cellar below their kitchen along with baskets of onions and garlic, jars of homemade canned tomato sauce, jams and other delectable spoils preserved from their garden. It’s a larder fitting for two passionate cooks.

After decamping upstate in 2002 to open Serevan, Madikians knew he wanted his wine list to be comprised mostly of Rosenthal wines. Neil Rosen, a member of Rosenthal’s sales team who is based out of Saugerties, helped curate the list and urged Rosenthal, who lives nearby, to visit. Madikians tells me, “Kerry and Neal just showed up one day and in a casual ‘I want to see what you’re all about attitude’ said, ‘Why don’t you give us a tasting?’” Having only been open three months, Madikians was understandably nervous, but much to his surprise, at the end of the meal Rosenthal wanted to come into the kitchen and give him a hug. “He needed to taste, feel and see who I am and, more importantly, what I produce,” Madikians remembers. The friendship between Madikians and Rosenthal is now anchored around gardening. “I look forward to the afternoons when Neal shows up at Serevan’s kitchen door with baskets of Japanese cucumbers, freshly dug up potatoes or late-summer tomatoes on his way to a piano lesson down the road,” Madikians says. More importantly, Rosenthal’s enthusiasm inadvertently encouraged Madikians to commit to his own garden. As he tells me, “It is in the garden that I learn how to be a better chef and artist. Neal doesn’t see his work in the garden as labor—to him it’s an education and meditation. That is the gift I have gained from Neal, to see gardening as an essential practice to fine-tune my craft.”

SOIL CONNECTIONS

“I’m far better at what I do to earn a living now that I’ve put my hands in the dirt. I’m much more sensitive to what my growers go through,” Rosenthal waxes philosophical about farming. “It’s so facile to talk about natural wine when you don’t understand what it takes to grow healthy ripe fruit in an organic fashion. To do that as a living takes exceptional dedication.”

Now he not only worries about the impact of bad weather for his growers but also lies awake at night during thunderstorms wondering what’s going to happen to his own grapes. In keeping with the agricultural philosophy of his growers, Rosenthal and Madigan have never chemically treated their land, using only organic practices and protocols such as no-till, planting cover crops and fertilizing with their own compost.

Although I doubt he’d admit as much, I think Rosenthal sees farming as a spiritual practice, an opportunity for symbiosis between man and plant. “What organic farming requires is that you be in the vineyard or orchard all the time observing and paying attention,” he says. “I know it sounds like a crock, but I think plants like to be touched. They like it when you’re paying attention and seem happier and healthier.”

What he had understood intuitively many years ago about the impact of place and practices on flavor has come full circle. For someone who doesn’t do anything halfway, it only makes sense that his appreciation and respect for nature would evolve into something more personal. Madikians credits Rosenthal for showing him that working the land is fundamental to the concept of terroir. “For us to truly understand the earth’s gifts requires us to work the land, get our hands involved, feel the soil and earth,” he says. “Neal helped me to understand the significance and value of this.”

Pellacio concurs, adding, “It wasn’t until I started gardening myself, going through the hardship of finding what works, pulling out rocks, living through the seasons, that I understood. I can only believe that Neal’s understanding of terroir has been greatly heightened since he’s been gardening as much as he has. I can see the difference it has made in my own work.”

We’ve come a long way since the 70s. The entire Hudson Valley is in the midst of an extraordinary revival, with a budding crop of restaurants, wine shops and specialty food stores to prove it, along with a vital group of longtime, established farms and businesses that have been singing their song for years. It’s an interesting time to be part of the culinary renaissance in this region where so many passionate people are exploring and learning about what they can grow and make in the Hudson Valley. Looks like some of us are finally catching up to where Rosenthal has been running to all along.

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