A culture uncorked

Times Staff Writer

WRITING, AND talking, about wine can be so mannered it has become a figure of fun for decades now: The vocabulary of the outlandish tasting note -- in which the taster attributes bizarre scents and flavors to what's in his wine glass -- was justifiably parodied in the movie "Sideways."

But a few wine writers have struck literary gold. After all, the selling of wine, in a neighborhood shop or a winery's tasting room, typically involves telling stories -- about the wine's makers, its region, the history of an obscure grape. Wine takes so long to make, from the planting of the grapes to the harvest to the bottling, that it's a natural for narrative. With uncooperative weather, marauding animals and scheming capitalists, there's often plenty of drama.

Neal Rosenthal, a wine importer whose new memoir, "Reflections of a Wine Merchant," was just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is trying to join the small shelf of books that can be read for pleasure outside the subculture of wine geeks. With its search for the great neglected winemaker or hidden mountain vineyard, the book belongs in what Jay McInerney calls "the wine quest-story genre," a field whose masterpiece is the 1988 "Adventures on the Wine Route," which made a wine world personality out of Berkeley-based importer Kermit Lynch.

His own book is about patience, said Rosenthal, who, with his wiry, upbeat nature, seems more about racing ahead than waiting around.

Yet it's the result of a long, patient quest of his own: Three decades ago, he was a young, disaffected lawyer, weary of the long hours in the library coming up with ways to save corporations money. He dreamed of writing a novel, following in the footsteps of his idols, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, and he had a cabinet of stuff he'd never shown anyone. But he was ending a marriage and had an infant daughter to support. He was, in short, a frustrated writer.

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Proponent of handcrafting

Rosenthal IS now not only a respected importer of wines from Europe but also among the fiercest and most dedicated advocates of artisanal wineries and the notion of terroir, or sense of place. To his critics, he's a zealot, a puritan trying to stop time.

"We're not trying to turn back the clock," he said, chopping shallots and potatoes in the kitchen at his 57-acre farm, about 100 miles outside New York City and surrounded by rolling hills on which farmers raise asparagus, squash and cattle. "What we're trying to do is to preserve an element of our culture. We need special things, and those can only come through handcrafted, individual effort."

This means, of course, that he's uninterested in the vast majority of the world's wine, which comes from either New World appellations or industrial production in the traditional Old World of France, Italy and Spain. To him, the issue -- like his book -- is bigger than vineyard techniques.

"With modesty aside," he said, "I would hope that the book is seen as more than about wine. It is about wine, but inside that, it's about values, about culture, about tradition, and it's about human failings and human triumphs. I try to use that setting to make points about how I live and how to live one's life."

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A growing passion

IN the 2004 movie "Mondovino," in which Rosenthal plays a brief but crucial role, he describes the global wine world as "a battle between the Resistance and the collaborators." It's hard to understand that kind of high-pitched talk without looking at Rosenthal's early years, about which he's fairly nostalgic.

"One of the lures was the idea of geography," Rosenthal recalled of his middle-class childhood in New Jersey, in which wine was something you saw on other family's tables. "When you look at the labels, it opens up this fantasy world, this world of the imagination where you're effectively traveling when you pick up a bottle."

Seeing those labels from Western Europe sparked his curiosity. Years later, when his pharmacist father looked to sell his tiny, modest liquor store on New York's Upper East Side, Rosenthal, then bailing from his law career, moved into the business. Within a year he was trolling Piedmont, Italy, for the perfect Barolo.

He expected this to be temporary, a way of financing a writing career. But he's since, as the book makes clear, fallen in deep.

Though he stands up for tradition and an aristocratic lineage, Rosenthal makes a funny reactionary. Lanky, intense and fit -- until recently he ran marathons -- he projects enthusiasm and pride in his accomplishments, but doesn't take himself as seriously as he does the mission he feels he is on. Maybe it's his sense of humor, lingering Jersey accent or casual body language, but he could be a stand-up comedian of the kind who appeared on David Letterman's show in the 1980s.

"He is a moralist, a charmer, an educator, a left-wing activist, a toughly sentimental New York City salesman and a bon vivant all at once," Lawrence Osborne wrote in "The Accidental Connoisseur." Rosenthal, he concluded, is the great arbiter of "America's alternative wine scene."

As such, Rosenthal is wary of too much science applied to the ancient art. "You can't take it to an extreme, or you turn your wine into a laboratory product," he said. Science, globalization and the influence of numbers-based critics have homogenized the world's wine, he said, with too much oak and alcohol, the destruction of tradition and neglect of regional grapes. What we're left with, he said, is "big, massive, overwhelming creatures. It's like special effects. They're the wines that win contests at the tasting booth, but you sit down to dinner and they're like a blow to the head."

He's been a detractor of California wines, though he admires some of what came out of the '70s golden age. These days, he joked, "the first thing they do is design the label. Then they build a beautiful building, buy fancy equipment. The last thing you think about is the vineyards." The winery of the nouveau riche, he said, is the agricultural equivalent of a trophy wife.

A true believer with a people-pleasing side, Rosenthal goes back and forth between this-is-just-the-way-I-see-it apologies and denunciations packed with moral force. But the recent move of wineries, especially in the New World, from cork to screw top is, he said, a "blasphemy."

"There's something psychological about it that I can't stand," he said. "You can call me pretentious -- fine. I like pulling the cork out of the bottle. It's a feeling; it's an atmosphere. I like the romance of it, and I think if you take the romance out of your life, just because it's easier to twist the top off and avoid having a corked wine . . . Well, I'll take my chances."

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Not the typical slant

WINE writers often reflect national character, whether the aristocratic elan of Britain's Hugh Johnson or the straightforward quality of Robert Parker, the son of Maryland farmers, who, despite being tarred as a dangerous standardizing influence, is a direct, effective writer. McInerney writes about wine like the novelist, and hedonist, he is, all metaphors about fast cars or Pamela Anderson.

McInerney is a devotee of Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn, who brought a wit and bite to what the novelist called "a field where there's too little entertainment and humor."

Rosenthal, who calls himself ideologically allied to "The Botany of Desire" author Michael Pollan, said he's most stylistically influenced by A.J. Liebling, the New Yorker polymath who also wrote remarkably on boxing and World War II.

"He's not writing about wine," Rosenthal said. "He's writing about the joys of a certain way of life," and drawing scenes with precise phrasing and an unmatched economy.

McInerney said he enjoyed Rosenthal's book "because I didn't think it was overly technical, and it's character-driven."

"It's not that easy to come up with ways of expressing the pleasures of wine," he said. "And some writing just errs on the side of the faux scientific, or the same old descriptors, which don't tend to convey much. The best wine writing tries to come up with the metaphorical equivalents. It's still a field with an awful lot of bad writing."

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Savoring the connection

LATER IN the day, Rosenthal was standing in his underground cellar, a damp, pine-shelved room floored with concrete and set to 50 degrees, filled with 20,000 bottles from various wineries and vintages.

As austere as it is -- "This is about as simple as you can get," he said -- it's got the quality of a teenager's bedroom, the kind built as a perfect setting for empty bottles, baseball cards or rare vinyl LPs.

Though some of the bottles are for entertaining, or for showing off to clients and colleagues, Rosenthal is divided between pride and a sense that there's something obsessive about a room with this much of anything. He knows it's crazy.

"There's something about drinking the last bottle," he said, beaming and rueful at the same time. "It's the end of an era, the end of a story. And you can never get it again."

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scott.timberg@latimes.com

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