Book review – Reflections of a Wine Merchant

I have mentioned in past newsletters the frequently-asked question I receive from readers and students: how do I get started in the wine trade?

I usually have to think before I reply, as there is not an easy answer to the question.  First, the wine business is neither easy nor glamorous.  Further there are more poor people in the business, than wealthy.  There are many people who have eminently-regarded qualifications whose knowledge and experience are grossly underutilized.  There is intense competition from established big firms and from successful niche players, making it extremely challenging for newbies to get commercial traction.  The buy-side is nowhere near as adventuresome as it was a few years ago, before the collapse of 2008.  And, as I have often-observed in the past, the LCBO – and monopolies in general – is a challenging buyer to deal with, so don’t expect big (or any) volume unless you carry known brands with scores.

Perhaps most-importantly, there are more people looking for career opportunities in the wine business than there are opportunities that will lead anywhere.  As an example, I spoke to some students after one of my classes earlier this week and heard of the working arrangements many bright young people have to accept to get part-time positions in front-line jobs at the LCBO.  Many of these people need to hold other jobs to carry their financial obligations.  They start at the bottom of the front-line staff ladder stocking shelves, with limited prospects for medium-term promotion to a product consultant.  The jobs are very physical, involving (literally) heavy lifting of cases of wine – a reality wherever you work in the industry. Front-liners take courses such as WSET certifications to position themselves for future candidacy. Overall there are more people seeking Product Consultant roles than positions available and the wait times for promotion are in double digit year terms.  These people have excellent undergraduate qualifications and since they have decided they want to work in the trade these are the conditions they accept to gain entry.

Observing the current scene in the wine trade – living in a regulated, monopoly market as I do – makes me hanker for olden times in markets that were untapped and un-regulated.  People who loved wine, who wanted to make a career in wine had the world in the palm of their hand, or so it might seem, looking back.

The wine world was simple in the 1960’s and 1970’s, especially in North America where old world cultural influences were limited in number and variety.  Wine wasn’t on the consumer radar screen unless you where a wealthy collector or had experienced European traditions in your travels.  These were the days of foxy, sweet wines often made locally with grapes from the vitis labrusca species.  These wines did not encourage consumption so there was no incentive to explore, even if wines of better quality from France, Germany or Italy were available in your market.  Chile, Australia or New Zealand?  These countries were literally not on the wine map 40 years ago.

It is hard today to imagine these simple, and often frustrating, times of the past but this was when young people had every opportunity to carve their own path in the wine trade with little or no competition…and to make a very successful and fulfilling career in the process.

This is the story of Neal Rosenthal, author of Reflections of a Wine Merchant.

Rosenthal retired as a young man from his law practice to open a small wine shop in the late 1970’s. This store, in his father’s former pharmacy, was located in an affluent Upper-East side neighbourhood of Manhattan and eventually grew to what is now a wine merchant operation with business in 35 states of the Union.   The store is still in operation and it has become a mecca for wine lovers who seek wines made by craft producers in France and Italy.  Rosenthal has built his name by finding wines that express local terroir in distinctive and correct ways.  He has built long-lasting relationships with his roster of producers and he works today with some of the producers he first found over 30 years ago.

This book is the story of how Rosenthal grew his little operation to become a big operation and how he stayed true to his basic principles of integrity, hard work, consistency and fairness – in his dealings with suppliers and customers, both.

The book is a little gem.  It doesn’t take long to read and, while it is slow to start, it picks up quickly and travels as fast as Rosenthal travelled on his regular journeys to find new makers and foster relationships with existing suppliers.

The theme of the book is not stated but it is woven consistently throughout each chapter: success in starting, growing and maintaining a business is built on a foundation of hard work.  Rosenthal never discusses this aspect of his journey and because of this omission he makes the success he has achieved look easy.  I don’t think the omission I describe was willful or mean-spirited.  It was simply a fact of Rosenthal’s life that he was going work as hard as he had to to successfully achieve what he wanted to do: to find and sell wines that expressed their place naturally and without artifice.

In some ways this book reminds me of one of my favourite books, Adventures on the Wine Route, written in the late 1980’s by Kermit Lynch, the Berkeley, CA wine merchant. Both men were storekeepers who found their own wines by travelling to the lands where they were made.  Both men were solitary in their early efforts and focused on the people, then the wines. Both men made it a core aspect of their business t0 taste locally before buying: they sought wines that were pure in their expression, not wines that had strong brand identity, cute labels or which came from trendy regions or varietals.  These similarities aside, Rosenthal’s story is more focused on business values and the importance of staying true to these when suppliers might otherwise want you to compromise for their purposes.

This is not a new book; it was first published in 2008.  It sat on my bookshelf, unread, because it was hidden behind some bigger books.  Now that I have read it, I commend this story to anyone who wants to pursue a career in this fine business.  This book will teach you the importance of relationships, principles, persistence and hard work.  In simpler times you needed these to be successful. I believe in the more complex and competitive times we now toil, these same ingredients are even more important for success.

Now I have an answer to the question. These are the content of the answers I will give to the “how do I get started in the wine trade” questions I field in the future.

You can learn more about Neal Rosenthal and Rosenthal Wine Merchant here.

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Author: John Switzer

I am wine writer, educator and tour guide. From 2005 to June 2014 I published a bi-weekly newsletter, the Winesights Vintages Newsletter (WVN). This Newsletter was closed in July 2014 when the Government of Canada put in place the onerous administrative requirements of Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation. The legacy of WVN continues on this blog spot where I post wine-related articles as well as reviews of a small selection of best-value wines from each bi-weekly LCBO Vintages release. I hold the WSET Diploma, I am a WSET Certified Educator, I teach in the WSET program at the Independent Wine Education Guild in Toronto where I am the past Director of the WSET Diploma program. Since 2010 I have been a judge at Decanter World Wine Awards on the Rhône panel and I am a member of the Society of Wine Educators.

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