Terroir. It’s a buzzword in the wine world these days, like “single origin” is in the chocolate world. But they’re not just trendy phrases; these terms have become ubiquitous for a reason. A wine’s terroir, or a chocolate’s origin is a significant contributor to its story and flavor, playing a key role in differentiating one wine from another, or one bar from another.
Wine importer and distributor Neal Rosenthal is all about terroir, and has been for 38 years, well before it became a fashionable term to throw around. His primary goal is to find wines that are the most purely representative of where they are made. “People don’t make wines, God does,” says Neal.
A wine is great largely due to its place of origin; the wine’s characteristics come from the soil, the rock, the exact climate that exists on that piece of land in that village. The local ambient yeasts that form on the skins are exactly as described- local and ambient- and can’t be replicated elsewhere. That’s what terroir is all about- the characteristics of a wine that can’t be recreated. They occur naturally. When asked if he can taste the terroir, Neal replies “I profess to know everything,” chuckling himself, and creating a wave of quiet laughter across the audience.
This was the audience at a tasting event with Neal Rosenthal and Italian vintners Giampiero Bea and his disciple Gaetano Gargano, hosted this month by Michael and Marianne Albin, owners of Hudson Wine Merchants in Hudson, New York. Giampiero Bea and his brother Giuseppe make wines on their family’s vineyard in Montefalco in the province of Umbria. Their father, Paolo Bea, has been developing their family’s vines under his name for ages (the family's origins in Montefalco date back to the 1500's). Gaetano has been working in conjunction with Giampiero to develop his own label, Il Censo, on his family’s estate in Sicily.
I first became familiar with Neal’s wines, including the Paolo Bea label, while working at Chez Panisse. Jonathan Waters, the director of all things wine at Chez, was very fond of Neal’s imports, and my palate was largely shaped by the education Jonathan (and therefore Neal) bestowed upon me.
Out of the restaurant setting, though obviously still ensconced in the food world, I now become excited whenever I see one of Neal’s wines in a shop or on someone’s dinner table. The Man and I had been at Hudson Wine Merchants a couple of weeks previous, and you can imagine my excitement at seeing Paolo Bea’s San Valentino on the rack. After striking up a conversation about Bea, the Man being the Man, somehow got us an invitation to this tasting event. Or should I say, Michael was kind enough to entertain the Man’s self-inclusion and expressed that my being in the food industry and having worked at Chez was reason enough for us to come. I was shocked at the Man’s audacity, errr... impulse, but admittedly was quite excited about the outcome.
The tasting was nothing less than expected; in fact it was far more. On the beautiful third floor of Michael and Marianne’s building of which Hudson Wine Merchants occupies the ground level, the brick-walled, hardwood-floored, well-lit space was a perfect venue for the intimate tasting of 30. As it turns out the guests are all the closest of friends, as many were eager to tell me, due to the fact that Michael is a bit of a mayoral figure in Hudson. “Oh you’re going to Ted’s house for dinner tonight? Then you must bring Wine X as he has been dying to try it and it will go perfectly with the lamb he is serving.” Talk about community- I'm impressed.
Upon my arrival Michael swooped in and introduced me to a few people, preventing one of those potentially awkward social situations us introverted people sometimes experience in a large group, of which they know no one. He also mitigated my feeling of guilt for having somewhat invited myself, and at the end of the afternoon very sincerely expressed his enthusiasm for my bringing the Man the next time. There would be a next time!
My excitement about this tasting is multi-faceted. Neal Rosenthal’s name holds a lot of weight in our house, so meeting him, clueing him into what I’m up to with Anne food. these days, and seeing his enthusiasm over learning that we live in close proximity to one another was mind-boggling. Secondly, tasting amazing wines, particularly those I am already familiar with, and getting to see how recent vintages vary from previous years (a lot! which, as Neal says, is great!) is always enjoyable and was such a treat. Thirdly, meeting new people was great fun. But perhaps most importantly, particularly as it pertains to terroir, is the strong community of Hudson reflected in the people at the event- something I’m actively trying to seek out now more than ever.
All communities are wonderful. Connections between people are what make the world go ‘round. But each community is slightly different, and that’s because each place is different. Each place has it’s own terroir, and not only does that effect the grapes that grow in its soil and therefore the wine that’s made there, but also its people and its culture.
The Man and I have been talking a lot about place recently; discussing family, and the community as it pertains to our lives. Traveling back and forth between two places highlights their differences, as well as their similarities. What makes the communities in northwestern Connecticut and the surrounding Hudson Valley different from those in Ketchum and the Wood River Valley? It’s the terroir. Each is an amazing place. But if you were to uproot the community in Hudson and transplant it in Ketchum, it wouldn’t be the same as it is now, and vice versa.
Let’s take the food and wine community, for instance. The Hudson Valley is lush, and offers beautiful fertile land with a great farming history. And recently there has been a resurgence of this farming community- young people are growing food in a sustainable and progressive way. Why? Many reasons, but one must be that New York City is two hours south, and there is a farm-to-table movement exploding in Brooklyn and Manhattan. So Hudson is full of produce and young people, and a community of growers and purveyors with similar interests is born.
It wasn’t overnight, but now you see the same bearded faces with rolled up skinny jeans walking down Warren Street in Hudson as you do in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Artisans are everywhere, honing their craft and sharing it and their passion with others. Community is born. I’m not siting that trajectory I just referenced as the only reason why Hudson is what it is, but that’s one story that suggests why the community I experience in Ketchum is different than the one out east. Different surroundings, different history. Different terroir.
The fact that Bea’s native grapes grow in Umbrian soil, many on vines that are over 120 years old, is obviously key. But I again reference terroir’s larger picture. Paolo Bea’s vines are 7 feet off the ground, allowing Bea to grow vegetables and other crops under the grapes, making full use of the land. They have olive trees and fruit trees. And while they’ve recently reduced the number of farm animals on the property to accommodate their booming wine business, the Beas used to have cows, pigs, chickens, ducks and rabbits scurrying around the land as well. It was an entirely self-sustaining farm. And that too, is part of the terroir.
A community grows around something like that. Wines are made that go well with duck breast, and gatherings ensue. It’s a special thing, a life like that. And while I may never see that exact picture, chickens scurrying about an olive tree studded vineyard, I aspire to my own version. A version that is what it is because of terroir. Anywhere else and it wouldn’t be the same. And hopefully my version continues to develop and take shape in part because of the local communities like that at Hudson Wine Merchants. It's the persistence of people like Neal to pursue and showcase that which is the most pure, and artisans like Paolo Bea and his sons to create and further what nature has to offer around them... Buzzword or not, that’s the real deal.