When Neal Rosenthal took over his father’s Upper East Side pharmacy-turned-liquor store in 1977, he couldn’t have predicted that it would mark the start of his decades-long career in wine. “I had no experience in wine from both a business or drinking standpoint,” says Rosenthal, adding that, at the time, he had no intention of pursuing it either.
But before long, the one-man retail operation quickly morphed into its current iteration: Rosenthal Wine Merchant, his namesake wine importing business that’s been going strong for more than four decades. In 1979, he started buying wines from California, then, within a year, began looking to Burgundy and beyond to expand his portfolio.
“I do all my work on a handshake,” says Rosenthal, noting that he’s never signed a contract with a supplier. “The wines that I bring in have the name of the person who takes care of the vineyards and produced the wine. I want to know where these grapes came from,” says Rosenthal, emphasizing the driving philosophy behind his importing business. From Calabria to Catalonia, he prioritizes terroir, further distilling the concept into five categories he’s delineated over the past forty years: climate, soil, grape type, culture and human touch. “I don’t just buy wines for the marketplace. Each wine must clearly manifest its roots—both geographic and cultural. They should stand up to the test of time, even if that doesn’t mean it’s easily drinkable right away.”
So what does Rosenthal do when he’s not managing imports from Switzerland to Italy? Here, he tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to share the best thing he’s ever eaten, his preferred hangover regimen (despite having never been drunk) and what he wishes he knew five years ago. —Tatiana Bautista
Chairman/president of The Mad Rose Group and founder of Rosenthal Wine Merchant
What do you want to be when you grow up?
A complete person: educated, empathetic, generous and loving; someone who creates value and enriches the lives of others.
Best thing you ever drank:
A bottle of simple red wine in a bistro oceanside in the town of Bayonne, France alongside a phalanx of fishermen fresh from their boats while on my first trip to Europe during college.
Worst thing you ever drank:
When I first stumbled into the wine trade, I had a bottle of “May wine” from Germany while at a tasting. I was trying to learn as much about wine as quickly as possible. This was a clearly adulterated product… POISON!
First time you ever got drunk:
Pardon me, but I have never been drunk!
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Small Change by Tom Waits; Mingus Plays Piano; early Miles Davis. (The list is very long)
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I don’t have hobbies. When I engage with anything it is full on commitment.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
How beautiful every moment of every day is.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I don’t do cocktails… sorry!
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Running whether on the track or on the road. Running is an obsession of mine. It’s my zen moment of the day.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Can’t think of anything.
Your favorite bar, and why:
My home, where I can share the glories of my personal cellar
Best meal you’ve ever had:
Fresh ricotta just made minutes earlier and eaten in the fields where the cattle and sheep graze.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Anything new or old, but intriguing.
In a dive bar?
Also water. I don’t drink spirits, much.
Your preferred hangover recovery regimen:
Haven’t had a hangover (that’s true) but I recommend a mix of lemon juice, extract of ginger, apple cider and a flower specific honey hit with powdered cayenne pepper.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
The ego of the sommelier. The goal of a sommelier should be to select wines that work well with the restaurant’s cuisine and can offer great pleasure to the client. Sometimes, we get into situations that sommeliers are in a position to establish their own identity and gravitas with the lists they put together—and sometimes it’s inappropriate for the restaurant.
The last text message you sent:
Too private to share!