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The Freewheel line with a couple of English friends.

It takes a lot of beer to keep the wine business running smoothly. Here in Redwood City, we are very fortunate to have a great English style ale producer right in our backyard: Freewheel Brewing Company. The staff of K&L are fictures at our local pub, and it is a rare moment when one of us isn't there having a pint and a bite of their excellent food. We are also lucky enough to be the first place to offer their bottled beer for sale. If you have never had it, the Freewheel Brewing "FSB" Freewheel Special Bitter, California (500ml) is the benchmark in fresh, balanced, smashable ale. We will do our best to keep some in stock for you, the customer too!

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Reflection on Reflections, and Opinion About Opinions

When Neal Rosenthal came into our store to let us taste some of his wines and talk about his new book, I was the only one who had no idea who this guy was. Working on my eighth month in wine business, I am overly relieved and satisfied when I am able to identify a grape, let alone a wine importer. However, when other staff members purchased their copies of Reflections of a Wine Merchant, I followed suit because I figured it would be fun to have him sign the cover page and perhaps there would be some new insight within the pages for a young rookie like myself. However, not only would Rosenthal’s words proceed to change and inspire the way that I look at wine; they would challenge the way I look at the industry. In his entertaining and engaging prose, Rosenthal brings to life his intoxicating memories of driving through narrow Italian streets and rummaging through dank Burgundian cellars with enough zeal to make someone prone to quixotic endeavors (like myself) quit their day job and head out to northern Piedmont or the Côte de Beaune. On the other hand, Rosenthal is forlorn and bitter about the changes that have overtaken the industry and makes no secret of his distaste for the influence that wine critics like Robert Parker have received with their point systems and scorecard ratings. While some (including many of us at K&L) are critical of point scales because they are a shoddy and ineffective way of capturing a wine’s merit, Rosenthal is incensed because of what these ratings ignore; namely the mystic and importance of how a wine reflects its terroir. At many points throughout Reflections, Rosenthal gets up on his soap box and proceeds to spew out what he feels are the vulgarities and flaws of the modern wine world, but within one chapter is a powerful diatribe about not only wine ratings and scores, but about wine journalism as a whole. Gone are the days, he laments, when wine spectators would log their travels, describe their interactions, and more importantly effectively capture the magic and the wonder of these experiences that Rosenthal so obviously felt when he began as an importer; to him the multitude of personalities behind the production of wine are as important as the wine itself. Lost are the stories that precede a trip to the cellar or follow an introduction to a new winemaker. Absent are the conversations about location, geography, custom, and tradition. Extinct is the spirit that made discovering wine synonymous with uncovering the world. What remains is a system and an industry designed for quick fixes and quick cash. While importers like Rosenthal once waited years for their wines to develop before releasing them to the open market, today’s business is focused on how to change the formula and therefore make a product that is ready to drink today. As an example, Rosenthal cites the transition in Bordeaux from cabernet-based wines to a more merlot-based recipe, due to the more precocious and ready-to-drink nature of merlot, but one doesn’t have to look that far to find others. When I started working with wine, I was more than intimidated by some of the questions asked of me by the purchasing public regarding drinkability: “When should I drink this?” “How long should I cellar it?” “What wines are good for aging?” After some research on the subject, I felt a bit better about telling our customers that certain California cabernets should be put away for a number of years before being poured at the dinner table. However, when I got the opportunity to actually taste these wines, it was quite a different experience. Many of the samples I tasted were not the tight and tannic substances I thought they would be. On the contrary, they were round, smooth, supple and fruity; more than ready to please any New World connoisseur. Everything that I had read about old school California cabs, the Judgment of Paris, 30-year old Chateau Montelenas, and the virtue of patience seemed to contradict what I had just swished around in my mouth. These ripe and concentrated flavors were coming out of the 2003 and 2004 vintages; merely a few years after being bottled. It was just this kind of experience that Rosenthal claims is becoming more and more the norm for the wine industry; as winemakers and wine merchants look to recoup profits quickly, rather than offer wines that will not show their potential until years, if not decades, after the customer has purchased the bottle. I taught elementary school before working at K&L, and while I was doing that, I went to San Francisco State in the evenings; chipping away on my Master’s Degree in German. My desire to do so came from a prolonged stay in Germany and a love for the country’s many traditions and customs (not to mention its beers and bratwursts). My career goals were and are still wrapped up in an ambition to travel, appreciate the potential of this world and its many places, its many peoples, and its many experiences. This desire is well facilitated in the wine industry as geography, travel, experience, and relationships are a large part of the joys and successes within it; at least in Rosenthal’s version of it. Perhaps that’s why Reflections struck such a chord with me. As a relative novice in this profession, I am still full of the romantic optimism of what could possibly await me, rather than a dreaded pessimism for what actually exists. I find myself more agitated by ratings and scores than ever before because I have been made aware of the reality that existed before them. A time when people didn’t swirl, spit and write down a number before moving on to the next test subject; without even acknowledging where and how the grapes were grown, who grew them and why they did it. Rosenthal’s book is not perfect. It reeks of score-settling at certain points, and condescends at others, but overall it inspires a new eagerness that may not have existed before in those who read it. An eagerness to appreciate the aspects that help to produce fine wine, and the products that one can obtain from that appreciation, rather than just the product itself. —David Driscoll

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Reader Comments (1)

Thanks, David, for your thoughts on Neal. I design/build custom wine cellars around the country, buy from KL and suppport all you folks do to broaden the conversation.

Twenty years ago I was in your same wine drenched shoes when I was introduced to the blessed alternative to UC Davis sermons. After going to school in Dijon and later traveling the backroads of France with Kermit and Bobby Kacher, I awoke to the amazing world of french wine families and decided never again to separate the vigneron from the vine.

Since you are a German speaker, I advise you to grab onto Terry Theise and never let go. Its a ride you won't forget (and maybe KL will pay for it!).Hope to see you at the wine store.
June 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Peden

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