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Chateau Latour Wine Tasting

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Denny's Wine Cellar

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Although my parents had great appreciation for art, music and most cultural activities, their esthetics did not extend to wine and food. Wine began to seep into my consciousness from novels, movies, and magazines. My artistic and scientific temperament was intrigued with the art and craft of transforming ripened grapes into a beverage that evolved in bottle, at times for centuries, to become a rare treasure. In college I began to read seriously about wine, and do some tasting, but it was at Johns Hopkins Medical School that my passion for wine and food was really ignited. This was the early sixties, well before America’s major wine awakening, and great wines could be purchased for a fraction of their current cost. A medical school friend and fellow musician was a superb chef, and we would grab first growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy off the wine shelves for under $5/bottle, and have frequent banquets late at night after finishing hospital rounds. Baltimore and Washington D.C. had some marvelous restaurants, and I was transported by the cuisine and wine at great French restaurants like Chez Francois and Rive Gauche in Washington, D.C., and the exotic dishes at Haussner’s in Baltimore, focusing on the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay. I managed to make some pilgrimages to some of the temples of haute cuisine in New York City, continuing to explore the synergy of wine with food.

In 1968, just as I was starting my private practice of psychiatry in San Francisco, my involvement with wine went up a quantum level when my wife Josephine and I decided to start a cellar. Josephine is like Coltrane in the kitchen. She is the greatest chef I have ever known, bar none, and I had to learn early on that she would never make the same dish twice. They were jazz solos. She has the ability to look at a recipe for the first time, have a physical experience of imagining the ingredients coming together, and know intuitively how to alter the recipe to make it better. But most of the time, the dishes are wholly her own creation. Her banquets rapidly became legendary in the San Francisco wine and food subculture. Her cooking was a major impetus to our collecting. Up until then, money was really too tight to invest in wine, and there was the sense that you could always get whatever you wanted right off the shelf. But we were beginning to realize that vintages were finite, and if we wanted to be able to drink mature wines with her cuisine or at restaurants we loved, we had better cellar them ourselves when they were young and available.

A major psychological shift occurred at that point. We learned to taste new releases , make predictions about their future, and buttressed by the opinions of wine critics, make an informed gamble about whether they belonged in our cellar. It has been very exciting to follow the course of a wine’s development over a decade or more. We would typically buy at least 6 bottles of a given wine to be able to do this. Our palates became more sophisticated, and the more levels of appreciation we reached, the more we realized we would always be students of wine. Becoming a collector plunged me deeper into wine lore, and we soon joined tasting groups, wine and food societies, took courses, subscribed to magazines and newsletters, and made a network of friends in the wine and food world with whom we have shared some great adventures in various parts of the world. Along the way, I have functioned as a wine consultant to several restaurants, served as a wine judge, and written articles on wine (see below). Our cellar focuses on France and California, but with significant contributions from Australia, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Oregon. Thinking back, I realize how fortunate we were to start collecting when we did. Our cellar of over 4000 bottles contains a lot of wine we could not really afford to re-purchase at today’s prices. We keep the wine at 55 degrees and 70% humidity, and add to the cellar at a much, much slower rate than when we started, primarily buying whites and red wines that won’t need decades of cellaring to become mature. Our challenge is to stay healthy and drink what we have collected!

I’ve enjoyed turning fellow musicians on to wine, and Buster, Matt, and I have a ball after a concert drinking a marvelous bottle at a fine restaurant. They both have developed great palates, and sometimes it seems we are as interested in what we are going to drink as in what we are going to play…

My plan for this section of the web site is to periodically offer some recommendations about specific wines, wine literature, and restaurants, along with anecdotes of interest. I’d like to share how jazz led me to a basement of Chateau Lafite as a medical student. Or how I discovered the incredible Burgundies of Dr. Barolet, a French physician who never practiced medicine because he wanted to make wine...

Wine articles written by Denny Zeitlin:

Thirty Five Years of Chateau Cheval Blanc - Vintage, December, 1976
The 1949 Clarets: A Perspective - Vintage, February, 1980
Diamond Creek Vineyards: Three Vineyards, Three Faces - Vintage, October, 1980

Wine spectator feature:

Cellar Jazz - Wine Spectator, December 15, 2004

Gallery: Wine