It's a misty morning in Latrobe, Penn., an old town southeast of Pittsburgh in the shadow of the Allegheny Mountains, and the boss has arrived at the back door of his white brick office building. He parks the golf cart used for the quick trip up the hill from his home. Mulligan, his Labrador retriever, is at his side.
Mulligan pushes through the sliding screen door and makes a quick inspection of the office, though he takes no notice of the enormous bottle of wine sitting prominently in front of the desk. The dog's tail is wagging, his mouth ajar in what might be considered a smile.
The boss steps into the back foyer, rubs Mulligan's neck and greets the staff with a robust good morning and an incomparable smile. Arnold Palmer has begun his day.
It's a day filled with the demands of business and celebrity, a day in which the force of Palmer's personality will be felt by those closest to him and by others thousands of miles away. On this day, a typical day, he'll sign a hundred autographs. He'll talk to his agent about business, to his design associate about golf courses, to friends across the continent and to a golf buddy about a quick nine across the street at the Latrobe Country Club that afternoon (Arnold Palmer purchased Latrobe Country Club in 1971). On the way to have lunch in the men's grill at the club, he will pose for impromptu pictures with ladies of the Red Hat Society, adding to the millions (perhaps even tens of millions) of photographs taken of Palmer in his lifetime.
And what a lifetime, so vast that the globe is barely large enough to contain it. As a golfer alone Palmer's experiences could fill a hundred lifetimes. He made the game what it is today, setting the stage for its success in the 1950s and '60s with stirring victories in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and scores of other tournaments.
Palmer's game was flamboyant and aggressive, his triumphs inspiring. Then as now, his personality was effusive and warm, and that indomitable smile connected with everyone he came into contact with. Whether you were standing behind the gallery ropes or watching on that new-fangled thing called television, when Arnold Palmer smiled, he was smiling at you. When Arnold Palmer talked, he was talking to you. When Arnold Palmer hit a golf shot, he was doing it for you.
Palmer's personality transcended his sport. He befriended business tycoons, royalty and presidents. He became a noted aviator (flying his own Citation X jet), a highly prized corporate spokesman and a confidante to those in power, his down-home western Pennsylvania upbringing bridging him to both the adoring masses and the powerful who wanted his ear. And this is the thing about Arnold Palmer: The demand for his presence is no different today than it was 40 years ago.
|Palmer's yellow Lab Mulligan amid memorabilia in the trophy room of the golfer's home.|
So when the 2004 Masters golf tournament approached, Palmer's 50th and final Masters, Howdy Giles and Rob Gillette, two of Palmer's close friends, wanted to give him a special gift to commemorate a special occasion. Palmer, 74, would be honored by everyone that April week in Augusta, Ga. Among those paying tribute was his alma mater, Wake Forest University, which annually holds a dinner during Masters week. Gillette came up with the idea of presenting Palmer with a bottle of wine at the dinner.
Palmer's is a life abundantly rich in every aspect, and in it is a place for wine. Giles has been Palmer's dentist and No. 1 fan for more than 30 years. He estimates he has taken half a million photographs of the man they call "The King." Gillette is a friend to both, and at one time was worldwide wine buyer for Marriott hotels. They've shared good times and good wine with Palmer over the years, and so a gift of wine to commemorate Palmer's 50th Masters seemed appropriate. Of course, it wouldn't be just any bottle. They needed a wine fit for the The King.
Through his contacts with the wine business, and knowing Palmer's preference for bold wines, Gillette settled on a California wine, a 2001 Blackstone Winery Merlot from Napa Valley. And they settled on one gargantuan bottle.
After glowing tributes at the Wake Forest dinner, Giles got up to speak and announced that he had a special gift for Palmer. Palmer turned to him and said, in a low voice, "Howdy, this has been nice, don't screw this up." Whereupon Gillette wheeled out their gift, a triple imperial of Merlot, an 18-liter showpiece etched by Bergin Impressions of Napa. Among the words of tribute on the bottle are "Golf's King & The Fans' Champion."
That bottle rests today in front of Palmer's desk in Latrobe.
"I can remember many times in my life when wine made a day or the night enjoyable," says Palmer. An example from France comes to mind. "I remember playing in the Lancôme Trophy [a tournament near Paris]," he recalls. "My [late] wife, Winnie, and I would have a driver and after we finished playing, he would drive us back into the city. We would always stop and get a bottle of wine and that great French bread and drink the wine and eat the bread on the way back to the hotel."
An affection for wine wasn't part of his upbringing in rural, rustic Latrobe. "Very early in my life I had a wine that had a bitter aftertaste that I didn't like, and consequently I didn't drink too much of it," says Palmer. He remembers being in his 30s and finally discovering good wine at functions for golf events. Now, at home in Latrobe, he drinks wine with meals at least twice a week, and much more often when he dines out while residing at his homes in Florida and California.
Palmer lives in Latrobe, his birthplace, six months out of the year, spending the winter months at his Bay Hill Club and Lodge development near Orlando, Fla., or at another home in La Quinta, Calif., near Palm Springs. The Latrobe home is modest compared with the scale of his life, but comfortable, and decidedly stuck in the '60s, a time when he was at the height of his popularity. It's full of momentoes, but a small oil painting just inside the front door catches the eye, not so much for the art but for the artist. It's a landscape of a red barn with a horse grazing in front of it, signed DDE. It was a gift from former president and close friend Dwight David Eisenhower.
|The wine cellar of Palmer's hometown residence includes many bottlings that were gifts from friends at the time of golfing victories.|
Down a brass-railed staircase is the rec room with its pool table, wide-screen television and a bar with a tap for a keg of Latrobe's own Rolling Rock beer. Near a collection of shotguns is the entrance to Palmer's wine cellar. A glimpse at the bottles inside raises a question. During his career Palmer was famous for using many different putters, occasionally changing putters between rounds at a tournament. A wall of his office workshop contains racks of putters, thousands of putters, of every conceivable shape. So, Mr. Palmer, what do you have more of, putters or wine bottles?
"Oh, putters, no question," says Palmer, jovially. "It would be no contest in that regard."
The wine cellar was built by a local contractor in 1995. It meets all the requirements, chilled to the proper temperature, with wooden wine racks and a 1,000-bottle capacity. The space was excavated from what was previously a garden. For years, Palmer had kept his wine in closets and racks in his basement. After the cellar was built it stored not only his wine, but Winnie's vegetables.
Like the house, his office, the Latrobe clubhouse and a red barn on the golf course property, the wine cellar is full of memorabilia. Palmer is not a wine collector in the sense that he seeks out specific bottles of wine. Or, for that matter, much wine at all. Rather, the wine seeks out him. Many of the wines in the cellar are gifts from friends and admirers.
It therefore comes as no surprise that there are several bottles of the great Bordeaux third-growth Château Palmer in the Palmer wine cellar.
"Every Christmas, Mark McCormack would give me a bottle of Château Palmer," says Palmer wistfully, recalling his longtime friend and agent, who died in May of 2003. "Mark and I shared a lot of wine together. I remember we would go to Turnberry [a grand coastal resort in Scotland] at a time when we could get Château Lafite for dinner for something like 16 pounds [sterling]. That was like $32 to $36. Back in New York we would have to pay $150 for it. I guess you could say that my tastes run toward the expensive wines."
You will find several of those expensive wines in Palmer's cellar. There are vintages of Château Palmer, including a 1947 given to him by McCormack to commemorate his graduation from high school. A friend gave him Château Palmer 1964, '62, '60 and '58, honoring the years of his Masters victories. There are bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Lascombes and Château Beaucastel. Though predominantly a red-wine drinker, Palmer does have a few whites, including bottles of Blain-Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet. There is a case of a Sauvignon Blanc made by fellow golfer David Frost with a Leroy Nieman painting of Palmer on the label, part of Frost's series of wines honoring legendary golfers. There is a stack of unopened boxes of Dom Pérignon.
His rugged hands take down a bottle of Château Palmer, by chance a 1964. It was the year of his last Masters victory. "You know, I really should drink some of this," he says. "It's a good thing I'm going through here. I tried to catalog this a few years ago, but it was just too much. I need to go through and get out some of these good bottles to drink."
Among his California selections are Cabernets from Far Niente, Rombauer and Robert Mondavi. There is a special bottle of 1992 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet with Palmer's Citation X jet etched into the face, and another bottle autographed to Palmer from Mondavi. In a bin is a stack of Wine Spectator magazines. "They're good reading material for the plane," says Palmer.
|Palmer's involvement in the La Quinta, Calif., restaurant that bears his name came after years of rejecting other proposals.|
Palmer got connected to California wine while playing in the Transamerica Senior Classic at the Silverado Resort in Napa during the 1980s and '90s. Wine dinners and winery visits were par for the course during the Transamerica tournament, which made it among the most popular events on the Senior Tour (now Champions Tour). It was at a tournament wine function that Palmer first met Mike Moone, who at the time was president of Beringer Winery. Beringer was owned by Nestlé, and Nestlé would also sponsor Palmer's PGA Tour event at Bay Hill for several years. In 1992, Moone, who by then had become a friend, ran the tournament for Nestlé.
In 1996 Moone started the Luna Winery in Napa with a group of investors. Three years later, Palmer asked if he too could become an investor, and Moone said he would be willing to give him a share just to have him aboard. "He asked me what the minimum was to buy in and I told him $25,000," says Moone. "He said, 'Mike, I believe I can afford $25,000.'"
Among the selection of wines Luna now produces is the Arnold Palmer Red, a blend of 50 percent Sangiovese, 40 percent Merlot and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon that retails for about $18 a bottle. Luna also produces an Arnold Palmer Pinot Grigio.
"Arnie's a devotee of fine wine without being someone who actually studies it," says Moone. "He knows his wine and he knows his way around a wine list. Wine is part of his life. It's not a big part, but he certainly does enjoy it."
The Luna Winery is not far from Marin County, where Palmer's fiancée, Kit Gauthrop, lives. When he visits Gauthrop and flies his Citation X into the Napa airport, it's easy enough to skip up to Luna to see what's going on. "He likes to taste the wine in the vats," says Moone. "He's a big supporter of the wine. I know he's been someplace like Minneapolis and seen the wine on the wine list and ordered it for himself and for others around him. I know he really loves our Merlot."
"Since I hooked up with Luna, I've had a reason to be more involved with wine," says Palmer. "I've learned something about the process and it's fun to think that you are part of something you enjoy so much. Mike is a good friend and he's going to produce a good product, because that's what he does."
Palmer's connection to the good life in California doesn't stop in Napa. He is now a partner in Arnold Palmer's Restaurant in La Quinta, right across the street from a golf course development known as the Tradition. He designed the course at the Tradition, one of more than 200 worldwide for which he has been course architect. Palmer has a longtime connection to the Palm Springs area; he was once a close friend of comedian Bob Hope. Palmer played in Hope's PGA Tour event for decades and was usually Hope's partner in the pro-am. His last PGA Tour victory came at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic.
Thousands of restaurant proposals have crossed Palmer's desk over the years, each in hopes he would attach his name. "I can't imagine how many times I was approached about restaurants," says Palmer. "But they just didn't seem like the right thing to do at the time."
Then his friend David Chapman approached him. It was Chapman who oversaw development of the Tradition and it was Chapman who had first contacted Palmer about designing the course. If there seems to be a theme here, there is. Palmer, a man of countless friends, will become involved in his friends' business ventures, if they make business sense. His unfailing warmth, graciousness and loyalty guarantee that his effort will be behind any project. If a restaurant is done correctly, to Palmer's way of thinking, then it deserves to have his name on it. The 250-seat, 8,000-square-foot restaurant opened last October.
"He is the most gracious, hospitable person there is," says Chapman. "He isn't pretentious in any way. He never lost the roots of where he grew up. He has to be one of the top 10 most recognizable people in the world, and he's been in that limelight for 50 years for virtually every day of his life. So you know if we have a restaurant with his name on it, it has to be done right and it has to be done with his input, and he's had input in every aspect of it."
That would include the menu, the wine list and the putting green. Yes, in the rear of the restaurant is a 10,000-square-foot putting green of Palmer's design, maintained to country club standards, where patrons can amuse themselves.
The wine list is heavy on California selections. Luna's Arnold Palmer Red and Arnold Palmer Pinot Grigio can be purchased by the glass for $7, by the bottle for $24. There are several Luna selections on the wine list. "I've done a lot of tasting for the wine list," says Palmer with a wry smile, "and I don't get paid for it."
Among those wines earning Arnie's approval are Cabernet Sauvignons from Silver Oak (Napa Valley 1999 and 1998 at $160), Beringer (Private Reserve 1999, $150), Caymus (2001, $135) and Joseph Phelps (2001, $99). He heartily approves of Merlots from Rombauer (2000, $60), Arrowood (1999, $75) and Duckhorn (Three Palms Vineyard 2001, $135). Pinot Noir from Gary Farrell (2001, $62) and Goldeneye (2001, $80) tickle his taste buds, and big blends like Joseph Phelps Insignia (2000, $165) and Opus One (2000, $230) are favorites.
As for the menu, Arnold Palmer's is a wide-ranging steak house with several of the golfer's personal favorites, like macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, ribs, lobster roll and deep-dish brownie with vanilla ice cream. Throughout the restaurant, there is no mistaking that you are in the land of Arnold Palmer. The four dining areas are named after the Masters, British Open, U.S. Open and the Palmer family. Many of the patrons stroll through the entire restaurant after dinner as if on a museum tour. In the winter, you may very well come across Palmer himself.
"He eats here quite a bit," says Chapman. "As you can imagine, he's his own attraction to the place. He always does such a wonderful job of handling people and I think without question they come back here because of that. The 'Arnie's Favorites' on the menu tend to be our best sellers. People think that if it's good for Arnie, then it's good for them."
It has been very good for Chapman, too. "There are very few people who ever get to go into business with their idol," he says.
On June 23, Palmer received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and attended a dinner at the White House, one of many, dating back to the Eisenhower presidency. "I've had dinner at the White House with many presidents," he says without the slightest pretension. "They would always serve a special wine, probably a French wine, and that sort of influenced my taste. If you are having wine at the White House, I think the chances are that it's going to be pretty good."
Palmer embraces a whole world in his daily life, from his golf course design to his corporate endorsements to Bay Hill Lodge to his charitable work to the sheer joy of flying his Citation X in and out of Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe. And there is always a place for wine. "I like drinking wine and I like the thought of it," he says, smiling his unforgettable smile, with a triple imperial of Merlot resting at his feet.
Jeff Williams is a longtime golf writer from New York and a regular contributor to Wine Spectator sister publication Cigar Aficionado.
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