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Wine Talk: Itzhak Perlman

Legendary violinist's finely tuned senses extend to a passion—and taste—for wine

Harvey Steiman
Posted: February 10, 2006

Violinist Itzhak Perlman, 60, painstakingly makes his way to center stage on crutches (the result of a childhood bout with polio), but after he takes his seat and picks up his Stradivarius, he produces some of the most gorgeous sounds ever to come out of a stringed instrument. His recordings have won 15 Grammy awards, his television appearances four Emmys and his solo playing enriched the John Williams' Oscar-winning score for the film Schindler's List. Born in Israel, Perlman now lives in New York, where he is chair of violin studies at Julliard, and travels around the world to play concerts with orchestras and chamber ensembles. Recently he has taken up the conductor's baton as principal guest conductor of the Detroit Symphony. He also admits to a recently acquired fascination with wine. In the early 1990s, he started seriously buying wine, which he stores in the basement of his apartment building, and his delight in it is almost as palpable as his joy in making music.

Wine Spectator: How much wine do you have?
Itzhak Perlman: It's only about 800 bottles, but it's all high-grade stuff. I can take the elevator down to the basement in my [electric] scooter, go in the wine room and look to the left at my Bordeaux and Italian wines and to the right for the Burgundy and the California wines.

WS: What sparked your interest in wine?
IP: We were going to a party, and we knew the host liked good wine. I went to the wine shop, and you know how they start talking. "I got Lafite 1982 for $100," and, "Oh yeah, I got Lynch-Bages 1982 for $40." My motto was, "You just drink 'em," but I saw that these guys were really passionate about it. So I bought the Lafite '82 for the dinner party. I didn't like it. It was too dry. But then I became friendly with the people in a couple of wine stores. I started to read, and pretty soon I started to enjoy it, to agree and disagree. I am never short of opinions.

WS: What shaped your taste in wine?
IP: I became friendly with one gentleman who lives in Washington, D.C. He would go any place just to eat and drink good wine. We were at dinner and he said, "Here, try this," and it was amazing. It was a rare Burgundy, I forget which one now, but I loved it. I asked him where I could buy some. He said, "That's the challenge. You can't get it, this thing is so rare." That got me going. It introduced another idea into wine appreciation: the pleasure of the chase. It's like fishing. It's not just about catching the fish. It's buying the rod and the reel and the tackle, getting the line tangled and untangled and, most of all, talking about it.

WS: Do you ever think about wine and music?
IP: I do think about food and wine when I hear music. When I teach or conduct, the first thing I compare the sound with is food. I say, "That sounded like yogurt, but I want ice cream," and they get it. Or I'll say to the orchestra, "That's molasses, but I want honey." I am afraid to use wine analogies because a lot of the young people I work with wouldn't get it. [And] I think about sound when I taste wine. What I find fascinating is how a wine feels, even more than how it tastes. If it feels rich, it's like a warm, enveloping tone. If it feels like water, it's like a cool, pure sound.

WS: What kind of wines do you like best?
IP: To this day, my real love is Burgundy. I have two vivid memories of wines that showed me what a great thing this is. One was a 1964 Richebourg from DRC [Domaine de la Romanée-Conti]. I couldn't believe it. The color was almost rosé, but the flavors were so deep and delicious. I started to buy every great Burgundy I could get my hands on. One of the greatest I ever had was a Bonnes Mares 1969 from Clair-Dau. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it. The other was a 1959 Château d'Yquem. I didn't know what it was, but when a friend saw that I liked a sweet wine he had served, he said, "Wait till you have Yquem." On the recommendation of the guy in the store, I got a couple of bottles of '59 for a Friday night dinner. That really opened my eyes to what a sweet wine can be. [And] for my 60th birthday last summer, my wife organized a dinner. We started out with a Clos Vougeot 1999 from J.-J. Confuron, just for a warm-up. Then we had DRC Richebourg 1990 and a Mouton 1953. I don't remember what we ate, but the wines were amazing, especially the Burgundies.

WS: Have you ever been to Burgundy?
IP: I haven't been to any place in France, except for Château d'Yquem. I met [Count Alexandre de] Lur Saluces when he came to New York to introduce the 1988 vintage. A few years later, when I was playing a concert in Bordeaux, I contacted him, and he invited me to the château for dinner. He was fascinated with the varnish on my violin. He said it looked just like a 1921 Yquem, and then he pulled out a bottle to show me. We didn't drink it, though.

WS: What did you drink?
IP: He poured the '45 for dessert. When people who have great wines hear that my birth year is 1945, their eyes light up. They love to drink that vintage, especially Bordeaux, and even though I am a Burgundy man, so do I. I have had all the classics. I think my favorite is Lafite. It's so refined and perfect. But I have to say, my favorite Bordeaux is 1947 Cheval-Blanc. I have a friend in New York who has shared nine bottles with me. That's a good friend.

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