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Wine Talk: Leonard Slatkin

Orchestra conductor finds harmony in the worlds of wine and music

Harvey Steiman
Posted: October 24, 2005

Leonard Slatkin, 60, conducts the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and serves as principal guest conductor for both the Royal Philharmonic in London and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. He grew up in a musical home in California, but he didn't discover the joys of wine until he was 35. Now that Slatkin travels the world as a guest conductor, he often takes side trips to wine regions. His wine preferences are as varied as his tastes in music; he can discuss Miles Davis and Coldplay as easily as Mahler and Corigliano, Bordeaux and Burgundy as well as Australia and Oregon.

Wine Spectator: What sparked your interest in wine?
Leonard Slatkin: Musicians have a couple of things going for them. They have great senses of humor and they share a passion, love and knowledge of good food and fine wine. Some of my learning experiences came at the hands of artists such as Sir Georg Solti, Itzhak Perlman and especially Isaac Stern. I made my debut with him in Paris in the mid-'70s. We spent almost a month together, and I do not think we ate at the same restaurant twice. He would take the time to explain something about the wines we were drinking. But what I really remember is him telling me that the aroma counted as much as the taste.

Solti just loved wine. It was a kind of childlike enthusiasm, and it was infectious. He would smack his lips after a first sip and then issue a "verrry good" when he was satisfied. Itzhak came to wine later, and the two of us will discuss the merits of a Burgundy for hours. When he is in D.C. or we are together, we frequently go shopping for wine together.

WS: As you drink it and think about it, do you relate wine to music?
LS: Music touches the heart and soul, as does wine. Much preparation goes into a composition--lots of experimenting until the composer feels that he has gotten the right combination of notes to convey what he is trying to say. This is not much different from winemaking. And of course, great music is meant to last. Some of it is not appreciated until several years after it is written. And there are certainly a lot of pieces that are one performance only and then disappear, like many wines.

WS: What are your favorite regions to visit?
LS: Australia was the biggest surprise, as I had not really had many bottles until about six years ago. Then I was asked to conduct in Sydney, and there were some dinners given at which I was truly astonished with the selections made by the hosts. I always look forward to my trips for both the music-making and the food and wine. The Loire Valley and Bordeaux were wonderful trips that my wife and I took. Napa was an early one in our relationship. I am hoping to visit Rioja in an upcoming trip to Spain.

WS: What are some of the most memorable wine experiences you've had?
LS: On a tour with the English Chamber Orchestra to Spain, the concertmaster was a Spaniard named José-Luis Garcia. This was in '85. He would take us to the most incredible restaurants. On the final day of the trip, we went to a place halfway up a mountain near Seville. We started with jamon de Jabugo, and it just got better from there. The maître d' came out with several bottles during the meal, but it was the 1968 Vega Sicilia that got me completely hooked on Spanish reds.

My friend Bill Bauman [in D.C.] has a fine wine cellar. We eat at each other's homes quite often. Bill was barbecuing some steaks and decided to bring up an 1982 Cos-d'Estournal. I forgot about the steak.

WS: Describe your wine cellar.
LS: Eclectic. Much the same as my taste in music. I have about 150 cases, ranging from Bordeaux from the 1960s to Oregon in the 2000s. Every so often, I spend some time in the cellar simply trying to sort out where everything is.

Sometimes I just cannot bring myself to open up that great bottle that has been sitting there for 20 years or so. However, I am beginning to realize that, like music, if you don't play it, it will not get heard. I suspect that some of the great growths will start to come upstairs in the very near future.

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