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A California Vintner Fights to Cure Alzheimer’s Disease

Laetitia's Selim Zilkha has a passion for Pinot Noir and for making a difference
The Arroyo Grande Valley is home to Laetitia's Pinot Noir vineyards.
Photo by: Courtesy of Laetitia
The Arroyo Grande Valley is home to Laetitia's Pinot Noir vineyards.

Posted: Jul 18, 2016 4:20pm ET

"I'm the oldest man you've ever met," says Selim Zilkha. Not exactly, but he's up there.

He just turned 89 and is eager to talk about his winery, Laetitia, and what he hopes will be his legacy, curing Alzheimer's disease.

"I don't have much time," he says of finding a cure. Zilkha owns this modest winery on the California coast near San Luis Obispo, in the Arroyo Grande. It's a magical site on Highway 1, graced with a shimmering view of the Pacific, a short jog away. Laetitia is about as close as one can get to farming grapes on the beach.

The winery, acquired by Zilkha in 2001, is the former home of Maison Deutz, built by the esteemed Champagne house in the 1980s amid a boom in European firms putting down roots in California. Deutz succeeded with a distinctive style of sparkling wine, but the category didn't take hold the way many of the European transplants had hoped it would, and many like Deutz retooled to table wine.

Laetitia still makes a classy sparkling brut rosé; the 2013 (90 points, $30) is refreshingly vibrant with hints of watermelon and apricot. Under Zilkha's ownership and the direction of winemaker Eric Hickey, the winery has spun around nicely. It's the Pinot Noir that has Zilkha and Hickey excited. Of late, the wine they've been focusing on, Pinot Noir, is making steady gains. 

As a vintner, Zilkha is a late bloomer. But as a worldy entrepreneur he's in rarefied air, and has made a huge personal and financial commitment to finding a cure to Alzheimer's disease, which both his mother and sister battled. "We're all living longer and more likely to get it," he says. "Two-thirds of Alzheimer's victims are women," he says.

At this point in life Zilkha has more money than time. When you're 89, you don't take the next day for granted.

Zilkha was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1927, and lived in Lebanon and Egypt before his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1941. He graduated with a BA from Williams College and served in the U.S. Army before going into his family's finance business. He later cofounded the successful Mothercare retail chain while living in England. He moved back to the United States where he founded Zilkha Energy Company, an oil-and-gas exploration company, along with Zilkha Renewable Energy Co., a large wind-power developer. In 1998, he sold his share of Towner Petroleum, which he'd invested $28 million in in 1982, for $1 billion.

In 2002 he donated $20 million to complete the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California. Its students and faculty are committed to unraveling the causes of neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, schizophrenia, autism, Down syndrome and other disorders.

Zilkha's principal business today is Zilkha Biomass Energy, which markets a coal alternative. He also has a farming project in the Yucatan growing Jatropha for biodiesel. It was that passion for farming and sustainability that led him to acquire Laetitia. Zilkha also owns the Nadia wine brand, which focuses on Rhône and Bordeaux varieties in Santa Barbara County. 

While he loves wine, most of his energy today is devoted to raising funds for Alzheimer's research and the institute. Wine, he says, is much easier.

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