Bipin Desai is a physicist by profession in the USA but is perhaps the best known Indian in the world of fine wines for his legendry tastings of vintage wines dating back to over a century and attended by wine celebrities including Robert Parker. Subhash Arora interviewed him last week at the World Wine Symposium in Italy.
When Dr. Desai finished his B.Sc. in Mathematics from Mumbai University and landed in Illinois at the age of 20, he could not dream that one day he would be cellaring wines worth millions and pairing wines from the best of Bordeaux’s chateaux and Burgundy Domaines with cuisine from world-renowned chefs.
A Physicist at heart
He is a PhD in Physics and a professor at the University of California, at Riverside since 1965. The 74 year old wine connoisseur looks younger than his age-perhaps a testimonial to the top quality red wines he has been drinking for over 40 years. His profession keezps him busy with research in particle physics and dark energy. He has been busy authoring a book, ‘Quantum Mechanics, with Basic Field Theory’, to be released this month. He claims it to be the most comprehensive book on the subject, which might even be prescribed in India as a text book some day.
Bipin always wanted to be a physicist. Therefore, when he finished his Master’s degree in Mathematics from the University of Illinois in 1957, he went on to Berkeley to do his PhD in Physics, completing it in 1961. Coincidentally, this year was also a fabulous vintage for Bordeaux wines which was to add a new dimension to his life a decade later.
Change of Lifestyle
Bipin, who was vegetarian and a teetotaler when he came from India, began to enjoy wines with food a few years later when he went to Geneva in 1970. ‘I had taken a sabbatical and gone to work for CERN. A friend who was very fond of good food and wine took my wife and me to some wonderful restaurants, mostly in France since Burgundy was less than a couple of hours away. I enjoyed the experience of having wine with food. Ironically, 15 years before, I had sailed from London to New York in a French ship. Sometimes I really regret the missed opportunity of drinking wine then; I used to survive on pea soup and apple pie,’ he says.
Perhaps the ability to judge and enjoy fine wines was latent in Bipin. ‘I could tell good wine from bad wine almost from the beginning; I understood certain aspects easily. Moreover, I started to like, and continued to do so, more of French wines because of their elegance and balance. I don’t know what we were ordering when we went with my friend-probably Burgundy.’
The quest for knowledge grabbed him like it does all connoisseurs. ‘I started studying about wine on my own. I bought many books written by different authors, for instance Harry Waugh (considered to be one of the finest wine writers of the last century who championed the cause of fine wine - especially Burgundy and Bordeaux, in that order- who died in 2001) and Shoonmaker (American travel writer, wine merchant and writer, Frank Shoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine was a valuable wine resource; he died in 1976),’ he tells me.
The Definitive Change
Behind every man’s successful hobby is his supportive wife. ‘Because of my interest in wines, when my wife Blaire, who does not care much for wine except champagne, saw an advertisement in a paper in 1973 by Les Amis du Vin, the local chapter of the American wine group, that was organizing a wine tasting, she encouraged me to go for the event.’
‘That event was to change my life for ever. All the wines at the tasting were from Bordeaux and included a ‘66 Latour. The ‘61 Palmer was an incredible wine that really turned me on. Besides, 3-4 people at the event became my life long friends.’ And how much did that majestic tasting cost? I ask ; ‘I don’t remember- but I guess it was around $100 for 15 to 20 wines’, he says thinking back 36 years ago.
Bipin the Buyer
That experience brought Bipin to the next stage of evolution. ‘I started to find out where to buy such wines. Those vintages were not easy to find. But I found out I could buy them in auctions and I started bidding.’
But the mathematician and the scientist in Bipin kept him methodical and disciplined. ‘I knew what to bid on. If it went beyond a certain point I’d stop. Those days I mostly got what I wanted. In the late 70s there was a big recession in the US and prices were very cheap. I still have some of the wines in my cellar. The ‘61 Palmer which sells today for as high as $1000 was purchased by me at an auction for around $15. Of course, the prices went up that high and now are somewhat down, but they are still many time more expensive than what I had bought them for.'
‘Didn’t you have a problem getting the wines into the US, or did you leave them in the cellars in Europe where you bought them?’
‘In California you had to have an importer, so I worked with one. Connoisseur Wine Imports has now closed down. It was a retail store back then. I worked out an arrangement with them since one needed to order a full container, otherwise it was difficult. They would buy the bulk for themselves and also import a few cases in my account, for which they would charge me a nominal mark up.’ I kept on building my collection for almost 3 years,’ he tells me.
‘Concurrently I started building a cellar, first with Connoisseur. Then I brought the collection to the house. Blaire was not too happy about it, but she was very supportive and enjoyed the fact that I was pursuing my hobby seriously.’
Bipin Desai Tasting ‘83
As he got more and more wines in his cellar, Bipin started thinking of sharing them with his friends and thus started the Bipin Tastings for which he has become famous in the US and Europe.
His first such Tasting was in 1983. Between 30- 40 people came for the tasting. The average cost might have been around $1000 per person for 4 sessions, which included a complete dinner- it was a ‘61 Bordeaux dinner and each session meant around a bottle a person, which has become pretty much a standard at all such tastings.
With the increased number of tastings, the friends’ circle grew. ‘We used to do a lot of tastings. Six or seven of us would get together frequently. We would all pitch in and decide on the theme for the tasting. This was in the 80s and 90s and these tastings still continue. I have several groups of friends; it is a loose frame work. But we always taste wines with dinner- 18 pours to a bottle. With each course one may have 4-5 different wines. Sometimes we go blind too. And of course, we all express our opinion vociferously at such tastings.’
The process of tastings continued. ‘We used to taste a lot. I believed in Comprehensive tastings. In 1982 I had collected wines from 122 chateaux. We share the cost for such tastings,’ he informs me. A 1961tasting went on for 4 sessions and 3 days. ’ All the details are there on my website www.bipin.com . (Wine connoisseurs would love to visit the site and salivate , though he has not updated it for a few years as he has been busy with his book.)
When not at a wine tasting, like the ones at the World Wine Symposium where tasting of 30 or more wines from Italy, Austria and Croatia preceded each dinner with 8-10 wines, he has a glass of wine with food everyday- each bottle lasting for about 4 sittings. ‘My favourite wine is red, even though most of my diet is fish-based or vegetarian,' says Bipin, who normally organizes his legendary tastings at the Austrian celebrity chef and owner Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant Spago in Los Angeles, and has been doing so for the last several years. ‘During the early years, I became a good friend and decided to have all our tastings at Spago, whenever we do them in L.A.’ Once a year he also organizes a tasting at the Taillevent Restaurant in Paris but that is usually a vertical tasting in conjunction with a producer.
How does he manage keeping his open bottles since he does not usually share the bottle with anyone? ‘I used to have all kinds of devices to preserve wine in the open bottle. But I found putting in the fridge helped store for 3-4 days. I put the cork back on, immediately after pouring in the glass. The wine must be refrigerated and not kept in the cellar though,’ he advises.
Despite being such a well-known person ('Decanter wrote about me in 1982', he says', adding 'I cannot even remember how many people have written about me!') whose tastings have been attended by some of the top people in the wine world ('Robert Parker came to a tasting years ago when we had gone as far back as 1900 in the selection,' he reminisces), Bipin is a very modest, down to earth person, more like a college professor. He chuckles when he tells me that he is well known to even Christie’s and Sotheby for his non-traditional bidding style.
Tasting 2009- All the Nines
When is your next tasting and what is the theme? ‘This weekend, on 6-8 November. I have selected only the famous vintages ending with nine- 1929, 49, 59, 69, 79, 89, 99. We have selected 64 wines to be tasted over 3 sets: a dinner on Nov.6, lunch on Nov7 and on Sunday at Spago.’
If you want the virtual taste of wines, they include 1929- Yquem, Latour La mission Haut Blanc, Clos Vougeot (Amoux, Boyer, Faiverley), 1999 – Montrachet (DRC, Leflaive). Also included are ‘89 Petrus, ‘69 Bollinger, ‘79 Krug, ‘89 Corton Charlemagne (Jadot), ‘89 Montrachet (Jadot, Bouchard), ‘49 Cheval Blanc, ‘59 Latour, Lafite Rothschild, , ‘89 Le Pin, ‘49 Mouton Rothschild, Le Tache (DRC). These should be enough to make the true connoisseur salivate.
But how much would it cost? Bipin was reluctant to give the exact figures, but obviously if one needed to ask, one could not afford to attend. Sufficeth to say, it would be more than the cost of the’09 Nano- one each for you and your spouse.
Desai at the Davos of Wine
'What do you think of the World Wine Symposium at this beautiful hotel', I ask? ‘I think Francois Mauss, who is a good friend, has done a fantastic job. During this time of recession, to collect so many big wigs of the industry is a tremendous achievement. And the standard of the talks, the tastings and the food have been excellent. I am already excited about being here next year. I met so many of my old friends like Gil, Kapon, McCoy, Steven Spurrier, Piero Antinori, Angelo Gaja, and Sandrone; all on one platform - it is amazing.’
‘But when I came, I was most curious to find the name of an Indian in the list of participants and I told Francois Mauss that I want to meet the guy from my home country,’ he says. ‘And how did you know about me?’ he asks in a wondering tone. ‘I had heard about you from my brother-in-law, Raj Paul, in Houston some 20 years ago. He is a wine connoisseur and had read about you then; he once had a wine inventory of around a million dollars, not quite close to what you have but some of which I helped him liquidate!’ I tell him.
We promise to meet again soon, in LA, Delhi or Cernobbio. His grandfather, the Late P J Mehta was a friend of Mahatma Gandhi and Bipin would like to come to India to do some research and write a book. I cannot help telling him about the irony of the situation - Gandhi’s Gujarat is about the only Indian state where there is prohibition and where people die regularly of drinking hooch and he is living in a country where prohibition failed miserably in the 1930s, but was nevertheless exported to countries like India!