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THE COLLECTORS : Bipin Desai: All the World's a Tasting

July 14, 1994|DAN BERGER

One might assume that particle physicists talk about nothing but quarks and bosons and such. But Bipin Desai, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of California Riverside, got a surprise when he visited a nuclear research center on the French-Swiss border in 1965.

"I was a vegetarian and a teetotaler," says Desai between sips of an old Vouvray at Mario's, his favorite Riverside Italian spot, "and all the particle physicists talked about was wine and food."

This happened when Desai was in his late 20s. He was the youngest of five children of a wealthy Bombay family, and to that point, he had never had a sip of wine.

Later on that trip, dining with a close friend, Desai and his wife, Blaire, ventured into foreign gastronomic territory: meat and red wine. "And what I found out was, I liked it," he says.

Desai immediately bought a copy of "Harry Waugh's Wine Diary," written by the director of Chateau Latour. He read about the greatness of the 1961 Bordeaux.

"I'm a very passionate person about certain subjects," says Desai, who's also a fan of movies and jazz, "so I decided to buy some of the 1961s. Obviously, I bypassed all the cheaper wines."

While seeking out wines from a great vintage from great chateaux, he bumped into Ed Lazarus, then a young Los Angeles wine collector. They became friends, trading stories of fine wines tasted.

A wine tasting staged around that time by Dr. Robert Borrelli, a professor at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, prompted Desai to join Les Amis Du Vin, a national wine society that stages tastings.

"My wife encouraged me to join," he says. "She said that tasting the wines before we buy them was pivotal, and she was right."

By 1980, Desai was building a large collection of rare old wines, though it was an increasing strain on his budget. He came from a wealthy family of Indian diamond merchants, but the wine lifestyle he wished to pursue was still beyond his means.

Then, in 1982, he hit on an idea that he admits was audacious, but which turned him into a front-rank wine collector. He wrote to some of the world's top wine professionals, including the esteemed Waugh, and announced he was going to stage a massive, three-day tasting of 131 Bordeaux from the 1961 vintage at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

The event not only sold out but generated tremendous publicity. Instantly Desai saw that by staging such tastings, he would gain the gratitude of wine collectors who don't have many wines and become a conduit for French producers who wished to stage such publicity-generating events in Los Angeles.

Over the years, using his own collection as a base, Desai has staged 35 such extravaganzas at such restaurants as Valentino, Citrus, Spago, Patina, Yujean Kang, Opus and a dozen other wine-oriented restaurants. Desai says even with ticket prices ranging from $100 to $2,000, these events are not very profitable, but they rarely lose money either because the price is calculated to cover the cost of the wines.

Early in the game, Los Angeles attorney Manny Klausner and his wife, Willette, who are prominent in food and wine circles, recommended that Desai do the tastings in the context of a fine meal, rather than as a traditional cheese-and-cracker wine tasting. Desai usually reserves the restaurant for lunch on a Saturday or Sunday and has the chef prepare a set menu, the price of which is included in the tasting. "I'd love to do dinners," he says, "but when you do lunch you can get the entire restaurant."

Desai says staging a tasting doesn't take much time. He simply comes up with an idea (such as multiple vintages of Chateau Pichon-Longueville) from the wines he and his friends have in their cellars and writes to the chateau to see whether it will participate. (Few say no, and most contribute wines not already in his cellar.)

Today, his wine is stored in temperature-controlled public facilities in Riverside. Surprisingly, the inventory list is not computerized. It is kept in a wire-bound booklet in which Desai writes additions and corrections.

Unlike many collectors, Desai has scarcely any full cases of wine, let alone multiple cases. The inventory list shows three bottles of this, four of that. There aren't many giant-sized bottles, either.

Some years ago, Desai obtained an import license so he could more easily get certain rare wines, some of which he makes available to restaurants and a small coterie of collector friends. He also stages small, private dinner/tastings for groups of younger collectors as well.

Over the years, Desai has participated in private tastings of the tiny Order of the Purple Palate, a private group of local collectors who gather occasionally to pour fine wines for each other.

Theoretical particle physics still occupies the bulk of Desai's time (he has just published a significant scientific paper on black hole analysis), but a much more earthly subject is gaining him a greater share of headlines.

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