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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Jeff Zacharia

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-06-16

Jeff Zacharia may not have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. It was probably a silver wine decanter.

"In fact, you could even say that I have wine in my blood," Mr. Zacharia, president of Zachys Wine & Liquor in Scarsdale, said over lunch. "You could say that about my father as well."

His father, Don, inherited the business from his father, Zachy, who'd founded it as a small neighborhood store in 1944. Zachy Zacharia never intended to sell anything beyond liquor; it was Don Zacharia who cajoled his father into displaying wines.

Now Zachys is among the five largest wine sellers in America, and quite possibly Number One. It's certainly the biggest auctioneer of fine wines in the country, registering $26 million in sales at 7 auctions last year - not far behind the world leader, Christie's of London, which has been auctioning spirits for 300 years. Zachys will hold 8 auctions in New York and Los Angeles this year; tomorrow, its Los Angeles auction will offer 2,000 lots, or more than 1,700 cases of rare and other top quality wines.

Don Zacharia is still active in the business, although it's his son who serves as the privately held company's president, and his son-in-law, Andrew McMurray, who's the chief buyer.

"But my father has slowed down a bit - to merely 60 hours a week," Jeff Zacharia said, with a perfectly straight face.

His own schedule is considerably more intense, which prompted the reporter to ask whether he had time for any other hobby or passion.

"Wine is my hobby and passion," Mr. Zacharia said. "To do well in this business, you've got to be totally in love with wines."

He's got a lot of wines to love - more than 4,000 labels, wines made in New York, California, Chile, France's fabled Bordeaux and Burgundy regions, Italy, Australia and New Zealand. Spain, South Africa, and even China. Mr. Zacharia - who worked summers at the store during his years as a history major at Kenyon College - still prowls through the aisles every day, greeting customers and answering their queries.

"You'd be surprised how much knowledge of wines I've picked just by listening to our customers," he said.

Those customers are exceedingly loyal, more than 70,000 of them, and their number is growing now that New York State's 2,500 wine retailers are allowed to accept out-of-state orders. Mr. Zacharia says Zachys Web site is so active that his sales timetable for fine wines from places such as Bordeaux has been altered dramatically: time was when he'd travel to Bordeaux to select wines, and then offer them at his stores in September.

"Now I find that customers are ordering those wines the very same day - they are well-informed about vintages and what wines are being bought by retailers such as Zachys," Mr. Zacharia said. "I am surprised by the sheer speed of the business, how quickly the wine industry has been growing."
Americans bought 232 million cases of wine (each case typically contains 12 bottles) in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available. In 1982, the figure was 174 million cases. Wine consumption per adult in America was 1.05 gallons in 1970. By 1991, the figure had climbed to 1.89 gallons. In 2003, it was 2.68 gallons.

And what explained such growth in the popularity of wine?

"If I were to pinpoint a 'tipping point,' something that ignited growth, I would say it was the broadcast of 'The French Paradox,'" Mr. Zacharia said.

The reference was to a feature aired by CBS's "60 Minutes" on Nov. 17, 1991. In the four weeks following the telecast, red wine sales in American supermarkets surged 44%, or 2.6 million bottles, compared with the same period a year earlier. Sales of all table wines rose 11%.

In the program, correspondent Morley Safer talked with experts who argued that although Frenchmen - who have the highest per capita wine consumption in the world - ingested large quantities of fatty foods such as meat and butter, smoked a lot, and exercised little, they lived longer and suffered significantly fewer heart attacks than Americans.

The experts attributed this phenomenon to the French passion for wine, especially red wine which contains properties that reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by increasing the level of HDL (high-density lipoprotein), the so-called "good cholesterol," in the body.

Mr. Zacharia said that the nation's 77 million baby boomers - Americans born between 1946 and 1955 - embraced wine in a manner that led to the industry's explosive growth in the country. California winery sales in 2004 were estimated to have been $8.73 billion by MKF research. "That doesn't include Washington, Oregon, New York, or other wine producing states but probably represents about 90% of domestic volume," Cyril Penn, editor of Wine Business Monthly, told The New York Sun yesterday. Imports are roughly another 25 percent of the US market, Mr. Penn said.

Zachys was at the leading edge of the wine industry's growth.

"We pushed this growth by offering more and more labels of wine," Mr. Zacharia said, noting that his shop's stock included more than 300,000 bottles. In particular, Zachys helped promote Italian wines, resulting in it becoming the largest retailer of fine Italian wines in the country. They also began to acquire rare wines, including vintages that dated back to the early 19th century.

Mr. Zacharia and his father also teamed up with Christie's to hold auctions, after the state modified a law in 1994 that had banned wine auctions. They raised tens of millions of dollars together before going their own way a few years ago.

It proved to be a sound decision.

Last year's auction sales of $26 million included the most expensive wine ever sold in America, a bottle of 1847 Chateau d'Yquem. It fetched $71,675. Last year, too, Zachys sold the most expensive bottle of California ever sold, Inglenook Cabernet Savignon; it brought $24,675. And last year's auctions registered a record for the most expensive lot ever sold at an American auction, a collection of Romanee Conti wines, which brought in $211,500.

"And to think that when I graduated from college in 1983, I had wanted to be a psychiatrist," Mr. Zacharia said, with what might be called a Chardonnay smile.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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