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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Don Zacharia

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-09-15

Don Zacharia is a novelist in vintner's clothing.

"I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember," the CEO of Zachys, the Scarsdale-based wine retailer, said. "One of my proudest moments was at the auction."

His reference wasn't to the wine auction that Zachys holds at the fabled French restaurant, Daniel, in Manhattan every fall (the latest one starts today). Nor was he referring to his annual spring auction in California.
Mr. Zacharia would have been quite justified had he been referring to those auctions. That's because, with sales of more than $26 million last year, Zachys - which was founded by Mr. Zacharia's father, Zachy, in 1944 - has become the world's biggest wine auctioneer, surpassing the 300-year-old Christie's of London.

Rather, his reference was to a benefit auction for The Kenyon Review, the noted literary journal, which published the first of his dozens of short stories, "My Legacy."

Mr. Zacharia had donated the original manuscript to the magazine in the hope that perhaps his own celebrity as a vintner would fetch a handful of dollars for it. He hadn't reckoned with Marvin Shanken, publisher of The Wine Spectator, perhaps the most influential magazine of its kind in the world.

Mr. Shanken kept raising the bid. He finally obtained Mr. Zacharia's manuscript for $12,000.

"Marvin was the only bidder," Mr. Zacharia said. "He kept bidding against himself. I guess he was trying to make a contribution to The Kenyon Review through that process."

Mr. Shanken was most likely also demonstrating publicly his affection and regard for Mr. Zacharia, who elicits such sentiments from thousands of friends and fans in America and beyond.

Those sentiments are spawned not only because of Mr. Zacharia's ebullient personality, his staccato-spray jokes, the unfailing good humor, and a generally avuncular manner. They are directed at him not only because, at 74, he is still a hands-on executive at the company that he bought from his father in 1961 and transformed it from a $200,000-a-year business into one that has sales of more than $50 million annually, making it America's leading independent wine merchant.

"If people have regard for me, I suspect it's because I have always believed that the customer is king," Mr. Zacharia said. "Or queen. For me, every potential customer is a potential friend. Where does it say that a business should be run mechanically, that it shouldn't show heart?"

That he has heart was evident during lunch, when at least a dozen other diners stopped by to greet him. They included titans of industry. They included celebrities.

They also included his longtime rival, Michael Aaron, who runs Sherry-Lehmann, the storied shop on Madison Avenue. As a young man, Mr. Zacharia would press his nose against the glass display windows of Mr. Aaron's crowded shop and wonder, "How does this guy do it?"

Virtually everyone recited a quick anecdote or two about the personal interest that Mr. Zacharia's takes in meeting every customer's wishes.

The most endearing anecdotes, of course, came from Mr. Zacharia himself - but they weren't self-promotional ones about his management style. They were about his own sometimes quirky behavior.

One afternoon, for example, one of his employees managed to break a magnum of Chateau Petrus, a Bordeaux red wine that can fetch more than $10,000 a bottle. Ever quick on his feet, Mr. Zacharia opened up a large bottle of Zachys house wine - price: about $5 - emptied its content into a sink, rinsed the bottle and poured what was left of the 1975 Chateau Petrus into it through a filter. He then recorked the bottle by using a vacuum device.

That evening he and his wife Christina headed toward the Long Island resort of Sagaponack, where they own a 200-year-old house. Before leaving, Mr. Zacharia stored the bottle in his Scarsdale basement, where the temperature is always maintained at 52 degrees Fahrenheit, ideal for long-term wine storage.

Some years later, the Zacharias had invited friends to dinner at their main home in Scarsdale. They asked for Zachys house wine, and Mr. Zacharia went down to his basement and retrieved the first bottle he saw. It happened to be the one containing the Chateau Petrus, although he had forgotten about how the vintage wine came to occupy a bottle with the Zachys label.

The next morning, one of his guests called Mr. Zacharia and said, "You know, that wine you served last night - it was the best house wine I've ever had."

That was when Mr. Zacharia realized that his guests had consumed Chateau Petrus, a wine so exquisite that only 3,000 cases are produced each year.

And how did he react to his realization about what had happened?

"I laughed," Mr. Zacharia said. "I like to laugh a lot."

He also likes to make others laugh along. His columns in his house newsletter, Zachys Gazette, are seldom about wines and their provenance. Nor are they about his prescience concerning the explosion of wine consumption in America during the last decade, or the solid reputation that makes banks eager to extend credit to Zachys, or his canny use of advertising, or the vast global network of customers who became friends.

The columns are mostly about his wide travels, about the people he meets, about his cultural observations. They are about idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, often his own. They are never deprecatory.

"I have come to understand that all of us, no matter in which country we live, share a common neighborhood - earth," Mr. Zacharia said.

And how does this insight relate to the world of wines?

"Having a bottle of wine by riverside in America, or France, or anywhere else, makes it a good experience - no matter what the wine is," Mr. Zacharia said. "Wine isn't just about provenance and taste. It's really about the experience."

His own life has been packed with such experiences - packed enough that Mr. Zacharia is about to start writing a novel. It will not be his maiden effort as a novelist. His first book, "The Magic Trick," was published in the early 1980s, and received nice notices. The novel is still in print.

Was he surprised that the book was received well?

"Very surprised," Mr. Zacharia said. "But not as surprised at how explosive the wine business has been. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we are where we are now."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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