Magazine Feature / People

Professor spills thoughts on passion for the vine

Victor Castellani should have never been a wine lover.

When he was just 12 growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., he remembers sitting with his mother at the dinner table (she was told to drink a glass of red wine with supper for her health) and she offered him a sip.

“It was terrible,” says Castellani, associate professor of classics and humanities in DU’s Department of Languages and Literatures.

And that was the end of wine for him. Well, for about four years.

That’s when he was at another dinner table — at a friend’s house, an Italian family.

“It tasted amazingly well with his mother’s wonderful cooking,” he says. “That’s when I began to read about — and adventure in — the wide, wide world of wines.”

And by the time he turned 18 (legal age in 1965) he had sampled several Italian wines.

That second sip made all the difference. He was consumed by it, some might say. And it wasn’t just the taste.

“It is wine’s individuality as a source of sensory joy to sight [and] smell.”

He says wine is best when it’s “consumed with the right companions … others … who are also drinking for pleasure, not to get high — and the right foods, carefully chosen to complement the wines.”

And note the plural. “No wine can ever be so enjoyable alone as it would be with another comparable one on the same table,” he says. “And a very good wine deserves very good food, but often simple is best, especially with a subtle mature red; with spicy or savory sauces or coatings to the food a plainer wine, or a younger one, loses less.”

As Castellani began to enjoy the finer aspects of wine’s look, smell and taste, he also grew an interest in the wines’ birthplaces and started visiting wine makers in Germany — even before he visited California.

“I got an extra delight from wines made in towns where I had stayed, from steep and scenic vineyards where I had stood, by people I had visited in their language, in cellars I had smelled,” he explains.

And maps. He loves wine maps. “My favorite wine books are atlases. And pictures are nice reminders of such indelible experiences. But tasting a wine from them is better.”

His favorite wine of all time? A white that comes from southwestern Germany called “Abtsberg” or “Abbot’s Hill.”

“Very accessible, drinking well young, any recent vintage, or quite old.”

But he adds that the “greatest wine” he ever had was the 1945 pure pinot noir named La Tâche, which he savored with his best friends in late 1971— the year he earned his doctorate from Princeton University.

“It was expensive for me at the time, $62.50 I think it cost. Today it would run well over 10 times that price.”

Castellani recently returned from Germany where he attended a series of prestigious wine auctions (as an observer, not a bidder — too expensive, he says).

He saw Sideways (the popular 2004 movie about two friends scouring California vineyards for good wine) and says he enjoyed it and that it encouraged wine-makers in the great pinot noir districts of Santa Barbara County “to aspire ever higher.”

So what does this great lover of wine say the public should understand about wine?

Castellani thinks for a second, and responds: “That wine is fun and delicious.”

The Denver International Wine Festival will be held at the University of Denver Nov. 1-4.

Read about a wine enrichment course.


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