WINE Best Cellar

A day in the life of Dr. Marvin Overton.

As a rule, formal wine tastings bore me. The groups are often clannish, the wines mediocre, and the conversation more abstract than that found in an OD tent at Woodstock. But just when I thought I had sworn off these tedious events, an offer came my way in February that even the most blase wine eccentric couldn’t resist. Dr. Marvin Over-ton was having another of his legendary wine feasts, and suddenly all the wine lovers in Texas were jockeying for position.

Like everyone else involved in the local wine scene, I was aware of the Fort Worth physician and his reputation for pursuing life as if he were a one-man relay race, passing the baton from one challenge to another, no finish in sight. In his 44 years, the fabled doctor has at various times been involved in writing, art collecting, carpentry, welding, and even rodeo. But his all-consuming love is wine. His passion has led him to the great vineyards on both sides of the Atlantic, where he’s made friends with various artists of the wine trade. Almost as an aside, he’s managed to remain one of our most highly.respected brain surgeons.

For years, Dr. Overton has been generously putting together, mostly from his own cellar, some of the most elaborate tastings ever conceived. The menu for this February event would cover red Burgundies, all from the most celebrated commune of the region – Vosne Romanee – starting with 1972 and retracing all the great years back to 1923. Many of the wines were collector’s items, never to be savored again.

Arriving uncustomarily early, my companions and I were greeted by Dr. Over-ton at the door of his home (circa 1910), which he has almost single-handedly restored. Any preconceived image of a snooty rich doctor who collects wine for the sake of flamboyance was dispelled upon first meeting. Tall and broad-shouldered, with tousled hair and a ready smile, he looked as if he could have just stepped out of one of the western paintings that decorates his walls. His engaging country-boy air reflects his beginnings in Pampa, Texas, a Panhandle town with no pretensions.

After brief introductions, Overton led us down to his wine cellar. As we walked in, I felt as if I were entering King Tut’s tomb. The cellar (which he designed, stocks, and manages himself) was as large as my apartment, divided into four rooms with a different temperature for each. The array of bottles was staggering. There was no way to estimate the total number of wines, but the room for Ports and Madeiras alone held nearly a thousand occupants, including a case of 1931 Quinta do Noval (said to be the finest Port of this century) and other rarities dating back to the 1830’s. The largest room showcased an awesome collection of red Bordeaux, bigger than any wine shop I’ve ever seen. In a special section was a chronological “library” of the greatest names of all: Chateaux Lafite- and Mouton-Rothschild, Latour, d’Yquem, beginning with recent vintages and counting back to the legends of the 1800’s. In another room, every major commune in Burgundy is represented in great depth. Where else could you find yourself tripping over a case of 1970 Montrachet from the Do-maine de la Romanée-Conti? As I passed the California section, I noticed his Stony Hill Chardonnay, which he gets direct from the winery (it’s unavailable to the public). In the Germans, a 1953 Stein-berger Trockenbeerenauslese was only one of many treasures. The champagne room contained older vintages of Dom Perignon and Salon Le Mesnil (his favorite), plus a supply of 1969 Bollinger R. D. Vieilles Vignes. The latter is a very limited bottling made from some of the last existing vines not devasted by the phylloxera plague that razed European vineyards in the 1880’s. This, like many of his pearls, can only be obtained at auctions or through private sources. As he guided us through the vault, Dr. Overton was quick to point out, “This is an active cellar, not a museum. I don’t collect wines, I buy them to drink with friends. We’re having 40 people over today to taste 33 Burgundies.” Then, with a modest grin, he added, “I like to share.”

By noon, most of the guests had arrived and the event was under way. Chosen to emcee was Dallas wine merchant Victor Wdowiak, who gave colorful commentary as Dr. Overton poured. It was inspiring to watch these two old friends orchestrate the succession of vintages. We participants, mostly merchants and long-time friends of the host, had to pace ourselves because of the enormous number of wines being discussed and drunk (most tastings feature five to seven choices). After six hours of relishing such classics as ’59 Richebourg, ’49 Romanee-St-Vivant, and a ’29 Vosne-Romanee from the famous Dr. Barolet collection, the consensus was that Burgundy has not been the same since vinification methods changed in the late 1950’s. The new style of wine is lighter and matures more quickly, but shows little of the glory that made Burgundy the original “iron fist in a velvet glove.” No one was complaining, though, and after much applause and appreciation, the guests – a happy throng with purple teeth – left to confront the groggy highway home.

As the crowd thinned out, I reminded the doctor about our interview. His reply was true to form: “Hell, let’s don’t just sit and talk. Why don’t you and your friends stay for dinner?” And, with a wink, “Maybe drink a little wine?” Despite the afternoon’s workout, we accepted. “Fine,” he said, “start thinking about your favorite Bordeaux.” That last statement shocked me. I felt like Elizabeth Taylor being asked to pick her favorite pastry.

We ventured back to the cellar where, after wistfully bypassing such gems as 1953 Chateau Petrus and 1949 Cheval Blanc, we decided upon Chateau Cos d’Estournel, a Second Growth of St. Estephe. “Great choice,” he said, immediately grabbing a ’53, a ’55, and a ’61, all classic vintages. “Marvin, what are you doing?” one of his friends gasped in amazement. “Hell, this is nothing,” he jovially replied. “Now, let’s get serious.” He bounded back to the rack and pulled out a magnum of Chateau Latour 1959, a legendary wine. Tossing the decanted bottles into a brown paper sack, the energetic doctor herded us into his car. The destination was the Old Swiss House, where Overton is a frequent and welcome patron.

As we ate and drank, the doctor and I proceeded with the interview, apparently a first for both of us. Dr. Overton modestly skipped over his accomplishments as a neurosurgeon, preferring to concentrate on his experiences with wine.



Spurr: The predictable question: How did it all begin?

Overton: Yes, everyone asks that. My family – many of whom are also physicians, by the way – knew the Estradas [one of the founders of the Texas liquor industry] in Galveston pretty well. At that time – the late Fifties – they and Tony LaBarba were about the only ones bringing fine wines into Texas. When 1 was down there for med school, 1 had an opportunity to get interested. Later, when I was in the Air Force, I was stationed near the Napa Valley, and that’s when I really started buying it and appreciating it.

Spurr: When did you start collecting for a cellar?

Overton: I bought some ’61 Lafite for $15 a bottle when it first came out. I drank it all – too soon – and when I tried to replace it, the damn stuff had gone up to $50 a bottle.

Spurr: Tell me about your friends in the wine business. Who do you see in Europe?

Overton: I try to visit Europe once a year, and it’s tough to decide who to see. Burgundy has the best food, but the people there are just in the trade, shippers and all. Very few real craftsmen left, and it’s reflected in the wine. Bordeaux is more organized because the estates are under one management. You take someone like Baron Eric de Rothschild. He’s an aristocrat, but if you show respect for his craft, he’ll treat you like a king. The same goes for most of the chateau owners. When we go to Bordeaux, we can stay at Chateau Latour or spend the day with the Marquis Lur-Saluces at Chateau d’Yquem. When they come to Texas, they stay with me. We just share a common interest .

Spurr: Your feelings on the wine situation today?

Overton: Burgundy is pricing itself off the market. The stuff isn’t worth it anymore. Those wines we had today – you’ll never see anything like that again. That’s why I’m glad you young guys could be there and taste those old wines just once in your life. We may never have another chance.

Spurr: Bordeaux?

Overton: Bordeaux’s in trouble, too, but at least they’re still making great wines in the traditional way. The prices on the new wines may kill them, though. Hell, a case of ’75 Lafite may be $250 one day and $400 the next. When you figure the cost of cellaring it over a long period of time – the air conditioning and everything, just so you can drink it when it’s ready – it’s not worth it.

Spurr: What are some of your favorite wines?

Overton: Latour is my favorite; I’ll never forget the 1926. That ’49 Romanee-St-Vivant we had today is another. So is ’62 La Tache. As you can tell, I am mostly interested in French wines. After a while, you just settle on what you like. I still drink a lot of California wines and Germans, too, though. And, of course, I love Port.

Spurr: What do you have planned in the way of special tastings?

Overton: I’m setting up a Lafite tasting that will include every great vintage back to 1799, which nobody alive today has ever tasted. Baron Eric is hand-carrying some of the rare bottles on the Concorde. Unfortunately, only about 18 people can come because there’s only so much wine to go around. It’ll be an international event.

Throughout the experience, our host never flagged or showed signs of having tasted 37 wines in one day. As we were leaving his home, blearily groping for an appropriate show of thanks, Dr. Overton said, “If you don’t feel like driving, you’re welcome to stay. We’ll build a fire and maybe drink some vintage Port.” The offer was tempting, but after the day’s indulgence, we were forced to decline. The gesture was a fitting end to a day with a true Renaissance man, Texas-style.



while we’re on the subject of rare wines, the 11th Annual Heublein Wine Auction – to be held in Chicago this year – will sponsor public preview tastings in five US cities, including Dallas. Last year’s auction featured a record price for a single bottle: $18,000 for a jeroboam of Ch. Lafite 1864. The Dallas tasting will be held at the Reunion Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency on April 26. Your ticket is the auction catalog, which can be purchased by sending $15 to Heublein Inc., POB 505, Farmington, CT 06032.

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