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Wine-lover's legacy is a quest for pure enjoyment

| Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Dr. Tom Allen with a bottle of Chateau de Leoville las Cases bordeaux in the wine cellar of his home in Oakland. Photographed July 7, 2009 Aimee Obidzinski

This past weekend, family and friends paid tribute to Dr. Tom Allen who passed away earlier this year at age 93. All the speakers marveled at Tom's healthy, active and engaged life that included moderate daily wine drinking.

Yet, growing up a coal miner's son on a West Deer farm brought plenty of vigorous exercise, but nary a drop of wine or any other alcohol. As Tom noted a few years ago, he did not drink alcoholic beverages until joining the military in 1945 after medical school.

While stationed in Texas, he first tasted beer to avoid drinking the water. Then Tom's world changed with reassignment to Europe. Playing football for his military unit's team, he visited Paris for the first time. He tasted Champagne after winning the game and saw the proverbial stars.

Returning to the United States, Tom settled his young family in Oakmont while setting up a successful obstetrics and gynecology practice during the post-war baby boom. Tom's colleagues estimate that over the course of his long career, he delivered approximately 14,000 children.

As a busy young doctor, modest wines accompanied his dinner. He remembered drinking “not too bad” Gallo wines.

“We thought the proper amount of aging for wine was the time it took to bring the bottle home from the state store,” he said.

In 1953, during a trip to Washington, D.C., Tom met a mentor — wine merchant Spencer Diamond. Through many tastings, Tom became firmly hooked on red Bordeaux wines. So much so that he started buying futures on Bordeaux's famous cabernet sauvignon- and merlot-based wines.

“The wines were so darn inexpensive ranging from $2.50 for good basic bottles,” he said.

Those bottles served as the foundation for Tom's legendary, eclectic wine cellar that, over the decades, provided many a fabulous bottle for wine tastings, private dinners and charity auctions.

In 1970, he even bought top wines such as Château Margaux and Château Cheval Blanc in large imperials, the equivalent of more than eight standard bottles. But Château Léoville-Las Cases from St. Julien remained his favorite as a wine with consistent full-bodied ripeness. Château Montrose from St. Estèphe and Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste from Pauillac rated as good wines for the price.

Patience, he believed, is an essential virtue with wines.

“When the wines go into a dumb stage, you have to wait for them to wake up,” he advised. He kept wines in pristine condition in his famously cold cellar — sometimes for decades — until just the right moment for enjoyment.

More recently, Tom began appreciating wines from France's Rhône region — Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage, in particular — and Burgundy, as well.

Visiting those regions and Paris with Tom provided a real treat. Well into his 80s, Tom knew Paris streets and subway connections practically like a native. If our little groups became disoriented, Tom would firmly say, “This way.” And, eventually, we found our way.

One memorable April afternoon, Tom and several of our group settled in at a sidewalk café just down from the Odéon Theater on Paris' Left Bank. We ate simply — Croque Monsieur sandwiches, salads, frites — and drank simple wines by the carafe as well as Leffe beer.

We wiled away the lazy afternoon as servers changed shifts and the sun slowly set. Imagining a more relaxing afternoon with more genial company would be difficult.

But that was Tom Allen. He believed in sharing wine generously and drinking it for pleasure with kindred spirits and with good food. He offered simple but enduring wisdom.

“A couple of glasses of wine with dinner each day will do you more good than harm,” he said. “And if you want a really good night's sleep, then go ahead with a third glass.”

In Tom's honor, try the 2009 Les Fiefs de Lagrange Saint-Julien, France (Luxury 36572; $35.99). This “second” wine from the respected Château Lagrange makes for delicious early drinking.

A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot grown on gravelly soils, the wine's subtle cassis and leather aromas open to ripe currant and mint flavors. Understated French oak notes lead to fresh acidity and smooth tannins. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone is a wine writer for Trib Total media. He can be reached at ddesimone@tribweb.com.

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