The Collector [with video]

The Collector [with video]

Can you picture a time when our town didn’t have a wine bar on every corner? Paul Gaston can.

“When we first came [to Charlottesville],” says the emeritus UVA history professor, “we would go to a reception at the home of the chairman of the department, and the only thing served would be Bourbon and Scotch, and maybe martinis. You wouldn’t have found a bottle of wine."

Since he arrived here in 1957 to teach Southern history, Gaston’s involvement with the local Civil Rights Movement has been justly celebrated: helping to coordinate Martin Luther King’s 1963 visit; getting beaten up and arrested at a local sit-in; working to reopen the public schools during Massive Resistance; writing the 1970 classic, The New South Creed; being honored by the NAACP; and more. At 80, he is still politically active, holding fundraisers for local democrats like Al Weed (where Gaston pours generous quantities of wine). One of the most important aspects of his life, however, has yet to be documented.

Paul Gaston giving a tour of his wine cellar.

“In the early ’60s,” he says, “a student wrote a profile on me for one of the student magazines, and after it came out I remarked to the editor that his reporter didn’t have the searching curiosity that I would expect in a good reporter. He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, he never found out that one of my favorite hobbies is collecting and drinking wine.’”

“Growing up in southern Alabama,” Gaston says, “there were Scuppernong [grapes], which I plucked from my aunt’s grape arbor when I mowed the lawn. I had never had a glass of wine, red, white, rosé or any other color, until I went to college.”
In the early 1950s, newly married, Gaston traveled to Europe and fell in love with French wine. Returning stateside, he tried unsuccessfully to find those same wines in Charlottesville.

“There was no place to buy wine here. Foods of All Nations had a few wines, but there were no wine stores.”

But at Central Liquors in Washington, D.C., Gaston found some of the same wines he’d drunk in France selling for 79 cents a bottle. Thrilled, he bought several and showed them to a neighbor who knew a little bit more about wine. The neighbor handed him an article by wine writer Alexis Lichine. “It blew my mind,” Gaston said.

The expenses of raising children led Paul Gaston to stop collecting wine during the ’70s, “but then in 1983 I said, ‘Well hell, I’m only going to go around once, and I might as well start collecting again.’”

And so a wine collector was born. “Within a couple of years I had maybe 30 bottles. …I got a little bit obnoxious about the subject of wine. I used to talk to people at the table when they would come to dinner, and tell them about the wine, what the chateau was, and what its peculiarities were. I had red marks on my shin from my wife kicking me.”

Gaston’s cellar peaked at about 800 bottles; these days it’s a bit less. “I always thought it was ironic,” his daughter Chinta told me, “that someone who grew up in modest circumstances in Alabama and is such a populist would be such a wine connoisseur.” But to visit Gaston in his wine cellar is to see a man in the place where he’s perhaps most happy (“Whenever I can’t find Paul,” his wife says, “I look down in the cellar”). 

“I’ve had a lot of memorable wines,” he says, “but some stand out. I remember once when Mary was away…I cooked up a hamburger on the grill outside—it was
summertime—and onions, and maybe just a little bit of garlic, and I drank a bottle of a premier cru Volnay. I still remember the taste of that Volnay.

“I’ve drunk great wines since then…and if I was to taste any of those again I would say, ‘Oh, I know you.’”

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