“You know, I’m going to be 85 next month.” I shot Charles Sleicher an astonished look. Surprisedly and with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “Wait, no, I’m going to be 95 next month!” This is the Charles I know–the man that thinks he’s younger than he is. What keeps a 95-year old man so young? Curiosity and inquisitiveness are key.
Curiosity Pulls a Life Forward
I met Charles more than 20 years ago at a local framing shop. His wildlife photography from travels in East Africa, Ecuador, the United States, and beyond was being showcased to a wine sipping, hors d’oeuvre eating crowd.
The next time I crossed paths with Charles, he was carrying a piping hot homemade pie to our block’s Neighbors Night Out potluck and picnic. It was brimming with freshly picked peaches from his backyard tree. I was pleased and intrigued to learn that Charles lived at the opposite end of my block. He left with an empty pie plate. His pie was that good.
Each year at the block party, I learned more about Charles. He had a long and distinguished career as a University of Washington chemical engineering professor including a stint as the department head. In the early 1970’s, Charles his wife and two children spent a year-long research sabbatical in Nairobi, Kenya beginning his love of East Africa. Every weekend his family clambered into the car to explore and photograph the Serengeti Plains stretching across southwest Kenya into north-central Tanzania. The Plains are miles upon miles of swaying grasses punctuated with knobby hills and meandering waterways nourishing over two million wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles in their annual migration. Lions, elephants, leopards, cheetahs, baboons, warthogs, hippos, plenty of lesser-known animals, and more than 500 different bird species inhabit the vibrant, pulsating Serengeti ecosystem.
Five years after meeting, I spearheaded, with Charles as an active accomplice, the Washington Voter Registration Project, an all-volunteer, passion-driven effort to register voters after our country’s disastrous foray into the Iraq War. Over the year prior to the 2004 election, a small core of stalwart individuals eventually blossomed into 80 volunteers registering over 2,000 voters in the Puget Sound region. We targeted movie lines, festivals, food bank patrons, and any place we thought progressive, potential voters could be found. The list serve, the precursor to today’s social media, was our platform to coordinate volunteers, locales, and dates. Communicating via the list serve, Charles spent many days finding a willing partner to join him to sign up unregistered voters.
Charles’ house became command central for our monthly organizational meetings, too. Unbeknownst to him, imagine his elation when a roomful of volunteers surprised him with a candle-laden birthday cake on his 80th birthday!
Ten years ago Charles moved from the neighborhood to a vibrant downtown senior living community. Since moving into his new abode, continuing to be led by his curiosity and zest for life, Charles has organized multiple 12-passenger, 12-day Tanzanian safaris exploring the wildlife ecosystems in three of Tanzania’s national parks and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. I’ve joined the nonagenarian Charles on two trips! Before signing up for the trip, he exclaimed, “I make the safari lodge accommodation reservations based on the quality of the food and wine.” Not surprisingly, each lodge has steller cuisine satisfying the discerning palate. Waking up before dawn, traversing the Serengeti to search for the elusive leopard, and sharing good food and wine together after a day’s excursion is an opportune time to learn more about one’s fellow travelers. Three-quarters of Charles’ long and interesting life was before I knew him! Of course, new stories were revealed.
Why Drink Good Wine?
Sipping wine at his photography show or picking the best South African wine for dinner on a Tanzanian safari dinner is quintessential Charles. As photography occupies his retirement, winemaking absorbed his mid-life passion. More than that, Charles is an entrepreneur, too! He is creative, imaginative, and has a thirst to thrive!
I sat down with Charles over coffee to learn his winemaking story and Associated Vintners, Washington State’s first, fine wine incorporated winery. (Perhaps we should have been drinking wine rather than coffee, but it was 10 a.m.)
In 1950, when Charles was in graduate school at MIT, he garnered an internship at the French Petroleum Institute. As is the French way, his fellow workmates always drank a glass of wine with their leisurely lunch. Charles was intrigued and happily joined them in the lunchtime wine ritual.
Returning stateside to complete a PhD at the University of Michigan, he continued the good food and wine practice. Every Wednesday evening he prepared a gourmet meal paired with wine for fellow grad students. Finding locally grown and produced wine was a bit challenging in Michigan, but was accomplished. Charles asked one of the two Michigan vintners, “What is the difference between your Chablis and Riesling?”
Charles knew better wine! Blessed with a $600 G.I. World War II insurance payment and a developing wine palate, he and his grad school buddies pooled their money to purchase $1,800 of wine. The cache included reds and whites mostly from the Continent, a few Californian bottles, and a 1945 Chateau Margaux at a whopping cost of $7, expensive by 1950 standards. Because it was illegal to sell wine across state or national borders without excessive fees and a special license, a road trip ensued from Michigan through Canada to Watertown, New York to retrieve a wine shipment from the New York City based, Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits. (Remember this is long before the internet!) The return trip home followed Lake Erie’s southern shore to ensure the cache was not confiscated on the Canadian border upon re-entry into the United States.
Searching for food to titillate the palate with complimentary wine to enhance the food eating experience became a hobby. Charles read Angelo Pellegrini’s 1948 prose entitled, The Unprejudiced Palate. Angelo had emigrated from Italy as a nine year old and ultimately became a University of Washington English professor specializing in Shakespeare. In his book, Angelo reminisces on the good food life, the joy of fresh, local ingredients, and of course, exceptional Italian wine. He harps on the rock hard peaches and partially ripe strawberries being sold at premium prices at U.S. grocery stores hundreds of miles from the farm. (Shipping unripe fruit long distances has been written about for more than 70 years!) And Angelo expounds on the intricacies of making wine.
Lo and behold, Charles shows up as a newly minted chemical engineering professor in August 1960 at the University of Washington. Was it predestined? Perhaps.
Not wasting any time, Charles contacted Angelo and asked, “Do you need any help making wine in your kitchen?”
Angelo replied, “How about tonight?”
Angelo had just picked up a load of grapes that Louis Martini (a famous Californian winemaker) had shipped on “the California grape train” to Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. It needed to be pressed immediately. One month later, Charles was pressing his own grapes in his own kitchen.
Meanwhile beginning in the mid-1950’s, Lloyd Woodburne, a UW’s Arts and Sciences professor had been experimenting with wine production. By 1960 Lloyd had assembled a cadre of kitchen winemakers who all thrived on curiosity and discovery. Five were UW professors, several were downtown businessmen, one a child allergy specialist, and of course, a Boeing engineer. With Lloyd the other professors were: Charles Sleicher, the chemical engineer, Phil Church, the head of the meteorology department, Don Bevan of the fisheries department, and Cornelius Peck of UW Law. The multi-disciplinary team with a myriad of complementary skills and unending inquisitiveness for wine and business was a winning combination! One witty journalist quipped,” Among them they have enough PhDs to launch a mini-university.”1
Forming a company rather than staying in the kitchens, allowed the winemaking operation to be centralized, licensed, and to grow. By 1962, the 10 winemakers, turned investors, had each contributed a minimum of $5,000 towards the formation of Associated Vintners. Phil Church, meteorologist and former Eastern Washingtonian having worked on the Hanford Bomb Project during WWII, understood the prevailing Columbia River Basin weather patterns. He sought and found optimal farmground to practically match the latitude and sun hours of the best French wine growing regions. Associated Vintners purchased five acres of south-facing agricultural land on Harrison Hill near Sunnyside, Washington and planted six European grape varietals. The farm operation was tended by a local eastern Washington farmer, since the AV team all had day jobs and none were farmers.
Several years later, all the vines froze to the ground in a harsh winter. This delayed the first picking by several more years. With excited anticipation the first commercially viable harvest in 1967 bore bushels of Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Semillon, Riesling and Gewürztraminer grapes. Grapes were shipped to the 40 foot by 40 foot Kirkland winery and warehouse to arrive Friday night with crushing to commence Saturday morning. The first crops of juice were fermented, bottled, and stored until ready for release. In 1969, AV’s first client, QFC at University Village, purchased the entire white wine release of Johannisberg Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Delivering all 60 cases via a circuitous route was necessary to avoid any steep uphill climbs in the classically underpowered Volkswagen bus. AV’s entire white wine production run sold out within a week. The reds were just as popular when released in 1970.
Eventually, no longer being a startup, outside money came into the company with new investors. In 1979 the only U.S. based Master of Wine, David Lake, joined the team. The company name was changed to Columbia Winery, tying the name to the land. Eventually, Columbia Winery was sold to Gallo.
After participating in a winery start-up, selling wildlife photography, and organizing international travel groups, I asked Charles, “What is still on your bucket list?”
He quickly replied, “To read. I formed a new group called the ‘Secular Humanist Forum.’ We meet once a month. I’ll be speaking on Charles Darwin next month. I did go to the Galapagos in the mid-1990’s and shot 150 rolls of film, most with my 1000 mm lens.”
Today I smile and toast Charles on his 95th birthday. Why drink good wine? It correlates with longevity! Charles is 95 years young. Staying curious, eating local, healthy good food, and drinking exceptional wines are the key to a long, rewarding, remarkable life. I’m learning from the best.
Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!
1 Irvine, Ronald with Walter J. Clore, The Wine Project, Washington State’s Winemaking History, 1997.