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DENNIS FOLEY, RENOWNED FIGURE IN THE WORLD OF RARE WINE, PASSED AWAY AT THE AGE OF 74

Christine Graham • 12/3/20        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

 

Dennis Foley, longtime friend and associate of The Underground Wine Journal and an important figure in the world of rare wine and gastronomy for over 40 years, passed away Thursday, November 26 at the age of 74 in San Francisco.  Dennis had a wide-ranging career in rare wine and food as an authority, writer, consultant, judge, appraiser, auctioneer, educator, and chef.  Dennis’s articles about his wine events and recipes appeared in both The Underground Wine Journal and Rarities both of which were offshoots of The Underground Wineletter which was first published in 1979. Dennis was the founder and co-editor of Rarities.  His writings also appeared on our website www.undergroundwineletter.com, which is the reincarnation of the original Underground Wineletter founded by John Tilson in 1979.

Wine was a passion for Dennis, as well as a vocation.  He visited many of the world’s wine-growing regions but was most knowledgeable in California and the European wine regions.  Beginning in 1963, he worked for Esquin Imports Wine Merchants in San Francisco.  He was involved with professional wine auctions from 1970 to 2004 and charity wine auctions and events from 1979 to 2002.  He worked for Christie’s wine department in Chicago beginning in 1980, followed in 1985 with his founding the Butterfield & Butterfield wine auction department in San Francisco.  Subsequently, he returned to Christie’s where he functioned as a rare wine consultant until joining Zachy’s Auction House in New York as a rare wine consultant, appraiser, and auctioneer.  He has conducted many charity wine auctions and wine seminars all over the United States and Puerto Rico for over 35 years.  He consulted regularly on building and appraising wine collections throughout the U.S. Also he regularly set up wine tastings and dinners and went on journeys in search of wine.

One such journey was to Spain in what was to be known as “The Sherry Caper.” Dennis had heard of a large collection of old Spanish Sherry located in Spain. The details were sketchy but the number of bottles was estimated to be a very large number.  Dennis got a price and then came to John Tilson and a few others to finance the purchase. When the wine arrived a lot of it was Sherry made with salt which had very little value or appeal. There were also dry sherries and sweet sherries and liqueurs such as old Chartreuse (green and yellow) and old Benedictine. Many of the old liqueurs John Tilson still has in his cellar. On another occasion some 40 years ago, Dennis heard from Michael Broadbent of Christie’s that there was an upcoming sale of Magnums of 1870 Lafite Rothschild taken directly from the cold cellars of Glamis Castle in Scotland where they had been cellared since release. 1870 was one of the greatest ever vintages in Bordeaux and widely coveted. He approached John Tilson, Ed Lazarus, Geoffrey Troy, and a few others for money to bid at the auction in London. The instructions were to bid whatever it would take to buy the wines. He then went to London where he was the successful bidder for many magnums of the 1870 Lafite.  These bottles were drunk by John Tilson, Ed Lazarus, Geoffrey Troy, Dennis, and many others such as the late Barney Rhodes who was a great wine connoisseur and a big fan of Lafite. Every magnum was stunning.

Dennis was charming and delightful but a bit of an absent-minded professor known for occasional bumbling.  Shortly after Christine Graham took over the publishing of The Underground Wine Journal in the early 90s, she and Dennis arranged a trip to Europe to visit Champagne, taste the Vin Clairs, visit Georg Riedel and his glass factory and tour Germany.  Dennis was to make all the arrangements for the trip including plane reservations.  However, a couple of days before the trip, when questioned, Dennis informed her that he had forgotten to make her reservations.  On another occasion, when Christine and Dennis were in Puerto Rico for the Celebration of Vintage Hospitality and Cigars,  Dennis said he knew of a great place for hamburgers.  He requisitioned a bus to take a group of friends to this place.  However, he could not remember where it was, but after close to three hours of wandering about in the hills of Puerto Rico, he found it.  Unfortunately, the cost of the food was about $100 a plate.  Dennis loved sweets.  When Christine and Dennis were in Paris, having dinner with Christophe Salin of Chateau Lafite, Dennis ordered all the desserts on the menu, about seven, most of which he consumed, leaving him feeling ill the next day.  Another time, Dennis had seen an article on a famous donut place in Glendora, on Route 66, east of Los Angeles.  So Christine took him to The Donut Man where Dennis ate half a dozen donuts, with the end result being the same.

There are a lot of other Dennis stories.  Despite all the misadventures, Dennis left a considerable mark on a lot of lives.  He was full of life, energetic, and vibrant.  And despite whatever happened to him, including the last four and a half years of his life which were spent in the Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, suffering from Parkinson’s and Cancer, his disposition never changed.  He was always pleasant and cheerful, never angry, upset, or even aggravated.

Dennis was a member of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco and a lifetime member of the Society of Bacchus.  He is survived by his wife, Victoria Johnson Foley. Dennis was truly a unique individual and will be missed by all who knew him.

If any of you who knew Dennis, would like to offer any comments or thoughts and wish to share them with us, please send them and we will post them on the website.

Comments from readers:
Many commented on Dennis’s involvement in wine and food and his enthusiasm and good nature. Also his willingness to arrange and organize wine and food events. All who knew him will miss him. Sadly he was in very poor health and his last days were not good. And as one person said, “He is now in a better place.”

 

 

 

 

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6 comments for “DENNIS FOLEY, RENOWNED FIGURE IN THE WORLD OF RARE WINE, PASSED AWAY AT THE AGE OF 74”

  • The wine world lost towering figures in 2020. Amongst them were Tawfiq Khoury and Marvin Overton, world class collectors with personalities to match, and joining them in passing was Dennis Foley, a man who comfortably wore more hats in the world of wine than anyone else. He was one of the biggest and most important bidders at Christies London Auctions and an important wine advisor and salesman in the San Francisco Bay area all before he was 21 years old!

    Dennis Foley was a quintessential San Francisco personality who would have felt at ease in the company of Lucius Beebe and Herb Caen. He emerged in the era of Ernie’s, Emilio’s, Jack’s, La Folie and Rene Verdon’s Le Trianon. Esquin, then Draper and Esquin and Connoisseur Imports were the leading wine stores of that era, and many of the famed collectors of the 60’s and 70’s, like Robert Knutsen, kept their collections in lockers there. Dennis befriended all of them and in so doing acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of where all the great old bottles and impressive collections were located, first in the Bay Area, then throughout the entire state, and quickly the nation. Everyone knew him, but his background was a mystery and remained so throughout his life. He lived for the present and the future, not the past.

    As a product of Babylonian San Francisco, he was a confidante of people as diverse as the Mitchell Brothers and Gordon Getty! He knew the older collectors who had started collecting before the World War, and also those like Paul Pinsky who began shortly after. As the next generation of collectors started in the 70’s and 80’s Dennis became their confidante, introduced them to other collectors, and helped them find the best bottles worldwide for their growing collections.

    He wore many hats at various times in the wine trade. He was initially a salesman, then an appraiser, an advisor to Christies, an organizer of wine tastings both in the U.S. and Europe, a facilitator of charity auctions, a wine writer, an editor and publisher of an insightful wine journal. Wherever an important wine event was being held, one could usually find Dennis. He assisted in putting on hundred-year retrospective of all the world’s greatest wines and was a fixture for a generation at the Society of Bacchus America annual three-day wine and food celebrations.

    Those who knew Dennis had favorite stories. Amongst my favorites are the following:

    Tawfiq Khoury, possessor of a 100,000+ bottle collection with separate warehouses set at 49 degrees for whites and 52-55 degrees for red wines, sent Dennis to London to secure the Glamis Castle 1870 First Growth magnums. This was a famous collection stored for a hundred years in a cold Scottish cellar and contained single bottles and magnums of all the First Growths going back to the Civil War and including broad selections of the most famous vintages of the 19th century like 1870. Due to the extreme cold in the cellar, these bottles were in perfect condition, far more backward than even the bottles in the cellars of the chateaux that had produced them! They had essentially been placed in suspended animation for a century! To put into perspective how innocent and small the world wine market was for rare wine in those days, Dennis was able to buy the magnums for $250 apiece!!! (For reference, a single bottle of 1945 Romaneé Conti sold for $500,000 last year.) Dennis hand caried the bottles back from the U.K., and when Tawfiq met him at the San Diego Airport, Dennis proudly put the bottle down on the tarmac and it promptly cracked and the wine flowed out. The hand-blown glass clearly had an imperfection and broke at the weakest point. Fortunately, Tawfiq had purchased many others and philosophically blamed the accident on chance.

    Another great Dennis story involved his cooking skills which were quite significant. I can remember a spontaneous gesture to cook dinner at my house, that ended far less dramatically than the one he cooked at Underground Editor John Tilson’s house. John had spent years getting the plans for his hilltop Montecito home approved by various building review committees and shortly after it was completed Dennis visited and volunteered to cook Laurie and John dinner. While being a good home cook, Dennis wasn’t totally familiar with some of the equipment John had installed and literally set fire to the kitchen signaling a call to the Montecito Fire Dept. which slowly tried to snake its way up the winding Montecito roads to the house. Fortunately, John, Laurie and Dennis were able to put out the kitchen flames before anything serious happened, but it could have been a close call.

    Marvin Overton was a famed Texan collector who held extraordinary weekend long tastings at his ranch outside San Antonio. Guests flew in from all over the world to attend them. Dennis was the behind-the-scenes facilitator making certain that all the events ran smoothly. He would organize the wines, oversee the service, and even had his own computer program for labelling glasses. He knew all the somms around the country and had close connections to the most knowledgeable wine personnel in fine wine shops throughout the country. Current Wally’s owner, Christian Navarro, assisted Dennis at select events early in his career.

    Marvin’s collection rivalled Tawfiq’s, and late in his career he decided to go organize a national tour featuring a series of tastings focusing on the wines of Haut Brion. They conducted the tastings through multiple cities with Dennis doing all the background organization and Marvin master of ceremonies and the commentator. The wines went back to the early 19th century and Jean Delmas was guest commentator.

    Dennis was a very important associate of members of one of American’s most exclusive wine groups, The Society of Bacchus America, a small group of generous aficionados who hold annual weekend induction events. Dennis would selflessly take on the responsibility of transporting the wine and glasses to 5 separate weekend events for as many as 70 people. One time he callied from the parking lot of Spago 90 minutes before a huge tasting events was going to start saying, “Your 1600 wine glasses just arrived in wooden crates. I am not certain if they are clean, do you mind if I hire a couple of the Spago staff to clean and polish them?” No worries. It was all done and everything set up before the first guest arrived. Dennis was never fazed and was a can-do person. Year after year Dennis helped members organize their annual weekend affair and they became so grateful to Dennis that he was made an Honorary member of the Society. One of only two ever selected.

    Dennis was always involved in charities. Those who knew him often received a phone call asking for a contribution to a favorite Bay area charity like The Guardsmen or a cross cultural, musicians for peace organization which Gordon Getty was involved with. Dennis and Gordon would fly over to Leningrad or Moscow on the latter’s jet and arrange an event to foster better relations between the two countries.

    On another weekend he might be flown to the English countryside where he would be put in charge of the service for an event with Prince Charles in attendance. Dennis always seemed to hobnob with people of great worldly renown or importance, but was quite innocent and nonplused about it. He became a member of The Bohemian Club and regularly attended events where he made further connections.

    Another famous series of tastings Dennis was involved with over the years were the remarkable Port tastings organized and hosted by Don Schliff from his legendary collection. In addition to running the service of the wines, since the Ports dated back to the early 1800’s and the bottles were hand blown, Dennis wielded red hot Port tongs decapitating bottle after bottle at the neck.

    Thinking about Dennis, his image is not complete without including his wife, Victoria. She was a totally supportive presence in his life. She backed him in everything that he did, was a great sounding board possessing immense common sense, and even when he was laid low by Parkinson’s she was dependably always by his side. They were a loving couple and until the end she was full of ebullient cheer.

    All of us who knew Dennis will miss him dearly. He was an intimate part of so many memorable experiences.

  • FMC says:

    I remember purchasing a few cases of unclassified 61 Bordeaux from him at Butterfields. Those were the days, he was very helpful to a young kid with an interest in wine but was flying blind. Sorry to hear of his passing.

  • Hoyt Hill says:

    I also hosted dinners at my restaurant in Nashville, F Scotts, with Dennis and Marvin Overton – one with Joe Heitz, one with Paul Draper and one with Robert Mondavi. Those were some amazing events

  • Hoyt Hill says:

    I actually bought the next to the last bottle of the 1870 Lafite for a charity dinner at The Wild Boar Restaurant in Nashville, TN, in 1994. We sold 12 seats for $12,000 each and donated $54,000 to the Nashville Charity Wine Auction. I hired a bagpipe player to escort me from the wine cellar to the dining room. Chateau and Estates gave us a case of 1970 Lafite, and everyone having dinner that night received a glass no charge. We served the 1982, 1961, 1959 and 1945 Lafite along with the magnum of 1870 – also 1982 Krug, 1976 DRC Montrachet and 1959 Yquem. The 1870 Lafite was unforgettable with a long life ahead of it. I wonder if anyone has opened the last bottle?

  • Bruce Neyers says:

    Thank you for recognizing Dennis Foley for his enormous contribution to the world of wine. Not only was he one of the smartest and most experienced wine figures of the the 20th century, but one of the most generous as well. He regularly gave everything, and asked for very little — if anything — in exchange. He will be sorely missed, and I for one am grateful for having had the opportunity to know him, dine with him, and drink with him. I shall miss him terribly.

    • Christine Graham says:
      Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview, your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
      Thank you, Bruce, for your lovely comments about Dennis Foley. We miss him very much. Christine Graham
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