A Man of Polite
BY NEAL MARTIN | MARCH 26, 2020
“A Man of Polite
Learning” was published on the original Wine-Journal in March 2005, as
evidenced by references to pre-scandal Lance Armstrong and Sideways. I have made only minor edits to the original, tidied up
the misspellings and grammatical faux pas that must have irked Broadbent when
he read it. Otherwise, you are reading what appeared back then. Perusing the
text after such a long time, I had forgotten how punchy and pugilistic
Broadbent could be. He did not mince his words. Remember, this was written in
the wake of the furor over the 2003 Pavie, and the argument over English versus
American palates was raging. Naturally I wanted to broach the subject of Robert
Parker, and readers should note that this was a couple of years before I joined
The Wine Advocate. When I composed the article, I strove to preserve
Broadbent’s voice, and I hope that comes through.
A Man of Polite
Since its immaculate
conception I have maintained that any self-respecting website devoted to fine
wine would be unconsummated, incomplete, without baptism by the man whose name
is synonymous with that very subject and whose epic odyssey through the iconic
wines of the last two centuries is unparalleled. The man in question is, of
course, Michael Broadbent MW. To many he is the quintessential English gentleman
replete with cast-iron pushbike, trilby and ambassadorial demeanor; a savant
blessed with an authoritative aura, a man of magnetic gravitas. Yet he is also
a man surfeit with charisma and chutzpah; that glint in his eye and that cheeky
smile and coruscating salacious wit. He is a man that can hold an intellectual
discussion upon fine wine, art or maybe opera and finish it off with a satyrical (sic) punchline.
I asked Jancis
Robinson MW about her first meeting with the indomitable Broadbent. “I met him
so long ago I can’t even remember when or how,” she answered. “That’s all I can
volunteer on our early days, I’m afraid. We’d have those First Growth dinners
every year chez Penning Rowsell, the
Broadbents always tearing in very late and then dashing off through the
Cotswold lanes afterwards back to their place outside Bath [Chippenham Lodge].”
In the early days of
my career I glimpsed Michael Broadbent around London’s tasting circuit, usually
rubbing shoulders against the hegemony of established British wine writers.
Broadbent seemed to dwarf them all not only in terms of his physical stature
but as an incarnate encyclopedia of fine wine. He was the doyen, the guv’nor.
Later I became acquainted with him in a professional capacity helping to
organize a prestigious tasting in Tokyo. This is where I met the Michael
Broadbent with acute business acumen and professionalism. He approached the
event with enormous gusto, punctilious about every last detail. Here I also
witnessed the showman. Espying a grand piano in the reception of the restaurant,
he waltzed over to tickle the ivories and warmed up attendees with a burst of
Chopin before the serious business of analyzing wines began.
But who is the real
Michael Broadbent? Auctioneer? Wine-writer? Wine critic? Showman? Lothario? Was
he the same man portrayed in print, a man whose sybaritic life reads like an
endless round of fantastical tastings? A peripatetic bon viveur whose social calendar is busier than Kate Moss’s? One
interview has severe limitations. A half-century of experience cannot be
condensed within a two-hour conversation. However, spending time alone with him
in his London pied-à-terre, I glimpsed the man behind the public persona, the real Michael Broadbent.
I am scheduled to
meet Michael in his Mayfair office that is conveniently located within spitting
distance of Justerini & Brooks and Berry Bros. & Rudd. The streets
around St. James’s Palace cater for the English gentleman: bespoke tailors,
hosiers, milliners, accoutrements for the imminently jobless huntsman and, of
course, fine wine merchants. In fact, I meet Michael outside on the street,
immediately recognizable by that flash of trilby in the distance. He apologizes
for his tardiness and asks me to wait in the reception while he posts a letter,
and when he returns, suggests we conduct the interview at his London apartment
rather than the more sterile surroundings of his office. I leap at this
opportunity because you can tell much about a person from their abode.
We set off through
Green Park towards the namesake tube station. Presumptuously I had assumed that
a man of his standing would have eschewed public transport a long time ago. I
know that I would. He is renowned for
commuting to work on his Dutch bicycle that poses alongside him each month for
his column in Decanter magazine and
for cynics suspecting that it is merely a prop to enhance his image, I can
vouchsafe many occasions when he has pedaled to a meeting, as one might expect
Lance Armstrong. I also assumed that his pied-à-terre
must lie close to his office because he is not in the flush of youth. Now I
realize that his commute entails a three- or four-mile cycle through congested
West London, patently a precarious journey that keeps this septuagenarian in
fine fettle. Monitoring the physical expansion of some wine critics on the
London tasting circuit, they can only dream of similar physique when they reach
his age... if they get that far.
Above the racket of
the tube train we small-talk about mutual colleagues and whether I had seen the
recently released film Sideways. He
seems vexed about where he will be able to view what he must presume is an art
flick, unaware that it is on general release. We eventually arrive at our
destination, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where his wife Daphne has just
had a prescheduled check-up. She pulls up in the car to collect her husband and
his interloper. Daphne is a diminutive woman whose spirit seems inversely
proportional to her size. They swap places so that he can drive. For one scary
moment I fear that I have witnessed the untimely demise of Michael Broadbent as
a pugnacious driver comes within inches of flattening one of the world’s
greatest authorities on wine under the wheels of his white Ford Transit. What
an ignominious end! Doesn’t the van driver know who Michael Broadbent is? I
guess fine wine is a parochial world and an elderly man obstructing the road to
one person is an icon to another.
Daphne sits in the
back and Michael drives. He explains that his ecologically minded car is duel
fuel, switching to electricity whenever the onboard computer deems it possible.
Pedal-bikes and pollutant-free cars: Michael Broadbent can rest assured that
his contribution to the ozone layer is minimal. We drop Daphne off and Michael
quips that she is off to have her legs waxed; she retorts that he does the same
with his chest hair. Broadbent’s better half and partner-in-crime obviously
shares his humor and repartee, as well as countless fine wines.
It is a five-minute
drive to his London flat. It is not one of those designer-built goldfish bowls
that encroach upon the length and breadth of the Thames, but a modest post-war
construction equipped with fully malfunctioning lift that had apparently taken
nine months to repair and a musty air that always reminds me of old blocks of
flats. It might well be architecturally incongruous but his pied-à-terre does boast a panorama over
the curvaceous Thames, beyond which lies a wetland bird sanctuary currently
veiled in mist. We stand and take a few seconds to admire the view.
“The boat race takes
place on this part of the river,” he tells me. I picture him sketching the
scene on a Saturday afternoon as the Oxbridge teams glide past.
Sketching is one of
Michael Broadbent’s passions and his wallpaper is barely visible behind a
gallery of etchings by 19th-century Punch
artist and caricaturist Charles Keene. Michael informs me that the collection
represents probably the largest collection of Keene’s work and he entertains
the idea of exhibiting it one day. His own drawings are accomplished, in no
small part due to his training as an architect that makes him a dab hand at
landscapes and perspectives. His own depictions are mostly of foreign places he
has visited. He pauses in front of one that he is particularly proud of, namely
the interior of Symington’s barrel cellar in the Douro. He explains the
difficulty obtaining the perspective of the barrels disappearing towards some
vanishing point within the shadowy depths of the cellar.
We then enter another
annex of the apartment and I notice that he is no different to any wine-lover
insofar as his shelves are decorated with memorable empty bottles, although few
have the chance to furnish our interior with a Mouton-Rothschild 1870. To the right
is his home office that accommodates a large desk and small library of wine
literature. It is ostensibly the same as any other until you notice scores of
framed certificates and awards adorning every wall from ceiling to floor,
including the prestigious Chevalier de l’Ordre du Merité Nationale. Then I
notice a neat row of slightly tatty exercise books that chronicle thousands of
handwritten notes penned since 1952. The earliest are slightly dog-eared and
timeworn, perhaps as a result of him burning the midnight oil, leafing through
their brittle pages in order to meet the publisher’s deadline for his Vintage Wine tome. Open a random page and
you can almost hear the distant clink of Riedels and animated discussion of the
fabulous wines, the jovial voices of friends past and present who shared them.
Michael Broadbent posing in front of his wall
of achievements at his home in West London in 2004. A rare picture of him
without suit and tie.
We retire to his
living room to conduct the interview, which is naturally accompanied by a glass
of chilled Riesling Auslese 2003 from Schloss Vollrads.
NM: The first question I want to ask you is a
simple one. What is wine?
MB: Well, I won’t
define it scientifically, but I just think that it is the most civilized
beverage, something that I drink every day. I cannot eat anything without it,
perhaps with the exception of Japanese, though they don’t often have wine with
their food. I guess one should be drinking German wine on that occasion. Basically
I associate it with formal living. I even used to have bucks fizz for breakfast
though I found the combination of orange juice and champagne made the acidity
build up, so I am giving it a rest for a little bit. When I was working
full-time at Christie’s I would have a glass of Verdelho in the morning and
Bual in the afternoon. Verdelho was much better than morning coffee and Bual
much better than Christie’s tea. It was much more economical. You could just
put the stopper back in and it never goes off.
NM: Was that one of the reasons you offered
Madeira, to make people more aware of it?
MB: Most people did
not know about Madeira, but once they tasted it they loved it. It was an extremely
practical drink to have on the sideboard.
NM: In your Vintage Wine book you said
that Madeira wine was at its peak during the 19th century and that it “lost”
something in the 20th century. Could you expand upon that?
MB: Well, the 18th
century was the Madeira century. The volume being produced was extraordinary
and there were a huge number of shippers. But then they had oïdium that was
followed by phylloxera, which hit the trade, and it never really quite
recovered. Of course, Madeira has to be sold, people have to taste it, and it
has recovered and Bartholomew [Michael’s son] has been active in importing it
to America. Yes, it has revived just like port.
Let me tell you, when
I first visited Porto in 1953 it was the end of my first year, and it was such
a low ebb, Graham’s was bankrupt and many people thought that it wouldn't
survive. Then there came the 1960 and the 1963 when a lot of Port houses
declared and by the 1970 things had recovered. The Americans came in and the
NM: What was the adolescent Michael Broadbent
MB: Oh, priggish.
People say that I was tasting in the 1940s but of course, I am only referring
to wine made in the Forties. I was in
the army and then doing architecture. My parents didn’t really drink a lot of
wine but there was one man, a doctor who was into pharmaceuticals who introduced
me to d’Yquem and Lafite. Although I enjoyed them, they didn't sink in
particularly because I had no intention of going into the wine trade. These
wines must have been tasted in the late Forties, possibly early Fifties,
certainly long before I started in architecture. So there was no background for
wine. Then I started at Layton’s [a successful wine merchant established in
1934]. I had answered an ad in the newspaper. At that time I was getting lazier
and lazier, then one day I got on the bus and had this tremendous rush of
energy. I thought to myself: I really need to make the most of what it
[Laytons] was. I started in the wine trade when I was 25 and so I had a lot of
catching up to do. But from the word go, I tasted a lot and it was so useful for
NM: When you started at Layton's you were sweeping
the floors? Were you afforded the opportunity to actually taste wines?
MB: Oh yes, I
literally swept the floor and took orders from clients, and he [proprietor
Tommy Layton] was very good. Whenever Tommy opened a bottle I would get a
chance to taste it. Of course, I used to go and collect bottles, so I would get
a chance to taste them there. He also organized the Circle of Wine Tasters. Yes, he was very imaginative, an absolute
scoundrel in some ways, but he was very knowledgeable. So from him I learned
how to organize a tasting.
NM: What was the first château you ever visited?
MB: It would have
been Château Palmer with Peter Sichel in 1955, and I remember Daphne walked
across the roof afterwards. My first visit to Germany was in 1956, and we drove
all the way from London on a Vespa with the luggage and Daphne on the back. It
rained every day. [Postscript: It was this trip where Broadbent had the
“laudable ambition” to make love in a famous vineyard. He chose Berkasteler
Doktor, opposite his hotel, but as he wrote in Vintage Wine, “...it was
unusually cold and wet, so a bit muddy. The experience somewhat dampened my
NM: Did you have an epiphany in terms of wine?
MB: No, not really. Of
course, I was brought up with Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne and that was it.
New World wines did not exist and there was no market for them. No, I just
launched into it and at an early stage I was organizing wine tastings for my
NM: When you started tasting, a lot of wines were
MB: Virtually all,
except the First Growths, even Cheval Blanc and Margaux were shipped in cask to
certain merchants until the 1960's.
NM: Some people say that those English bottlings
are superior to those of châteaux.
MB: Yes, that’s
absolutely true. Before the war, and after, the châteaux had mobile bottling
machines. Wine merchants really knew what they were doing. They had the
expertise and they knew exactly when to bottle them, whereas in Bordeaux they
just wanted to flog it off as quickly as possible. When I was at Harvey’s in
1955, one of my first jobs was in their bottling cellars. These people really
knew what they were doing. But I reckon that English bottling deteriorated in
the early Seventies. It may sound facetious but the bottling became governed by
the production director and the bottling was coordinated to their own schedule
instead of when the wine was ready.
Red notebook number one, page number one, wine
number one. Broadbent essentially begins his career detailing thousands of
wines – an epochal moment in wine writing. The stars would come much later.
NM: At this point, Michael offers to show me his
exercise books in which he began writing his notes over half a century ago,
from the 17th September 1952.
MB: Virtually the
first thing that he, Tommy Layton, said to me was that I should take a tasting
note. Look, there is the first wine: a Graacher non-vintage, and there is
Palmer ‘49. The book is in chronological order [of tasting] and there is really
no difference in the layout between now and then. What is interesting is that
Palmer ‘49 is 110 shillings, 5 shillings a dozen more than an ordinary
Graacher. It’s astonishing, really. I do all these by hand. I cut them out to
index them. I could do it in my sleep. The index is subdivided into clarets,
First Growths and so on, the name of the wine and page number. People think
that I just taste French wines, but in fact the other day I did a tot-up and
there were far more non-French wines. But the New World... I am less and less
NM: You use the 5-star system. Have you used the
same scoring system from the very beginning?
MB: No, it started
with the first The Great Vintage Wine
Book in 1980. The only time I would use a different system would be in
broad horizontal tastings, such as British Airways, for example, where you
needed to keep a record. But I never published those scores.
NM: There was recently a debate about whether you
should score wines at all. I believe that Tim Atkin argued that it was not
necessary to give a score whereas Malcolm Gluck argued that you cannot rely on
MB: Well, I don’t
often agree with Malcolm Gluck, but I think on this occasion he is right. First
of all, I was dead against the 100-point scale, of course. A “95” that you
score in one context could be a “98” or “99” in another. Bottles vary. You
score that wine at that moment. The advantage of using stars is that it allows
for variation in context, barometric pressure, temperature, all sorts of
things. A formal tasting or a dinner party... all these contexts are completely
NM: You take quite a concise tasting notes, don't
you, not the "flowery" type.
MB: No. I was reading
something that happened to be a Parker note. I cannot remember which wine it
was, but it could apply to any wine. I used to try and describe things in
detail but not anymore. I have always been more concerned about the overall
quality of the wine. What I cannot understand are these writers who write
columns in the papers about supermarket wines. I guess it is horses for
courses, but I for one am not interested in writing about Sauvignon Blanc, for
example. These wines are for drinking, not for writing about.
NM: Which Bordeaux vintages do you regard as the
MB: Well, in the 19th
century, certainly 1865. Then in the 20th century I would say 1945,
which was similar to 1961, when nature did the pruning. Everything conspired to
make it a great vintage.
NM: You have tasted more pre-phylloxera wines than
almost anybody else. Do you think there is a tangible difference once vines
were grafted onto American rootstocks?
they were of the highest quality in the 19th century, from my own tastings and
the notes of André Simon.
NM: Which New World wines do you hold in high
MB: Stag’s Leap (Wine
Cellars), of course; I was very much into Californian wines years ago, back in
the Seventies. At that time I was the only top auctioneer dealing with
California at the Heublein auctions in the United States and I used to taste an
awful lot of Californian wines, many old vintages of Beaulieu Vineyard and so
on. I was also very much in favor of what was going on at the time. André Tchelistcheff
was a genius. He was like a bee hopping from vineyard to vineyard, pollinating
ideas. In 1981 I started the Wine
Experience auctions with Marvin Shanken and there I tasted a lot of wine.
NM: Which wine makers did you admire in your
MB: Paul Draper. I
love deeply Len Evans, who is a dear old friend of mine. In Bordeaux, I have
always liked the Borie family and Cheval Blanc.
NM: How about Robert Parker? Do you think on
balance he has had a positive affect on wine?
MB: These days
Bordeaux is powerful, alcoholic with 13° and 14° alcohol, which I think is totally
and absolutely wrong, and I think Parker is responsible for that. His
preference is for these deep-colored, immensely impressive wines that are easy
to taste. Take Mouton ’49, for example. It was Baron Philippe’s favorite
vintage and he preferred it to the ‘45. It is one of the most exquisite wines
ever made and it had just 10.5% alcohol! It is not necessary to have huge
levels of alcohol to make a wine drinkable. Lafite-Rothschild, for example... you
just have to look at how well these pre-phylloxera wines have lasted.
NM: But surely you cannot blame Parker. Assuming
he has a penchant for a particular style of wine, surely the problem is that
people follow him without thinking for themselves?
MB: Yes, you’re
right. I think he is a very good taster, and of course, he introduced people to
other regions, Alsace for example. But I recently went to a Guigal tasting in
Switzerland with 100-point Parker wines. They were all the same, all big and
powerful. The problem is that people like to be told and then retailers will
have to stock it. My concern is with people like Rolland, who is going around
Bordeaux telling everyone how to make wines that will get high Parker points.
Château Kirwan, for example, made perfectly decent wine and then Rolland advised
them to pick later and use more oak and so on. The next vintage is immediately
hailed as their best wine ever and it sold out completely. Apropos Pavie, a château that made perfectly decent wine. Then
Perse came along and he made a wine that looked like tar, smelt like tar and
tasted like tar. They are impressive but they are simply not drinkable. People
pay such a high price for it that the bottle goes straight into their cellar, and it stays in there because it is too expensive to drink. Then there are some
of the Spanish wines, growers doing their utmost to make the best wine that
they can, which is fine. But they make just 200 bottles. It is meaningless.
NM: If you were, say, 30 years younger, would you
wish to see yourself as a counterweight to the influence of Robert Parker?
MB: No, it has never
crossed my mind for one reason: I have never been a full-time wine writer. I
was a wine merchant. I was there to sell wines to customers, to organize the
catalogs and pre-sale tastings. I would hate to be a full-time writer
(laughing). I would have a reputation to lose.
NM: One could argue that you, working at Christie’s
is the precursor for the high prices that wines now obtain.
MB: My answer to that
is quite simple. We started in ‘66, and my main job was to sell wine out of
cellars, wines that otherwise would not have been drunk. At that time an
international market for fine wine just did not exist.
NM: What do you regard as your greatest
MB: Oh, definitely
Christie’s, without a doubt. But now there are so many auctions. They are two a
penny. The novelty has worn off. From the very start at Christie’s, every month
I would go down to see what we were selling 100 years ago, 150 years ago and so
on and you could see which wines were fashionable at that time, Madeira and so
forth. My first job was to associate myself with Christie’s and Christie’s with
wine. My second job was to generate publicity for the sales. We had quite a few
ex-cellar sales and, also we had marvelous sales of individual châteaux. I was
very aggressive in those early days, me and Sotheby’s, me and Serena.
NM: Do you still feel that?
MB: Yes, very much
NM: Michael then shows me a Christie’s catalog
from the mid-Seventies, including his inaugural sale on 2 May, 1967. I leaf through
the catalog whilst Michael fetches something from his bureau and note that the
very first lot is Château Lascombes 1958. I wonder how that is drinking now. The
precarious state of the Bordeaux market is clear to see in terms of the quantities
for sale: 2,000 cases of Mouton-Rothschild 1970 at £78 per case and even more
tellingly, countless lots of non-vintage Château Margaux, a blend of the 1963,
1964 and 1965 vintages. Then there is a prestigious sale of Mouton-Rothschild
and its erstwhile nemesis Lafite-Rothschild.
Lot No 1. Literally. A copy of Christie’s
inaugural fine wine sale. Broadbent had set up the wine department in 1966, but
the first sale took place a few months later.
MB: The first time
they [Mouton and Lafite] got together, they were not really on speaking terms.
I think the manager at Mouton was Cottin and I insisted that each château would
not list the same wine, so if one had a double magnum, the other would have an
imperial. This was all agreed and then it came to the afternoon before the
sale. Cottin complained that the reserve prices for Lafite were higher than for
Mouton. The manager at Lafite was a wise old fellow and told me to leave them
alone together in a room for a while, so thankfully they managed to sort it
out. The sale was phenomenally successful and certainly put Bordeaux back on
NM: Which cellar finds remain particularly
MB: Glamis Castle was
an exceptional find. I got the tip-off from a friend and it included 42 magnums
of Lafite 1870 and I went up with him, and drove the wines away uninsured. The
great thing about Glamis Castle was that the wines had never been moved. There
was the Gladstone cellar, William Gladstone, who inherited title and much of
the family treasures, and he eventually found the keys to the cellar that had
not been opened since the third baron had died. There were 1865 Lafite by the
dozen. It was an absolute revelation. When it came to something like, that you
could not send anyone, so Daphne and I drove up there. We got filthy packing
things up. They were very exciting times.
NM: Do you think those times have passed?
MB: Yes, I think so.
NM: What are you working on at the moment?
MB: An introduction
to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
NM: How about writing? Does it give you the same
sense of satisfaction?
MB: It is probably
writing that I will be remembered for in the long term. My first printed
article was in Harpers in 1955. It was a facetious glossary of terms entitled Absinthe Makes The Heart Grow Fonder.
Then my tasting book Wine Tasting
that was first printed in 1968. Believe it or not, there was not a single book
[in English] on wine tasting at that time. In 1980 I wrote the first Vintage Wine book. I had been under
contract for five years to write a book on the appreciation of wine but I
didn’t really want to do that. So they said, well, what book would you like to
write? I began thinking that when I was at Christie’s. Someone would phone up
and ask about Lafite 1957, for example, and I could just turn to my notes
whilst he was on the phone and I could give him my views on the wine and all
the prices. I thought that this could be useful for people with collections.
The second book was done in a different way and was simply updated, but it is
the current book that is much more personal. There won’t be another one.
NM: You are stuck on a desert island. Chose a
sparkling wine, white wine and red wine.
MB: Hm. Definitely
the 1862 Terrantez from H M Borges. Sparkling? Probably it would be 1972 Krug
or 1976 maybe? For red wine, 1949 Mouton Rothschild or maybe the 1945 as it
would last longer.
The interview has run
its course. My interviewee is fatigued not by the Spanish Inquisition but from
his own replies that meander and digress into anecdotes or completely different
subjects. On several occasions our conversation has taken so many twists, turns
and somersaults that neither of us could remember the original question. He
gives me a lift back to the tube station, losing his direction a couple of
times, eager to return home for a siesta before venturing out again that
evening to hold one of his famous Christie’s Wine Course lectures. He speeds
through the streets of Fulham whilst we debate the virtues of Ausone. I ask
asinine questions such as his predilection for fast food (fish and chips, in
case you are wondering).
“Call me if you have
any questions. I'll be away from next week on holiday,” he says. We shake hands, and I return home to West Norwood.
Sitting on the empty
train home, I reflect upon my meeting with Michael Broadbent. Had I got to know
him in that short space of time? Of course not, but I understood more about
what influences and motivates him. Wine seeks out its best messengers, those
swept towards wine on a riptide of fate and serendipity. The title of this
piece was penned by novelist Daniel Defoe in 1728. Defoe wrote: “We must
distinguish between a man of polite learning and a mere scholar: the first is a
gentleman and what a gentleman should be; the last is a mere book-case, a
bundle of letters, a head stuffed with the jargon of languages, a man that
understands every body but is understood by nobody.” That quotation reminds me
of Broadbent: First a gentleman, then a scholar, despite being a Master of Wine
and his plethora of awards. He is a man who diligently studied wine from his
time sweeping shop floors to the heady heights as director of Christie’s,
exchanging broom for gavel. That sense of “polite learning” remains intact, as
I witnessed a couple of years ago when he scribbled a tasting note on a napkin
for a relatively non-descript Mosel. He displayed the keenness of someone writing
his first words for his first wine. What Michael Broadbent does so brilliantly
is fuse this diligence with natural showmanship and charisma.
This photograph comes from 2009, hence the
slightly blurred quality, but I wanted to include it here as it captures
Michael Broadbent in his element. This was at an astonishing vertical tasting
of La Mission Haut-Brion. Prince Robert de Luxembourg is on the left and Fiona
Morrison MW on the right.
I was intrigued that
although Broadbent recognizes that his legacy will be as a wine writer, it is
Christie’s that has been most central to his life. His unique position as a
globally recognized auctioneer afforded him the opportunity to write about
wine. Yet it never usurped his day job. Nothing seems to enthrall him more than
a buzzing auction room of fevered bidding, Broadbent the head huntsman whipping
up his pack of prospective buyers, chasing their prized lot of wine until the
crack of the gavel heralds that a lucky punter has made the kill.
Of course, Michael
Broadbent MW does not mince his words. Over half a century he has witnessed the
elevation of wine from a simple beverage to a global luxury item. He questions
whether wine has progressed during that time and whether we have forgotten its
raison d'être: To be consumed and enjoyed, not speculated over and sold for
profit. Is he an old-timer looking back with rose-tinted spectacles, harping on
about the good old days? Or has progress left Broadbent stranded as a lone
voice from the past?
I think a bit of
both. He looks back at the good times of the past, when First Growths were
relatively affordable and Europe awash with undiscovered cellars, at a time
when he occupied an unrivalled position as the world’s greatest auctioneer, an
era of artisan winemaking before science sought to eradicate the magic, that
unquantifiable factor that makes wine special. This was the age when Christie’s
could hold a pre-sale tasting of large-format bottles of Mouton-Rothschild from
1945 to the present simply for prospective buyers to gauge quality themselves.
Who would not like to experience
those halcyon days?
Yet time waits for
nobody. Undeniably, the consumer has benefitted from improvements in
viticulture; that money invested in vineyards and wineries has had a tangible,
positive effect. For many, the zenith of wine is now, as wine regions around
the world emerge with a gamut of high-quality wines in an ever-increasing
eclectic range of styles. If Bordeaux has become more homogenous, then wine
certainly has not. With respect to Bordeaux, perhaps what it risks losing is
its colorful tapestry, its scars and blemishes airbrushed to leave a vinous
landscape that is amenable to more consumers, albeit much more predictable.
During our conversation Broadbent mentions how his notes of Domaine de la
Romanée-Conti become homogenous after 1995. It prompts the question: If the
purview of Vintage Wine were vintages
one century later, would it be as engrossing? Are those forgotten and even
moribund vintages an integral part of wine mapped through time? Perhaps
predictability is the price, a price worth paying for a more uniform quality.
I will not regurgitate
the current arguments that might stem from Broadbent’s vituperation, the
whipping-boy Pavie and garagistes,
Parker and Rolland, his lament at the homogenization and the abuse of wine as a
blue-chip commodity. Frankly, Broadbent is too long in the tooth to care much
cares passionately that the field he has devoted his life to is now moving in
an undesirable direction and regrets the omnipotence of Parker, and how his palate
influences the entire market and brings profit into the equation. Whilst I
concur that the influence of one individual is undesirable in any field, that that
one individual can open up a wine region to a wider audience is a great thing.
The problem is not Parker but surely that wine is a finite commodity.
Michael speaks out
for those who prefer less ripe, less alcoholic, fresher and more elegant wines.
Does that make it wine of less quality, or a different wine whose virtues
appeal to different palates? His “agenda,” if you want to call it that, is
simply the flip side of those with a penchant for riper, more full-bodied,
richer wines. Having tasted more ancient bottles than any other living person,
surely Broadbent has the right to throw down the gauntlet to self-aggrandizing
modern wines and challenge them to match the immortality of the wines of yore?
Alas, there is a dwindling pool of those with first-hand experience to put
forth such an argument. If a man with an unparalleled half-century of experience
is not listened to, then exactly who is?
Vintage Wine embodies a distinguished and unsurpassed career. As the ink
dries on its final full stop, Broadbent must feel satisfied that he published a
tome worthy of his spectacular career. He is adamant that there will not be
another edition, and with the years advancing perhaps he now deserves to follow
pursuits that satisfy him, rather than the publisher or some young urchin like
myself badgering him to tutor dinners in Tokyo. In past articles I gently mocked
his eschewing of technology, yet I am certain that he would relish online
discussion and indeed, if he were my age, he would be writing a website like
Whether you agree
with Broadbent’s opinions or not, the landscape of wine would be a much poorer
place had he not answered that advertised vacancy for Layton’s. He virtually
invented the modern international wine market through Christie’s and made
London its center. He is the master of the concise tasting note that deftly
conveys the soul of wine. The breadth of his knowledge is matched only by his
undiminished enthusiasm for his subject. His wit remains as sharp and often as
lewd as ever. He epitomizes the word indefatigable.
Given that his good friend Harry Waugh lived just shy of a century, perhaps the
fourth edition of Vintage Wine may
yet be written. Never say never again.
(Thanks to my friend Hiro Tatsuta, who organized the Okura
tastings, for sharing his own memories of that time.)
Read Part 1, From Broom To Gavel: Michael Broadbent MW.