Sir James Galway - My passion for wine
- Friday 13 June 2008
Sir James Galway eyes the bottle of Tokaji I have brought for him to try with suspicion. I had been tipped off that he liked Sauternes, but I thought that might be a bit over the top – for both of us. It’s 10am on a Monday morning and he’s in rehearsals for a concert at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra. It also sounds as if he has a bit of a cold. Tea and coffee, then.
Trim, cheerful and dressed for company even at that time of the day, Sir James, 68, maintains a schedule that would make a youthful rock star cry. His 2007 calendar was one of his busiest – kicking off with a six-week tour of the US followed by stints in Spain, Italy, Switzerland (his home), Ireland (his birthplace, as if I couldn’t tell from his accent) and various countries in Asia – sometimes performing with fellow flautist and wife Lady Jeanne Galway, sometimes with Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. He rounded out the year with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican before returning to Switzerland for a New Year’s Eve concert. Yet while Galway may be full of energy, he says maturity does have its
side effects. ‘When you get to my age, things don’t necessarily work that well, but we don’t need to get into that,’ he jokes. Oh go on, I urge. ‘Well…my sense of smell isn’t as good as it used to be – but I can always smell a Bordeaux.’
Galway started his wine education with Bordeaux and it remains his
favourite region. ‘I started paying more attention to wine while I was a student at the Royal College of Music,’ he says. ‘Back then, I would just buy a bottle here and there, to drink. But I had some great friends who really knew their stuff.’ Galway began collecting – somewhat unintentionally – at the beginning of the 1980s. Historically, his cellar has been heavy on top-tier reds – including quite a bit of the 1985 vintage from Cheval Blanc and Margaux, as well as Lynch- Bages, Cos d’Estournel, Angélus and Mouton-Rothschild, all from good years. ‘I began buying wine to lay down – I just bought this and that, a case of Pétrus here, some Cheval Blanc there,’ he recalls. ‘I bought a lot of 1985 Bordeaux, which proved to be a good move. And I never sold any of it.’ Ten years ago, he realised he had amassed about 700-800 bottles, and ‘had to build a cellar to store it in.’ It is the kind of casual, off-the-cuff comment that exemplifies the way Galway manages to charm his audience and put them at ease. One gets the sense, though, that it’s a rehearsed charm, that he’s terribly keen to appear to be a man of the people, at the same time as being a musical genius – a balancing of the two seems to be the basis of his public persona. So media-friendly and accustomed to doing interviews is he, that he seems to recycle a lot of the same stories, and I had to exercise judicious care to exorcise elements I found repeated in other interviews.
(The photo was a sticking point too – we were only allowed an exclusive shoot if we agreed to use it on the cover. Not likely.) When it comes to wine, though, he isn’t precious. While he knows his stuff, he remains conservative in his tastes and doesn’t have the time or inclination to seek out the undiscovered next big thing. You are unlikely to find any garagistes lurking among the blue-chips in his cellar. These days, he says, ‘I buy wine to drink sooner rather than later. You can’t take it with you, can you?’ Living in Switzerland offers the opportunity to ‘jump in a car and be in Italy in a couple of hours’, and he takes advantage. He loves Supertuscans, Brunello and Amarone, as well as Californian wine – mentioning Darioush and Stag’s Leap, in particular – though he considers it overpriced. ‘For US$150 a bottle, I can get a really decent Bordeaux instead,’ he says. But that doesn’t stop him from drinking California wine when he’s in the area – as he was last summer when a concert tour of the Napa Valley combined business with pleasure and included a stint at Copia, the local centre for wine, food and the arts. Galway says he drinks red with nearly
everything, whatever he is eating. ‘My wife is a great cook,’ he says. ‘When we first met, I was a great cook, but she’s kind of taken over.’ Particularly on a Sunday ‘when the cooks are off ’, and he does the prep work and clean-up, while Lady Jeanne does the cooking. ‘She makes the best chicken I’ve ever eaten,’ he says. ‘I’ll typically have a glass of wine with dinner. Or two. Or three. But not my wife – she doesn’t drink.’ If he’s going to have white, it will most likely be New World Chardonnay – or the odd glass of sweet wine, notably Sauternes. He sees wine as part and parcel of ‘the good life’ rather than an end in itself. While he claims not to pay close attention to the big name critics, Galway cites the writings of Hugh Johnson, and Decanter, among his regular reads. Of the latter he quips, ‘It’s like a sex magazine – there’s something good on every page.’ Oh dear, I can feel myself being charmed. To hell with it. As a crowd-pleaser among the sometimes stuffy clique of top classical musicians, Galway approaches wine in the same way as he does music and people - to give pleasure, not intimidate.