Michael Broadbent has been in the wine business for 50 years and he's not planning to give up yet. SUSAN KEEVIL talks to Decanter's irreverent, hugely popular wine writer and all-round expert
Michael Broadbent has been in the wine business for 50 years and he’s not planning to give up yet. SUSAN KEEVIL talks to Decanter’s irreverent, hugely popular wine writer and all-round expert
There can’t be many people who can better Michael Broadbent’s track record in the wine trade. In 50 years he has recorded tasting notes for over 85,000 wines (filling 133 tasting notebooks), he has both become an MW and presided as chairman over the Institute of Masters of Wine. He built up Christie’s wine department to its current high standing, and won three Glenfiddich Awards for his wine writing – together with numerous other accolades for contributions to wine education. He has been responsible for choosing wine for British Airways and, in 1993, was proclaimed Decanter Man of the Year.
People know and love Michael for a number of things – his penchant for cycling around London on his trusty Dutch bicycle; his ability (thereafter) to step into any room without a hair out of place; his distinguished presence in the auction room; his impish sense of fun, and for his (often shockingly) apposite wit. He’s a man of many eccentricities that both endear and infuriate. But he is most of all revered for his words – written and spoken.
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Michael’s first book, Wine Tasting, published in 1968, was written out of a general frustration that there was nothing set down as to how wine should be tasted. ‘In the course of some pretty wide-ranging reading I came across not a book, or a chapter even, which dealt – in English at any rate – with what I considered a pretty vital subject.’ So Michael wrote what is generally agreed to be the first comprehensive wine guide, subsequently translated into eight languages. A second classic emerged in 1980, The Great Vintage Wine Book, based on Michael’s tasting experiences. ‘I knew there’d be a market, because Americans wanting to know what Mouton-Rothschild tastes like, or when to drink 1961s, would use it. But the surprise was that people read it to enjoy wines vicariously – I remember Lord Carrington, when he became chairman of Christie’s, saying he had a copy by his bed and read it every night.’
They also read it voraciously not only in the US, but also in Britain, Holland and Germany (where it was translated), and into its second edition, which appeared in 1991 – chosen shortly afterwards for Decanter’s Book of the Year. So popular was The Great Vintage Wine Book that it’s about to enter its third edition, published by Websters as Vintage Wine in October 2002. ‘This time people will either enjoy it or they’ll think I’m a fearful snob!’ laughs Michael nervously – edition three is enhanced with stories and snapshot profiles of people he has tasted with. ‘They might also think I’m just name-dropping!’
If Michael is exasperated by some of the wine writing he reads in the press these days it is probably because few authors are as capable as he is at capturing the real essence of wine in words. Not all his notes have been deemed publishable, but it can’t be doubted that they communicate. For example: Clos de Tart (1978): ‘An attractive, buxom, nubile, highly scented tart’. Of other wines: ‘…full-bodied, firm flesh, like the sort of young girl’s bottom that elderly Frenchmen have a predilection for pinching’; ‘With dinner: it slaughtered the lamb for a second time’; ‘An amplitude of flesh, but happily more Renoir than Rubens’; ‘Tannins like old socks – improved greatly with air’. If these notes err to the poetic (and jokey), then who could question ‘the acidity cuts across the tongue like a rapier’ of an old Madeira?
The ability to convey taste sensations in words is a natural talent to Michael. But accruing the wisdom behind these words has, of course, taken many years of experience. It wasn’t until he was a young architectural student in 1947 that a wine first caught his attention. ‘It was at the home of a family friend who lived near us in Cheshire, Dr Thomas Kerfoot. We sat in his garden on a lovely summer evening and drank Yquem with nectarines. I’d just come out of the army and I knew nothing about wine – as a family we drank it with meals, but nothing special. This was the first really great wine I’d ever tasted.’
Soon afterwards he was introduced to Château Lafite. ‘I have always been grateful to Thomas Kerfoot for my first sip of first growths. They must have lingered in the back of my mind, a delayed spark which eventually brought me a career.’ It was not until five years later that Michael made the switch from architecture (‘I was too idle to open any books on drainage and sanitation’). His mother had seen an advert in The Times for a trainee with London merchant Tommy Layton, and Michael applied, and got the job – later to discover that he was only taken on because his employer admired his handwriting. Then aged 25, Michael swept cellar floors, took orders and delivered wine to smart houses in Mayfair. His salary of £300 a year saw him pawning his stamp collection and avidly awaiting a possible tip: ‘I was given only two during that year – the first was from an Aberdonian lady and it was sixpence. The second was from a Jewish gentleman.’
Michael admits that Tommy Layton had a tremendous influence on him: ‘He was as mad as a hatter: he taught me how not to run a business and how not to treat staff, but he had a circle of wine tasters which I helped organise and it was at these tastings that I started my first book of notes’ (first dated 17 September 1952). Despite his lowly status at this stage, Michael describes this part of his life as: ‘a revelation: suddenly I found myself in a vocation as opposed to being idle!’ The second revelation of his career came a few years later when Michael began working for Harvey’s of Bristol. He moved up to their Manchester office in 1957. It was at this time he started lecturing to wine clubs and women’s institutes, and started his first monthly wine column (for Cheshire Life) in 1958. He later became involved in developing a chain of new Harvey’s wine shops, many within department stores. ‘This was tremendously exciting, I was totally in charge. I had to do everything from getting the licences (sitting in court!) to using my architectural skills to design the shops.’
Michael passed his Master of Wine exam in 1960, only the 24th candidate to do so. Today he looks back and admits that the exam was far easier then; the vast array of wines available today are much more confusing: ‘We’re spoilt for choice now: there are a great many wines out there but my great, great worry is that so many are in the full-of-fruit style that tastes exactly the same from anywhere. It’s very difficult to choose between them.’
The next great career opportunity came in 1965 when he heard that Christie’s were thinking of restarting their wine auctions in London. Michael wrote to the chairman to say that the timing was absolutely right, and that they needed someone enterprising, aged between 35 and 45, to get the thing going. Audacity paid off, and he was taken on to set up the department, holding 32 wine sales in that first season. (Lot one of the first sale consisted of six bottles of 1875 Cockburn port, which sold for 1,250 shillings per dozen. Things haven’t looked back since!) Michael counts the following years as some of the most rewarding of his career. Scrabbling around in country house cellars (Daphne, his wife, at his side), emerging laden with fine old wine, covered in grime, but with the makings of an excellent new sales catalogue in hand. Delving among the treasures of Glamis Castle, Dalmeny and Woodperry House and others, he discovered some of the finest wines he’d ever tasted, and then, of course, wrote about them.
As Michael explains it, he spent the 1970s and 1980s singing for his supper (something he still does). Much of this involved touring the world, America in particular, representing Christie’s at pre-sale tastings and fine wine auctions. Michael was usually asked to preside, describing the wines, conducting the auction, and generally entertaining as he went. Highlights for Michael were the people he met, tasted with, and got to know (Robert Mondavi, André Tchelistcheff and Peter Sichel among them), but there were some embarrassing moments too, such as the time he didn’t recognise the young Andrew Lloyd Webber (before Jesus Christ Superstar fame) and refused to accept his bids at auction because he looked scruffy (since forgiven!); and the time when he unfortunately found he had Earl and Countess Spencer bidding against each other for the same corkscrew (also subsequently forgiven).
But the worst moment, as he tells it, was on the David Frost Show in New York, in 1972: ‘Unquestionably one of the most embarrassing moments of my career. Live on television, I was the last to be interviewed as it was intended for David and the guests to gather round as I opened a rare old vintage port, an 1844. Try as I might, I could not extract the cork. In the end I had to use the rather poor corkscrew to bore a hole through the middle (it was like root canal treatment), and was then reduced to sprinkling the wine, like vinegar over fish and chips, into the glasses of the awaiting fellow guests.’
Collecting his impressions of the last 50 years, it isn’t surprising – given the number of great clarets he has tasted – that Michael’s greatest concern is for Bordeaux. ‘Oenologists have their place, but I think they’ve had a bad effect on the region. Michel Rolland is a case in point: he makes soft, fruity wines that could come from anywhere and I simply don’t approve. ‘I still consider the finest wines to have been made between 1848 and 1875, and 1919 and 1929 – these were bloody good wines from a time when “winemakers”, let alone oenologists, were not even heard of.’
Michael admits that oenologists have their trials too: ‘Emile Peynaud once said to me that I have the easy time of it, because I talk and write about the “lovely ladies”, while he has to work with the squalling brats.’ Nonetheless he’d like to see: ‘More honest-to-goodness winemaking, with an appreciation and understanding of the finer points of wine – more finesse and fewer blockbusters.’ In claret terms, he means vintages like 1985, ‘my favourite vintage for drinking now, and keeping!’ His other great fear is that the growing uniformity of wine styles is blotting out the different nuances of wine’s landscape: ‘If I ever mistook a lousy wine for a really great one I’d give up, walk away altogether. But it’s certainly forgivable to get the district, even the grape, wrong these days. I’d like to see this reversed, to see the return of distinctly different regional styles.’
For the wine world to be ideal, Michael would like there to be: ‘Less writing about wine, less talking, less tasting, and more drinking’. He’d also like to see ‘the abolition of international wine competitions and gold medals. The results seem to me to distort what wine is all about’ (this comes back to merging wine styles again). ‘And less use of oak and the abolition of oak chips – akin to using cheap teabags.’
Michael is still cycling around London, still as fit and active as ever having just celebrated his 75th birthday. He is still writing – as well as the new Vintage Wine, he’s on his 304th Decanter column. But he’s spending less time at the piano than he planned when he took more of a back seat from Christie’s. ‘Daphne doesn’t approve: she prefers me drawing or painting because then there’s something on the wall at the end of it.’ Michael’s still sipping buck’s fizz for breakfast (occasionally), a Loire or German wine for elevenses (or Verdelho Madeira in the week), Bordeaux when he’s in town, other wines, Italian perhaps, when he’s in the country at weekends, where he can concentrate. And he still has that impish sense of fun. For the latter you’ll have to read his new book to see what we mean.
Susan Keevil is a former editor of Decanter.
Written by Susan Keevil