The English actor and keen wine lover has lived in California since the 1990s, but his heart belongs to Bordeaux
The early 1960s. A small village in West Yorkshire. A young boy darts to the back door of a local pub and roots around in the bins, trimphantly retrieving an armful of empty wine bottles. ‘I would always take a swig to see if anything was left, but I liked to soak off the labels – they conveyed such exotic glamour,’ recalls actor Julian Sands. ‘Very Dickensian when I think about it. One of the most erotic charges of my childhood was the picture of the nun on the Blue Nun label, or the sensual shape of the Mateus Rosé bottle.’
Now in his early 50s, actor Julian Sands is best known for his lead role 25 years ago in the Merchant Ivory film, A Room With A View. His credits since then are many and diverse. In the past year he has, among other things, appeared in a stage play in Los Angeles, where he lives, staged a recital of Harold Pinter’s poems in London, recorded School for Scandal for radio, and filmed upcoming Hollywood release The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
With spiky blond hair and dressed in jeans and faded t-shirt, Sands has the air of an ageing rock star, but instead of an LA drawl, he speaks articulately and passionately in cultured, cut-glass English. He has a raw physical presence, a viscerality balanced by a cerebral approach to life – and to wine.
Sands takes wine so seriously that the interview filled two and a half hours of tape, which he followed up by email. ‘The turning point – though I didn’t realise it at the time – was my 21st birthday, when I received a case of Palmer 1961. At the time I thought, “bugger, I’d rather have had cash”. I sold half the case to a friend for peanuts, and then took the odd bottle to a party, leaving it on a table somewhere. Somehow, there was one bottle left, which I opened in my mid-20s. There was the sense of something extraordinary happening, in my body and my consciousness.’
Bordeaux remains the gold standard for Sands, who is fairly dismissive of Burgundy. ‘However fine, each seems more similar as an experience. With Bordeaux, I find the variety exciting. Pauillac is my passion, but I explore all areas continually, and love discovering châteaux. You don’t always want to be sitting by yourself knocking back a three-figure wine. And in my view, there is a point on the graph where what you spend and what you get meet at an acceptable point.’ Favourite châteaux? ‘The Pichons are consistently delicious and good value, plus Ducru-Beaucaillou, Haut-Batailley and Batailley. Plus the Léovilles. For everyday, I like the St-Emilion grand cru Grand Pontet.’
As well as the Palmer 1961, he has been lucky enough to drink Cheval Blanc 1947 – ‘I came across a case in my grandmother’s cellar’. Of more recent years, he is a fan of the unfashionable vintages: ‘I like the sleeper 1983s over the ’82s, and have had some lovely 2001s. There were also fantastic bargains to be had among the 1997s.’
Sands describes his palate as European. ‘I prefer to taste soil than ripe fruit. When I moved to California in the early 1990s, the wines seemed like alcoholic Coca-Cola. But the longer I stayed, the more I realised that there are some excellent winemakers, who understand the need for time in the bottle.’ As with France, he sticks mainly to Cabernet. ‘The cult names do nothing for me. I like Shafer, Phelps, Siver Oak, Pahlmeyer, Etude, and a great little winery called McKenzie-Mueller. But the ultimate expression of Californian Cab for me is Ridge Montebello.’ White wines don’t get much of a look-in – ‘something to make a spritzer with,’ he says, only half-jokingly. The only category to elicit the same passion is Champagne, perferably very old and almost flat. ‘I love it when it’s undrinkable to most people. Bliss.’
There is so much more about Sands’ love of wine to share: geographical areas not touched on; his penchant for drinking from silver goblets; his habit of decanting fine red into plastic containers to take hiking… But time is up. A final image, this time from the present day. The rumour is that Sands himself helped build his cellar, boring directly into the Hollywood Hills, naked, a chain gang bearing buckets behind him, a pyramid of soil building up in the garden. Passion in action.
Written by Amy Wislocki