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Auction man – Hanson

Although born with beer in his blood, it's wine that flows through the veins of Anthony Hanson MW, dynamic head of Christie's wine department. He talks to Andrew Jefford.

It might all have been so different. If Anthony Hanson MW had been his father’s first rather than third son, then I’d have met him as a brewer, up in Nottinghamshire, over a pint of Kimberley Best Bitter. Statistically the Hanson name will be most widely known to British drinkers through Hardys and Hansons, a traditional, regional real ale specialist, run today by Anthony’s elder brother, Richard.

Pints of bitter may have paid for Anthony Hanson’s Eton education, but the brewery was never a career option. ‘Both of my elder brothers followed my father into the brewing world, so my parents told me that I would have to do something completely different.’ The third son chose wine. ‘I’d read wine books when I was 16 or 17; wine was not a thousand miles away from the beer world. I’d got French A-level, but I wanted conversational French, so I went to live in France.’ Hanson took a French course at Grenoble University, but in the end decided to follow the wine road rather than formal studies. He showed English-speaking tourists around Moët’s cellars and picked the grapes for La Conseillante 1964. When a Stowell’s of Chelsea traineeship proved disappointing (the present head of Christie’s wine department drove forklifts), he went to Germany and spent six months working for Louis Guntrum. Marriage to Rosi Ruddle (yes, from another brewing family) came in 1968, and the couple then decided to return to France, where the young wine student spent the mornings writing prospecting letters in English to potential clients in the West Indies and India for Bouchard Aîné in Beaune. More significantly, in the afternoons he started visiting growers in Burgundy, taking notes on them and their wines. ‘There were lots of books at the time about appellations and soils and history and so on, but no-one wrote about the people. So I started taking notes about the people who were bottling themselves – Ramonet, Rousseau, d’Angerville, people like that. ‘By the time I came back to the UK in 1970, I had notes on more than 200 domains. I showed it to Julian Jeffs at Faber and he said it was jolly good, but it wasn’t a book yet; I needed all the history, geography and soil information as well. He was quite right, of course, though I went into a bit of decline at the time.’

Decanter to host auction with Christie’s to benefit WaterAid

Hanson worked as wine buyer for André Simon wines until 1977. The company was then part of Cadbury-Schweppes and buying proved frustrating because decision-making at the top was so slow. Eventually Hanson decided to found his own company with his André Simon colleagues Denis Haynes and Nicholas Clark – thus Haynes, Hanson and Clark was born. This was a world where domain bottling was still far from the norm. ‘The idea was to be an independent specialist, fast-moving and shipping directly.’ The company succeeded with its predominantly French list and still thrives today. Anthony Hanson managed it for 12 years, before handing over to Nick Clark in 1991.

The business of selling wine

Meanwhile, after a long gestation, in 1982 Hanson’s ‘book about people’ in Burgundy was eventually published. Readable, educational and iconoclastic, it became one of the greatest successes of Faber & Faber’s wine series. Did its reception make him think about writing full time? ‘I guess not. Business is in my blood. I come from a business family and that’s how I’ve always earned my living. The pursuit of good wine at a good price is very exciting. Anyway, writing well is part of the business of selling wine.’ So what is ‘writing well’? ‘Concise, precise and evocative – that’s good wine writing; when you pare away the rubbish and the excesses of it, so it’s accurate and has its feet on the ground, even at moments of full-throated praise and enthusiasm.’

Hanson’s 1991 move towards a consultancy role was taken partly because he was bored with being an MD and partly because Burgundy needed a major revision; this second edition was published in 1995. He carried on buying for HH&C, but also bought French wines for the Australian chain Liquorland (and especially for its Vintage Cellars shops). He never, he says, dreamed of stepping into Michael Broadbent’s shoes.The phone call from Christie’s came out of the blue. In June 1998 Broadbent had been succeeded by Christopher Burr MW, who left after just 22 months to work with Internet company uvine.com. The general perception seems to be that the Burr stewardship was not a great success, though Broadbent was an impossibly hard act to follow. The job, it would seem, must go to a distinguished Master of Wine of the older generation but, as one commentator remarked: ‘There just aren’t many MWs available who have the right distinction and gravitas and who aren’t old drunks’.

Hanson may not have thought about the job prior to that phone call, but he soon realised he was very interested in it. ‘I could see that there was a job to be done and that it was an extension of what I had been doing. I’ve always been a trader, but have always believed that communicating well is an integral part of trading well. I’ve always liked working with people and as part of a team.’ What about wielding a gavel? ‘I’m auction-training at the moment. I would like to do it, but only if I’m any good at it. There’s a lot of mental juggling, I’ve discovered. You’ve got reserve prices, estimates, bids in the book, telephone bids and floor bids to think about, so you have to start counting backwards before you start counting forwards.’ Does he have a debut auction date pencilled in? ‘I may do, but I’m certainly not going to let that out.’ The spirit of competition with Sotheby’s, of course, is pursued with famous rigour, and Michael Broadbent’s own relationship with the head of Sotheby’s wine department, Serena Sutcliffe MW, was gloriously prickly. ‘I’ve known Serena from way back,’ says Hanson. ‘We were both training in France in the late 1960s. If you look at the records, you’ll see that two people passed the MW exam in 1976 – Serena and I. We’ve got on well over a long period.’

All those canvassed said that one reason why Michael Broadbent was such a great auctioneer was that he had the perfect combination of charm and ruthlessness. Both are needed to attract prized wines in the teeth of fierce opposition and sell them with style and splash. Everyone acknowledges Anthony Hanson’s charm; some, though, wonder whether he will prove ruthless enough. When I allude to this he smiles charmingly and says: ‘I don’t think that will be a problem. When Burgundy came out, many of the things in there were quite unpalatable to Burgundians; there was a lot of plain speaking in it, which I didn’t shy away from. I wouldn’t have made a success of my trading and writing if it hadn’t been for a very determined streak in there. You don’t succeed in business without determination.’ He leaves it at that and I get the message very clearly.

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