A Man of Polite Learning


Author’s Note

“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 Learning

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 market expanded.

NM: What was the adolescent Michael Broadbent like?

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 meeting people.

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 ardour...”]

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 contemporaries.

NM: When you started tasting, a lot of wines were English bottled.

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 interested.

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 metaphors.

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 different.

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 greatest?

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?

MB: Unquestionably 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 regard?

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 formative years?

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 achievement?

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 so.

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 the map.

NM: Which cellar finds remain particularly memorable?

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 for diplomacy.

Fundamentally, he 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 mine.

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.