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From Broom To Gavel: Michael Broadbent MW
BY NEAL MARTIN | MARCH 25, 2020
Michael Broadbent is the single most influential person in my career. Thanks to him, a job became a passion. There would inevitably come a day when I would write about him posthumously. Thankfully that day took many years to arrive. I did not want to write, nor do I think Broadbent deserves, a facts-and-figures chronological run-through of achievements during a career that saw him ostensibly invent the tasting note, establish London as an epicenter of the wine trade and become an exemplar of how wine should be appreciated and enjoyed. Instead, I have written an article that I hope would have earned Broadbent’s nod of approval. It is an intentionally personal piece that that does not take itself too seriously and borrows some of its subject’s wit. I hope it will give readers an insight into the man behind the name.
This turned out to be a long piece, but many of us have plenty of time on our hands at present. Therefore I decided to split it into two parts and publish them on consecutive days. This first part is my own perspective on Michael Broadbent, an anecdotal account of how we intersected toward the end of his career and the beginning of mine. I never knew him as well as others, even though he could make you feel you were lifelong friends, but for several years we became well acquainted both professionally and socially, resulting in the second part of this article. “A Man of Polite Learning” is the title of my interview with Broadbent, originally published on my fledgling website 15 years ago. It has not seen the light of day for many years – kept in reserve, I guess, until the day that Michael Broadbent was no longer among us.
Michael Broadbent and me in April 2004 in
Tokyo. Yes, that is yours truly in a suit and tie.
Michael Broadbent: A Personal Appreciation
Upon commencing my professional career as part of a buying team for a London-based Japanese import company, I would often spot Michael Broadbent’s rangy frame at various wine events and dinners, his white hair tucked behind his ears and half-moon spectacles dangling around his neck. Though Yorkshire-born, he typified the Mayfair gent, always immaculately attired in a suit, his clothes doubtless from one of St. James’s Street’s tailors or the shoemakers that cluster around Christie’s. His impeccable Queen’s English disguised his roots, and his voice could pierce the din of the noisiest tasting. It was a voice that pricked up your ears and made you listen. Broadbent was part of the hegemony of British wine writers who were so influential in the latter half of the 20th century. In those days his formidable reputation made me feel unworthy of approaching him. Occupying the same room was enough. Eventually, though I can’t remember where or when, I plucked up the courage to express my appreciation for his work and confessed my penchant for old claret. I found him immediately personable and charismatic, more than anyone I have ever known in the wine industry. He had a natural ability to hold an audience in the palm of his hand, enlightening them with technical details one minute and hollering with laughter the next.
When I launched my website in 2003, Broadbent and I began to circulate within the same private tastings, not least a series of memorable verticals organized by Linden Wilkie. Some of his anecdotes were publishable and others not, the latter always dished out with a glint in his eye. Looking back, this period was the final flurry of activity in a dazzlingly hectic career. By then, Broadbent was in his mid-seventies and had matured like a fine bottle of Lafite, accruing unparalleled experience while retaining more energy than a man half his age. He invested that energy into writing and promoting his 2002 magnum opus, Vintage Wine, an update of his influential The Great Vintage Wine Book, essentially a distillation of tasting notes gleaned from 133 red exercise books. Predating the omnipresence of the web, his book was a bible to me and countless others, its gravitas enhanced by the knowledge that this cornucopia of tasting notes could never be repeated. Nobody will taste as comprehensively ever again because so many of these treasures no longer exist. (But hey, there’s no harm in trying.)
Michael Broadbent’s first tasting book from
1952 on the left and his then most recent on the right.
The book showcased the author’s natural ability to encapsulate a wine in a single phrase or even a pithy putdown. “A faded beauty with twinkling eyes” is how he described an 1848 Belair Marquis d’Aligré. Do you need to know any more?
Broadbent’s prose welcomed the reader into his world of elusive and fabled wines, into dusty cellars stocked with ancient bottles and the colorful characters that owned them. His skill was making the reader feel as if they were worthy of those wines too. There was no tinge of one-upmanship or showing off, a principle that I strive to follow in my own writing. All that was required was an objective and sober assessment seasoned with a dash of wit to leaven the subject matter, or a down-to-earth piece of advice – for example, the 1989 Grand Puy Lacoste that was “perfect with Daphne’s roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.” Exactly.
Broadbent also taught me not to be monomaniacal about wine. As detailed further in “A Man of Polite Learning,” he was passionate about art and music and deftly interwove them into his engaging prose. These pursuits completed his engaging personality. There was always more to him than wine.
Broadbent spotted this flowery piano in the
lobby of the Hotel Okura. Without a pause he walked over and started tinkling
the ivories, and soon attracted an audience.
Broadbent in Tokyo
After the publication of Vintage Wine, my colleagues in Japan were sourcing fine wine for Okura, one of Tokyo’s most distinguished hotels and host to many a visiting American president. They wanted to organize a special inaugural dinner for a wine-themed restaurant, and I was asked to approach Broadbent to tutor the event. Through a mutual friend we organized an introductory dinner - my first tête-à-tête with Broadbent. I preordered a Mosel Riesling, and before discussions commenced, he excused himself for a moment in order to jot down his impressions on a napkin. (He never let a wine escape without a tasting note.) In the end, he did not need much cajoling to come to Japan because he adored the country and its people. The highlight of the dinner was to be a bottle of 1945 Mouton-Rothschild. I asked Broadbent to suggest other wines. A couple of days later, the office fax machine whirred into action with 20 pages of handwritten suggestions and commentary. I still have that fax and, indeed, all the correspondence we exchanged at the time. I set about sourcing the wines directly from producers, and as my former colleague Hiro confirmed, it only took one mention of the name “Michael Broadbent” for gems like 1947 Vouvray from Huet or 1964 Barberesco (sic) to magically appear.
A few weeks later I arranged another meeting to discuss the Okura dinner. I have dug up the entry from “Diary of a Wine Taster” that formed part of Wine-Journal from 2003 to 2006. This is from 2003.
Monday 12 November
Today I have arranged a lunch with the man whose palate has been caressed with more fine wines than any other, Michael Broadbent. I have nightmares of him absent-mindedly forgetting this meeting. He is notoriously difficult to contact, having eschewed most forms of mass communication post-Alexander Bell. A lunch has been planned within the oak-paneled walls of 1937 Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair. I think the doyen of fine wine would appreciate this bastion of traditional English cooking, where Agatha Christie’s scent lingers in the air as murders are concocted over an éclair and pot of Earl Grey. I nip down early in the morning to speak to the sommelier. He can barely contain his excitement when I reveal that Broadbent, patron saint of sommeliers, will deign us with his presence. He scurries away to polish his Riedels.
We arrive early with Hiro, my Japanese colleague, who is putting this whole thing together. There are a few tense minutes spent loitering in the reception. What if he doesn’t turn up? Maybe he has fallen off his bike or migrated to Bordeaux? I suppose I could phone up Hugh Johnson as a replacement or find a septuagenarian with vague resemblance. There must be herds of them in Mayfair’s private social clubs. Suddenly a flash of bright royal blue out of the corner of my eye and it can mean only one thing, no, not Broadbent... it’s Margaret Thatcher! The Iron Lady regally steps out of a chauffeured car, a vision that I grew up with on the daily news being lived out in real life. I cannot quite believe she is standing in front of me whilst... Christ, I didn’t even notice... Michael Broadbent is shaking my hand. I am overwhelmed by the Englishness of my surroundings. Who’s next? The Queen popping in with her corgis for a slice of Victoria sponge?
Since he has tasted practically everything under the sun, there is no point impressing him with a grand bottle, so I serve a 1986 Grand Puy Ducasse, a fine if slightly shallow classic Bordeaux. The lunch goes well and then he disappears into the bustle of late-afternoon Mayfair to change his money into euros for a trip to Burgundy. This is a man who never stops working.
How I would love to have witnessed a conversation between those two British icons: Margaret Thatcher and Michael Broadbent.
After long and protracted discussions, the full list of wines was agreed upon, and, in subsequent correspondence, Broadbent punctiliously detailed the order of serving, temperatures and decanting times, not least how an imperial of 1978 Mouton-Rothschild should be served. “The imperial of Mouton will have to be syphoned into 5 or 6 decanters,” he instructed. “I can handle this. The imperial must be stood upright in a room for at least 24 hours – not in the dining room. The bottle, once decanted, can be brought and displayed during dinner.” He was a stickler for punctuation and grammar, never really my strong point. Another entry from the diary from 2004...
Broadbent was meticulous about the serving of every wine poured in his presence. Here he is inspecting and pre-tasting the wines including the aforementioned ’78 Mouton in the background.
Monday 16 February
I receive an early morning call from Michael Broadbent MW. I always feel slightly nervous when I speak to him. He reminds me of my stern headmaster at grammar school, affable unless you got the wrong side of him, then a bullet of chalk would be expelled in your direction. Fortunately, I have not upset the doyen of fine wine apart from him correctly pointing out that I misspelled “Barbaresco” in our last exchange. I am surprised he has not graded my fax and sent me to detention in St. James’s Street.
I flew to Tokyo to attend the tastings. Unfortunately, there was no seat at the table at the Okura for this underling. My first taste of 1945 Mouton-Rothschild had to wait (though fortunately not too long, and it transpired in the company of – who else – Michael Broadbent). I did attend two seminars for a packed room of rapt sommeliers who hung on his every word. Then I joined Broadbent for dinner with my Japanese colleagues. If you don’t mind, a third extract from the diary in 2004...
Monday 12 April
In the evening a small group of us venture to a famous Japanese restaurant called Kojyu where we sit at a sunken table in a spartanly furnished tatami room. I worry that Michael might not be able to get up off the floor once he is down and folded under the table. The food is extraordinary: conger eel and soft-bellied turtle, a delicacy that the Japanese regard as a potent aphrodisiac. It certainly seems to have had an effect on Michael. He tells us an anecdote so X-rated that Mariko, bless her, the pretty young lady translating for our guests, blushes crimson as she works out the meaning of words that I doubt are on Japanese curriculum. Her face is confused. Did our eminent guest really just say that? Michael howls with laughter and deflects blame by claiming that the joke is Anthony Barton’s. We leave around 11 o’clock and escort Michael through crowds of young Japanese women seemingly all dressed in micro-skirts that our guest finds “diverting.” But we eventually manage to get him back to the Okura.
The trip was a great success. Broadbent called the following week, not to regale me with another ribald tale, but to tell me that the entire sommelier team of the Okura had formed a guard of honor at Narita’s departure gate; that is the kind of reverence he provoked. It had caught him off guard, and recounting this episode a few days later, he still sounded taken aback and humbled by the gesture.
Michael Broadbent liked nothing more than tutoring
wine tastings for budding sommeliers and wine lovers.
Following the event, I asked if he was willing to be interviewed for my website. I had read plenty of articles written by Broadbent but could find little on the man himself. (It is such a pity that he never got round to penning his autobiography like Steven Spurrier or Hugh Johnson. What stories and memories he must have had! He did come close to committing at one point, but it never came to fruition.)
To my delight,
Broadbent agreed to my request. When I arrived at his office in St. James’s, he
suggested conducting the interview at his pied-à-terre
in Parsons Green. It turned out to be one of the most memorable days of my wine
career. I recorded our two-hour conversation on a handheld mini-recorder,
bought from Dixons the previous day. When I replayed the recording at home, to
my horror I found that a machine fault caused the conversation to cut out every
20 seconds. I spent hours and hours painstakingly rewinding back and forth,
trying to decipher Broadbent’s words and, where necessary, filling in the gaps
myself! But it was worth it.
The Broadbent interview was a coup. It gave my website and my name a higher profile. People took Wine-Journal more seriously. That a man of his stature had appeared not in a print magazine but on this new-fangled medium called the Internet was significant. And I am not the only person he gave a leg up to; the announcement of his passing prompted many people to comment on how he had opened doors, offered sage advice or even given them their career. His tasting notes might veer toward the past, but he was unfailingly supportive of the future and of those who might continue his legacy of communicating about fine wine.
Following the publication of “A Man of Polite Learning,” I received a handwritten letter on Chippenham Lodge stationery, indicating that it came directly from Broadbent’s Gloucestershire country home. I feared the worst: maybe he loathed the piece and was suing. Fortunately not. Typical of Broadbent, he chided me for not sending him first approval (never my policy, not even for him), and he had spotted some inaccuracies. But overall he was extremely complimentary, and that meant a lot coming from him. Tellingly, he wrote: “...you have also revealed aspects of myself I was unaware of (perhaps just as well!)”
After joining The Wine Advocate, in the employ of Broadbent’s sparring partner Robert Parker, I saw him less frequently. As one of the few to have known both titans of wine literature, I can say that despite their divergent views, there was mutual respect. “The fine art of writing intelligent tasting notes has no greater master than the incomparable Michael Broadbent.” Those are not my words but Parker’s, on the dust jacket of Vintage Wine. The two men had much more in common than you might suppose, and I remember Broadbent smiling when I told him that. He retreated from the frontline in his twilight years, though he maintained his monthly Decanter column until 2012. His partner-in-crime, his wife Daphne, passed away three years later. Physically, he began to look frail, and yet his spirit prevailed. He never lost that glint in his eye. Should we really have been surprised when he remarried at the tender age of ninety?
I cannot remember the precise last time that I saw Michael Broadbent; I am sure it was a few months ago. One vivid recent memory was at a Figeac dinner in the Christie’s boardroom, Thierry Manoncourt having been one of his great friends. Sure, Broadbent needed assistance getting up from his chair. Yet once he was vertical and espousing his love for Figeac, David Elswood, another fine chap who the wine world has lost in recent months, leaned over. “We’ll be here ‘til morning,” he said. “Michael will never stop.”
But Michael did stop. He passed away peacefully on March 17, 2020, leaving an astonishing legacy and a formidable list of achievements that nobody will ever match. I can vouch for that, since two pages of the aforementioned 20-page fax listed his litany of awards. He was not infallible. He did not suffer fools and could be waspish if you fell out. For example, his enmity toward his opposite number at Sotheby’s, Serena Sutcliffe, never abated. His association with and subsequent defense of the alleged counterfeiter Hardy Rodenstock is a blemish that I wish could be erased, especially the numerous name-checks in Vintage Wine. His dashing looks, flirtatious personality and constant wining and dining lent him a reputation as, to put it euphemistically, a “naughty boy.” Yet he was a brilliant taster and a gifted, entertaining writer. He was a peerless raconteur and someone who could brighten the dourest of evenings. His guides and tasting courses educated countless wine lovers and spread the enjoyment of wine. He taught how to appreciate wine, whether it is Muscadet or Mouton, and imbued every note with almost boyish enthusiasm. Above all, Michael Broadbent knew the value of kindness, because in this industry that is the most important virtue.
There will never be another Michael Broadbent. But we only ever needed one for the world to be a richer place.
Michael Broadbent MW
May 2, 1927 – March 17, 2020
Part 2, “A Man of Polite Learning” will be published March 26, 2020.