In Memoriam

Michael Broadbent: A Life in Wine

Michael Broadbent holds forth over a glass of Port.

© Christie’s | Michael Broadbent holds forth over a glass of Port.Wine consultant Charles Curtis MW mourns the death of great British wine legend Michael Broadbent.By Wine-Searcher staff | Posted Friday, 20-Mar-2020

Witty, urbane, infinitely knowledgeable, and always amusing, Michael Broadbent was an inspiration.

Readers loved to savor his descriptions of wines both legendary and really quite ordinary as well as the glimpses of his home life and the common touch that he brought to the subject. In spite of, or perhaps because of his erudition he was able to inspire any sort of reader.

He penned more than 400 columns for Decanter magazine between 1977 and 2012, many aimed at a general audience. He closed one notable column with these words: “If you find you can’t describe a wine, don’t. Just sit back and enjoy it.”  

This was emblematic of the tone that he took, whether he was describing a supermarket Pouilly-Fumé or a Montrachet and he would often describe both in the same column. We are fortunate today that through the agency of the internet many of these columns have been preserved, for they are a trove of wisdom, both wine-related and otherwise.

Michael’s writing is a gift to all, but his experience in wine is much richer than simply the writing. As with many in the wine trade, this path was not the one he intended in his youth. He showed an early aptitude for draftsmanship, and studied architecture in school. Architecture, however, was deprived of his talent when he began with wine merchant Tommy Layton in 1952 at the age of 25. Finding a home in wine, he moved from Layton’s to Saccone & Speed, and then to Harvey’s of Bristol in 1955. In 1960 he became the 24th person to qualify as a Master of Wine.  

Michael knew that the venerable auction house Christie’s had a long history of selling rare wine at auction.  These auctions had ceased after their King’s Street premises were bombed during World War II. After several entreaties, however, Michael convinced them to re-start wine auctions in 1966. His work as an auctioneer was a tour-de-force, as he projected from the rostrum his unique combination of high style and the common touch. He brought auctions to the wine regions of Germany and to salerooms in Amsterdam, Paris, Geneva, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and even to the United States. He sold wine in Chicago in the 1970s at the legendary Heublein auctions before it was legal in most of the United States, and went on to establish Christie’s first in Chicago and then in New York.

Words to live by

During the course of his career in the auction world, he arguably tasted more rare wine than anyone ever had or will again. He assiduously documented his thoughts in a series of notebooks begun during his time at Layton’s, ultimately producing more than 150 notebooks containing omore than 90,000 tasting notes, which were faithfully transcribed by Daphne, his wife of many years, who accompanied him as he joyfully traversed the vineyards of Europe and beyond. These notes were the foundation for his magnum opus as a writer, the dazzling Great Vintage Wine Book, first published in 1980.  

I have owned copies of each edition, from the New Great Vintage Wine Book (1991) to Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine (2002), and I spent, and still spend hours for the sheer pleasure of browsing the notes, such as this, on the ’55 Petrus: “‘Magnificent but not Médoc’ in 1983 – which shows my old school bias!” Pithy, self-depecrating, ever on point – this was the style of his writing and beloved by all. You can imagine my astonishment upon meeting Michael to discover that this was not the style of his writing but of the man himself.  

I had been in the wine trade not quite 15 years, and had passed the Master of Wine exam not too many years before, when after a long negotiation and many interviews I landed the post of head of the wine department at Christie’s in New York. They flew me to London to meet with the great man. I must not have irritated him excessively, since he appeared to decide over aperitifs at an Italian restaurant in South Kensington that I would do: “You’ll be alright. Just keep your head down and work, and you’ll be fine.”  

I tried to share a meal with Michael whenever my travels took me to London. One of my favorite quotes was from our last brunch at Scott’s, the seafood temple in Mayfair. I asked him to choose the wine, but he demurred. “You choose,” he said. The pressure was on. We discussed the seafood, and whether to start with oysters, smoked salmon, or lobster.  A lightbulb went off.  “Michael, what do you say to starting with a bottle of Champagne?” I asked. “Don’t be silly, old boy,” he replied. “I had that for breakfast.”

He will be sorely missed by all who knew him. He is survived by his son Bartholomew, a wine merchant in the US, his daughter Emma, Lady Arbuthnot of Edrom, a senior magistrate in England and Wales, and his second wife Valerie, whom he married in 2019.

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