FINE WINE Fine Wine Articles/Interviews Wine and Food Diary of Giles MacDonogh

My Memories of Michael Broadbent

Written by Giles MacDonogh

 

My Memories of Michael Broadbent 

By Giles MacDonogh

I can’t think when I first met Michael. It was sometime
after 1985, for sure; maybe the late eighties. Like
everybody else at that time, I made contributions to the
‘brand’ wine books: Hugh Johnson, Oz Clarke and
Broadbent. They could not be expected to know
everything so we little mice filled in the gaps. I have a
copy of his Pocket Guide to Wine Vintages for 1993 in
my hand. I think I must have done the Austrian section,
although I am nowhere acknowledged.
It was in Austria I got to know him. I recall being alerted
to some wines found in the cellar of the philosopher
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sister. They had been badly kept,
and many of them were only half full, or half empty, but
still, there were great vintages of Bordeaux there such as
1899 and 1900, and a few others all dating from before
the Great War. I remember calling Michael. He was
naturally interested, but before a package could be put
together the stock was decimated. I myself only drank
about half a glass of 1908 Château Margaux from a
bottle about a third full. The wine threw off a great minty
sweetness for a while, then withered and died before my
eyes.

In the early nineties, Michael was often in Vienna. In
those days the big wine fair was held in a modern
exhibition hall on the far side of the Prater park.

One morning when I had got to bed extremely late I had a
a telephone call in my room: ‘It’s Michael!’ said a cheery voice.

He was waiting for me in the lobby to go to the
fair. I wasn’t dressed and I told him to go on without me.
He probably wanted an interpreter. He was the world’s
worst linguist but he was always terrifically impressed by
others who could master foreign languages.
Linguist or no linguist, it was worth being with Michael
for his star quality. In the German-speaking world, he was
a god. Winemakers seemed to genuflect at his approach.
“They thought he was the very spirit of old England: a
gentleman, a guards’ officer, and in fairness he looked
the part: he was always charming, always graceful,
always impeccably well-dressed. He had a smile for
everyone.”
He had never been a guards’ officer, of course. He was
born in Oldham in Lancashire, where his family had
managed mills and went to school in Yorkshire on the
other side of the Pennines. The path goes a bit cold after
that, but he must have entered architectural school in
London on the production of a portfolio or drawings (he
was a keen draughtsman). He dropped out before the
second part of his course. With time he entered the wine
trade, worked for Laytons and Saccone & Speed before
joining Harvey’s in Bristol, along the way he passed his
MW exam and flowered. He became the face of the wine
auctions at Christie’s, the man who knew about old
bottles and cellars and who tasted the sort of wines we
could only dream about. He was solicited all over the
world, by all those millionaires who had collections of
Lafite, Latour or Mouton. It seemed there was always a
first-class ticket waiting to take him to Las Vegas, Tulsa or

Little Rock and a plutocratic dentist or property
developer ready to give him the run of his cellar.
Michael was a man of moderation. There wasn’t an
ounce of fat on him. He kept himself trim by riding a
bicycle. You would never see him drunk (at least I never
did). I remember the publisher of the Austrian magazine
Falstaff approaching him at a ball telling him he had
consumed a bottle of champagne (or was it two?) while
he was putting on his bib and tucker. Michael regarded
him with unfeigned alarm: ‘But Helmut! That is
shocking!’ He said.
He was generous with his wisdom, but perhaps a little
other-worldly – his other-worldly. Once I had been
disappointed by the 1977 Sandeman at dinner in Oporto I
found him at breakfast in the Infante Sagres Hotel and
asked him if there were any vintage ports from the same
house he might recommend. He reflected for a while and
said: ‘They made a decent 1927.’ It was, of course, his
birth year.
I remember a few days with him in Berlin in the early
2000s. My hair was long and he persisted in introducing
me to people, including the British ambassador, as a
poet. We had some nice little treats courtesy of the VDP,
including a tour of the Reichstag and a boat trip on the
Spree. The German wine women adored him as ever. I
used to see pictures of him waltzing in the Kursaal in
Wiesbaden with a beatific smile in his face. As he grew
older he travelled more and more with his wife Daphne.
When Daphne died he remarried, although he was really
quite old by then.

Michael was facing a happy retirement when his
reputation was badly singed by the Hardy Rodenstock
Affair. He had authenticated bottles of first-growth
Bordeaux allegedly formerly belonging Thomas
Jefferson that were bought by the American millionaire
Bill Koch when the likely truth was that Rodenstock had
concocted the wines himself. Michael’s position was not
helped by the fact he had been a friend of Rodenstock’s.
When Benjamin Wallace wrote a book about the case
called The Billionaire’s Vinegar, Michael sued and was
able to prevent its publication and distribution in Britain.
The last time I remember seeing him I was at a tasting
lunch for the Grand Jury at a hotel in Jermyn Street. He
was walking with a stick having been hit by a car
crossing St James’s Street. I accompanied him part of the
way. I think he was heading for Brooks’s Club. He was
very much his merry old self. Life will feel odd without
him.

About the author

Giles MacDonogh

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