A tribute to Michael Broadbent

Robert Joseph remembers Michael Broadbent MW, who led an extraordinary life in wine.

Michael Broadbent MW at Christie's/Credit: Christie's Images
Michael Broadbent MW at Christie's/Credit: Christie's Images

Michael Broadbent died on March 17th, 2020, at the age of 93

He was a man who could draw and paint. After leaving school, he studied for a degree in architecture, and it is easy to imagine him as the creator of a series of elegant buildings with all manner of quirky details designed to raise a smile for anyone who cared to notice them.

In 1952, however, he became an apprentice to the wine merchant Tommy Layton who was then one of the most respected members of the London wine trade. Three years later, he was persuaded to move to Harvey’s of Bristol by an even more influential mentor called Harry Waugh who, like himself, had adopted wine as a career relatively late – at the age of 30. 

Waugh, who went on to write four wine books was notable as the writer of what Broadbent later called “detailed yet unfussy tasting notes”. After being promoted to head up UK sales for Harvey’s, Broadbent, thanks to an introduction by Waugh, moved to an “empty office in King Street” in London’s Mayfair where he was “charged with the job of starting up Christie’s wine auction department”. In 1960, he became one of the early members of the Institute of Masters of Wine.

As wine writer Harry Eyres, who worked for him at Christie’s, recalls, Broadbent, with his urbane charm and ready humour, “brought glamour to wine”, popularising fine wine and, specifically, auctions in Britain and then internationally. Occasionally he did not recognise how far this impact had spread. When a long-haired, casually dressed young man appeared at a sale and began outbidding traditional pinstriped Christie’s customers, Broadbent decided to stop taking any notice of him. His mistake was pointed out in a lawyer’s letter on behalf of a very annoyed Andrew Lloyd Webber, co-creator of the hit musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Lloyd Webber was apparently soothed over a good Christie’s lunch, but it was Sotheby’s who got to sell his wine cellar a few decades later.

Broadbent would also regret becoming part of the controversy over one particular bottle of wine. Sold at Christie's as a 1787 Château Lafite owned by Thomas Jefferson for the record price of $156,000, its authenticity was widely questioned; it became the focus of a book by Benjamin Wallace called The Billionaire’s Vinegar. A lawsuit by Broadbent, who objected to the way he had been portrayed in it followed.  Random House, the publisher, agreed that the passages in question were not true, apologised, paid damages and undertook not to distribute the book in the UK.

The Rodenstock saga, as it was known, after the name of the German vendor, did nothing to dent Broadbent’s reputation as the world’s leading authority on fine wine and wine tasting. His book Vintage Wines drew on over 90,000 tasting notes compiled over the years and became a bible for anyone wanting to know the background to a Bordeaux vintage. There were no scores, merely a star-rating out of five. For Broadbent the description was far more important.

While he was inevitably associated with the kind of fine wine that tended to be sold at auction, Broadbent was as fascinated in tasting new and unfamiliar wines as professionals a third of his age. This passion for the unknown and underappreciated was also exhibited in the choice of music he liked to play on the piano. As Professor Jonathan Freeman Attwood noted in the commemorative edition of Broadbent’s Wine Tasting he was as happy to play works by the “spectacularly out of fashion” Gottschalk as any by Bach or Beethoven. 

The re-publication of Wine Tasting by Academie du Vin in 2019 – it was originally written in 1968 – illustrates how seminal Michael Broadbent has been to the wine world. Half a century on, his advice is still being taken by sommeliers from New York to New Delhi.

No one has better expressed the sense behind what he calls a “tabulated tasting” approach that sees appearance, bouquet and taste as ‘stages’ in a revelation “leading naturally and irrevocably to a logical conclusion”. In useful advice to the would-be wine writer, he goes on to say that “A variety of expressive abstract terms can be used to express degrees of quality. They tend to be subjective and should be chosen with care.”

But the Broadbent of the meticulous tasting note was also the man whose invitation to a ‘Bacchanalian romp’ at his home featured a drawing by him of a fat, old god of wine slumped over a barrel after several glasses too many. He never took himself too seriously and, while he will be remembered for his writing, Broadbent will also be the wine expert who made countless people smile or laugh when they met him in person or heard him speak. He was, quite simply, in his gentlemanly, courteous way, very captivating. 

As Bartholomew Broadbent, his son who has a successful import business in the US wryly recalls, Daphne, his mother “always accompanied my father to tastings… I think the main reason… was to fend off the women, many of whom were attracted to him and vice versa.”

Michael Broadbent may never have got to design any quirkily elegant great buildings, but memories of his quirkily elegant personality will linger and his descriptions of the finest wines of the world will still be read in years to come. 

Robert Joseph

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