Sunday, July 02, 2006

Vintage Wine by Michael Broadbent

Vintage Wine
Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wine
Michael Broadbent
Harcourt, 2002

I used to read books about wine all the time, but, more recently, I have tended to read the Wine Spectator to try to make sure that my information about wine is up to date. I was recently at Daedalus Books, a wonderful bookshop (with mail order service) in Columbia, MD, and I found Michael Broadbent's book for only $10.00. I bought it, and it has given me more pleasure than any book that I have read for a long time. (I went to Daedalus yesterday, and noticed one copy left on the shelf. You can also get it from Amazon for about $37.00

Originally trained as an architect, Michael Broadbent entered the wine trade in 1952, but he is most famous for starting and running the wine department at Christie's, the auction house. During the fifty years between his start and 2002, more value must have passed through this man's lips than almost anyone in the world!

Consider for a moment that he sold a bottle of 1787 Lafite, which was owned by Thomas Jefferson, at auction for $105,000. Although that particular bottle became damaged "due to the heat of spotlights" in the Presidential Memorabilia section of the Forbes Museum, Broadbent has tasted this particular vintage of Lafite twice, and he describes the second tasting as "tawny, no red, a dark brown flaky sediment; nose was restrained and although oxidised opened up quite richly with residual fruit traces; a touch of sweetness on the palate and acidic, acetic finish." If you like this kind of stuff, this book draws from 85,000 notes that meticulously describe the wine, the occasion, and an interesting cast of wine drinking companions. No wonder calls Broadbent "a more diligent wine archivist than we wine lovers deserve."

This is the ultimate wine blog and reading it really is a humbling experience for little bloggers like me. Broadbent has had the discipline to make and keep notes thousands of times during a period of fifty years. Another thing that sets him apart is that people like him have the talent, which combines an outstanding palate and extraordinary power of written expression, to document their impressions of wine at the first tasting. In contrast, I rarely feel confident about putting my thoughts about wine into written form until I have tasted a wine at least three times.

Broadbent tastes the best, and he makes no apology for doing so. He explains himself by telling his readers, "My wife, Daphne, and I drink wine every day. Life is short, we do not waste our time on bland indifferent wines; we would rather share half a bottle of something with character and quality than share six bottles of plonk."

A gratifying thing about the book is that Broadbent seems to admire the kinds of wines that I like. The chapters of the book are organized into the major regions of the world with three chapters devoted to single producers, Chateau Musar, Vega Sicilia, and Mas de Daumas Gassac. Like me, he seems particularly fond of that wonderful wine from Lebanon, Chateau Musar, which he describes as "excellent, and distinctive, albeit idiosyncratic."

His amusing anecdotes describe encounters and tastings with the rich and famous, and he provides a list of people at the end of the book for people who have not heard of his friends and professional associates. Like a litany of famous wine lovers, this list includes (among many, many other famous people) Anthony Barton, (owner of Leoville Barton), Jancis Robinson (my favorite wine writer), Andrew Lloyd Webber, Georg Riedel (maker of the famous Riedel glasses), and Robert Mondavi.

The stories include personal moments such as the time he toured Germany on a Vespa motor-scooter with a "laudable ambition, at that time, to make love -- necessarily furtively, and at night -- in a famous vineyard." They also include moments, where, as an honored speaker, he has had to describe horrible wine with tact and diplomacy, such as when he had to talk about Chateau Lafite, 1864, in Memphis, Tennessee:

On decanting, it became obvious that the wine was indeed 'pricked'. In order to save the situation, I smelled the wine and nodding sagely, handed it to my host, John Grisanti, for the first sip. He nodded as if approvingly. I then said: 'This is a very old wine. The grapes for this wine were picked during the autumn of 1864, which was when General Sherman, whose troops were based in Memphis, went marching across Georgia leading his Union troops into battle with the Confederates." I added: "Tonight you are tasting not just wine, but history."

I wondered where he would stand as a British critic and member of the wine trade on the apparent rivalry between the Americans, who favor scoring wine like college essays, and the British, like Hugh Johnson, who always suggest that these scores are absurd. With characteristic tact, Broadbent simply says that the "100-point rating system is flawed because it is inflexible and does not allow for bottle variation and context." He does, however, make a jab at the fashionable cult wines that inevitably suggest some of the wines from California:

Oscar Wilde defined fox hunting as "the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable." A propos certain 'cult' wines and modern 'global' reds, I am inclined to change the last word to "undrinkable."

Is Broadbent talking about Parkerized wines here?

I adore this book, and I admit to being a bit of an oddball in my passion for wine, but, if you think you might enjoy going through notes of the world's ultimate wine written by the world's ultimate critic, you must buy this book.

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