The legendary specialist, critic and Master of Wine — responsible for launching wine auctions at Christie’s 50 years ago — shares his life lessons over a glass or two of fine Madeira
I learned to pay attention to my mother’s advice. She was a tremendous influence on my career — she always had the right ideas at the right time. All I was interested in as a boy was cycling, playing the piano and girls. But because I could draw, my mother thought that architecture could be a good idea. So I went to study architecture at University College London.
Ultimately, you need to be engaged with your subject matter. And gradually I became less and less interested in architecture and more and more interested in drawing. I was very idle. I remember sitting in an exam room for a paper on engineering, looking at the questions on the paper, and realising I couldn’t answer any of them. So I walked out. The next day it was sanitation and drainage, and I always felt that was beneath me. I couldn’t go on.
I knew nothing about wine — we drank it at home but only on special occasions. I was never going to make a career out of art, and luckily my mother came to the rescue again. She saw an advertisement in The Times — goodness knows how, since we took the Manchester Guardian and the Oldham Chronicle — for a trainee at Laytons Wine Merchant. Tommy Layton was irascible and impossible to work with but we got on terribly well. I spent a year with him, sweeping the cellar and driving the van. My salary was £300 a year and I lived in a basement flat on Wimpole Street for £13 a month.
Tommy Layton gave me a piece of advice which I didn’t realise would be so important at the time. He told me that whenever I tasted a wine, I should make a note. So on September 13, 1952, I did just that. I started with a small red lined notebook, and now I have 150 of them, containing 90,000 notes.
I was very meticulous — I noted down the date, the wine, its appearance, nose and taste. And I continued with the same method throughout my career. The notes were enormously useful to me. They eventually became a book, Vintage Wine, which sold 80,000 copies in its first edition, and made me £40,000. It was a great success, because nobody else could do this — no one else had that experience. And fortunately, I had always made an index.
I immediately felt very comfortable with wine. I ended up as sales director at Harvey’s, which was based on the corner of King Street and St James's Street, and I used to walk past Christie’s and look in at all the pictures for art auctions every week, to see what was on. Then one day someone mentioned that Christie’s was thinking of starting wine auctions. So I wrote to the chairman, Peter Chance, saying that I thought the market was right; that he would need a staff of six; that the chap in charge should earn £3,000 a year and be aged between 35 and 40; and that the first year we could do £250,000 in sales, the second year £500,000, and the third year £1 million. Peter looked like an old army colonel — bluff, red-faced and bad-tempered — but he became a great friend. The figures were taken from the top of my head but that’s almost exactly what happened.
You don’t have to be best friends with your colleagues. After I’d been taken on, we were joined by Alan Taylor-Restell, a very good third-generation wine auctioneer, who was ready-made for the job. We didn’t get on, but it worked. It was like Gilbert and Sullivan. I did the editing of the catalogue and the promotion; he did the nuts and bolts and the auctioneering. I wondered for years if he didn’t rather resent this. He was very efficient; I was the entrepreneur.
‘If I could have any wine tonight it would be the Terrantez 1846 — the finest Madeira I’ve ever drunk’
You don’t necessarily need correct training to be an auctioneer. Nobody had any training at Christie’s. I was eventually pushed into the box at the end of the first season — July 1967. I had no experience, or prior notice, just what I’d observed. I was terrified, I felt almost sick with nerves. But I realised very quickly that I loved it.
Never in a million years did I imagine the market for investment wines would become what it is today. I had no thought of wine as an investment tool. It didn’t occur to me.
1982 was the vintage that changed everything. [The American wine critic] Robert Parker rated it highly and he was a big influence in America, in particular. I thoroughly disapprove of his scoring method — how can a wine be 95 points? It depends when and where you drink it, how it’s been kept. He favoured a very ripe, alcoholic style of wine, which was anathema to me, but he was good for getting America into wine.
If I could have any wine tonight it would be the Terrantez 1846 — the finest Madeira I’ve ever drunk. I’m also rather fond of vintage Port from 1927 — my birth year — although they’re getting a bit tired now.
Judging wines is like judging people — you mustn’t be too hasty to make a pronouncement. There was one sale in the early 1970s when some of the best wines were being bought by a group of three men whom I found rather uncouth. They hadn’t registered beforehand, so midway through the sale I stopped and asked them for a card. When they demurred, I said I wouldn’t take any more bids from them and asked them to leave. Later that afternoon, the phone rang, and a voice on the other end said: ‘This is a lawyer acting for Andrew Lloyd Webber.’ My heart sank. I was called in by the chairman, who went blue in the face and said to me: ‘Broadbent, we are public auctioneers; you cannot choose your business.’ I was given a terrible ticking off. I contacted Lloyd Webber shortly afterwards and we actually ended up becoming very good friends.
I only really felt I became an auctioneer when I went to America. I was the first Christie’s auctioneer to take auctions to the US, in 1969; and it was then that I really started enjoying it. I’d never been to the US before, but I felt terribly at home, and enjoyed it. So long as I’d done my homework on the catalogue, I was fine.
Doing your homework is important. I appeared on TV with David Frost in America once, to talk about wine. We were due to open an 1844 Port, but I hadn’t inspected the bottle properly beforehand, and the corkscrew wasn’t very good — it was an old cork, and I just couldn’t get it out. The camera was rolling, and eventually I pushed the cork down and had to pour it like vinegar on fish and chips. It was very embarrassing.
Publicity is important — I always understood publicity. Christie’s had never understood how much publicity I got for them — both in America and afterwards, when I started writing wine articles, which always appeared under the Christie’s name. I should have charged commission! I wrote a column for Decanter magazine for 25 years. I always used to write it in bed on a Sunday morning.
I’m a creature of habit. I have a Bucks Fizz every morning with breakfast, though not always with the same Champagne. Sometimes it’ll be Pol Roger; sometimes just a Blanquette de Limoux. It adds a little pep. At Christie’s, I used to have a little elevenses — a small mid-morning glass of Madeira. It was much better than the coffee.
Michael Broadbent remains a Senior Consultant to the wine department at Christie’s