My Life and Hard Wines
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 28 Feb 1985, p. 340-358
Broadbent, Michael, Speaker
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Item Type
Personal and professional reminiscences of the speaker, focussing on the wine auction business. Much colourful history of acquisitions and sales with many details including money figures.
Date of Original
28 Feb 1985
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Full Text
February 28, 1985 The President
Catherine R. Charlton, M.A., Chairman

C.R. Charlton

Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen: It is doubtful if anyone really knows exactly when the almost aesthetic, almost mystical, bond between humanity and good wine began. If anyone does know, it would be our speaker.

The only authentic date I could establish was that Noah had a vat on the Ark. (Better make that two vats - Noah's favourite number.) We know this because G.K. Chesterton told us so in his scholarly poem - "Wine and Water" - one verse of which clearly states:

And Noah, he often said to his wife When they sat down to dine

I don't care where this water goes If it doesn't get into the wine.

If you can believe Chesterton, Noah was concerned about the quality of his wine - a concern shared by our speaker.

Recently, Michael Broadbent was awarded the 1984 Grand Prix de LAcademie Internationale du Vin and, still in 1984, was elected president of the International Wine and Food Society, the oldest, most distinguished and most truly cosmopolitan of all the international gastronomic societies. He is one of only three Englishmen connected with wine to receive one of the French government's highest honours, the rank of Chevalier of the National Order of Merit. He is a past chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine. He has written two definitive and award-winning books on the subject.

And oh, yes! Mr. Broadbent also happens to be President of Christie's, an auctioneering firm founded in 1766, and now the largest in Britain. Like Sotheby's, Christie's was built on art masterpieces and antique furniture, but not to the exclusion of general business. Christie's has an international business in wine auctioneering. After only five years in North America, the firm has a sales volume on this continent equal to that of Britain and it maintains an office in Toronto.

Mr. Broadbent was born in Yorkshire, and has homes in London and one near Bath. He is married and has two grown children.

Let us now sit back; imagine that our hands are toying with a glass of very rare, softly lucent wine; and listen to the words of a real and articulate master. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Michael Broadbent.

Michael Broadbent

Madam President, ladies and gentlemen: You mentioned something a minute ago about how old wine was, and I can tell you that it is generally regarded that members of the wine trade belong to the second oldest profession.

The title of my talk, as announced, "My Life and Hard Wines", is a trifle facetious, but as the occasion is rather dignified, I am going to open with a Latin quotation. It is the last verse of a poem in which the Roman poet Martial is advising a father on a career for his son. I will give it to you in Latin: "Si duri puer ingeni videtur, pracoem sacias vel architectum". For those who do not have a classical education, it says: "If your boy seems to have the brains of a blockhead, you should make him an auctioneer or an architect". This little piece was written 1900 years ago. Alas, I trained as an architect, and am now an auctioneer.

Let me quickly, today, explain how I skipped from one to the other. In fact, it was more of a hop, skip and a jump; and actually, to be truthful, the hop was a bit of a flop, because I failed to pass my exams. If only, Madam President, I had opened a single book on Drainage & Sanitation, I would have been an architect now - probably a very bad one - and would certainly not be addressing you today.

I have my mother to thank for the transition. She was an avid reader of books on wine by John Fothergill, by Andre Simon, by Warner Allen, by Tommy Layton, and in the summer of 1952, after I had left the architecture school, she spotted in the personal column of The Times an advertisement for a wine trainee by Layton's Wine Merchants. I wrote to them and much to my surprise I was accepted. Years later, I discovered that Mr. Layton had taken me on, on the strength of my handwriting, which was then an architectural Italianate script. So one way of getting into the wine trade is to spend five years training as an architect!

... I hear you are thinking of re-starting wine auctions ...

Dear old Tommy Layton was somewhat eccentric. We recently gave a lunch party at Christie's to celebrate his fiftieth year in the wine trade. But being a late starter, a convert, I was tremendously keen; and Tommy had a retail wine business, a wine bar, wine restaurant and something he called "the circle of wine tasters", which I used to refer to as "the circle of wine wasters". However, I did learn a great. deal about tasting and I started right from the beginning, in September 1952, to make notes on every wine I tasted. I put the notes into a little red book and, as you can see, I still use exactly the same sort of little red book. This is volume fifty-nine. I did not realize then how much it would stand me in good stead.

I am going to skip over my fourteen years as a wine merchant, first with Saccone and Speed, then with Harvey's of Bristol. I started to cross-index my notes by vintage and by chateau; and again I did not realize at that time how useful this was going to be. My jump from Harvey's to Christie's the auctioneers, was more fortuitous. I did not need my mother's help since I had enormous, brazen, cheek. I heard that Christie's were thinking of re-starting their wine auctions; I thought it sounded fascinating, and I was sure I could do it. So I wrote to Mr. Chance, the chairman, and said: "I hope you will forgive me for writing to you out of the blue; I met you ten years ago when I was with Harvey's. I hear you are thinking of re-starting wine auctions. I think the time is right, the market is ripe - it is fragmented" - and added a few more reasons. I ended, "forgive me for bothering you if you are not going to start wine auctions". He replied that they were considering wine auctions and "would you like to come and see me?" I said yes, of course. But first I wrote another letter giving him about twelve good reasons for re-starting wine sales, which I will not bother you about now. I also suggested that they needed a chap between thirtyfive and forty (I was forty at the time) with a certain amount of experience in the trade. I added that Christie's could do a certain level of business, and in a year's time a little bit more. I thought we should aim to do a million pound turnover in a year. When I was hired, the chairman shook me by the hand and said: "Well, Broadbent, it's up to you." At that moment, my knees turned to jelly. I thought, where do I begin? I had an empty office, no secretary, no nothing, no sort of supporting cast. I had left Harvey's as U.K. sales director, and I started at Christie's more or less at the bottom. But I had a lot of luck.

I was taken on in Christie's Bicentenary Year - 1966 - and I thought it best to do a bit of research. I went down into the muniment's room. Christie's had been bombed during the war and the premises were destroyed but, very fortunately, the muniment's room had escaped; every single auctioneer's catalogue from 1766 is down there at this moment. I spent many happy weeks with those old catalogues discovering when wine sales started; how and who was selling and buying. I found it an enormous thrill, and I still do, to pick up James Christie's first catalogue of December 6, 1766 - and even more so, to note that there was wine in his very first sale: "Fine Claret - 24 shillings a dozen. Fine old Madeira - 25/6 1". Now I have a complete record of every sale of wine at Christie's from 1766 to the present day. The most amazing thing is that little has changed. People still sell for the same reasons: because, unfortunately, they have died, they are moving house, or they are short of money or bankrupt; or they want cash to send their son to school, or they are plain greedy. People sell wine now for every reason, except as an investment.

... I have a complete record of every sale of wine at Christie's from 1766 to the present day ...

Christie's first sale was for "a nobleman deceased" - I love the title pages. I am afraid I am going to bore you with one or two of them, because they tickle me pink. Dead or alive, noblemen, and even royalty, grace many of Christie's catalogues. For example, in November, 1768, Her Grace the Duchess of Grafton and the Duke of Leeds sold wine. Both families are enormously rich still; both are clients of Christie's. Christie's most famous early sale was of the jewels of Marie Antoinette. In fact, before and after the French Revolution, many French aristocrats came to England since they were desperate and had fled their country with whatever they could bring. Of course, the most portable of their belongings were jewels and James Christie had a high time selling the jewels! Apart from foreign royalty the first record of a royal wine sale I found was in June, 1835, "from the cellar of His Royal Highness, the Duke of Gloucester, deceased" - quite a good cellar. One hundred and forty years later, I auctioned the wines "from the cellar of late Duke of Gloucester". Nothing changes.

Undoubtedly, the most famous royal sale of wine was held on June 24, 1901. On coming to the throne, Edward VII found the royal cellars full of sherry. He, of course, was a well-known quaffer of champagne - preferably out of actresses' slippers. You see, after Albert's death, Queen Victoria was more or less in perpetual mourning, yet the rather crafty "purveyors of wine to Her Majesty" had continued to deliver sherry. Edward had a look around, perhaps to clear the cellar for champagne, and Christie's were called in. I was not there then. The title page ran something like: "The property of His Majesty King Edward VII and the late Queen Victoria - 5,000 dozens of sherry" - mainly sweet, golden (olorosos) - "from the cellars of Buckingham Palace, St. James' Palace, Windsor Castle, Sandringham and Osborne House". The five-day sale was a tremendous success and every lot sold. Even Berry Bros., that rather up-marker wine merchant around the corner bought enthusiastically - in fact, they paid the highest price for the last lot in the sale. But the upshot was - the sherry market slumped. You see, the King had indicated that sherry was not an "in" drink, and sherry sales dropped out of fashion.

The market did not really recover until Harvey's Bristol Cream became popular after the last war. Eighty years after the royal sale, Seagram's, with whom I am sure you are familiar, bought Sandeman's, the sherry and port firm, and looking around their cellars in Jerez, saw a large quantity of old sherry in casks. It had been there for ages. So David Sandeman came to see me - obviously nudged by Seagram's - and said, "Look, we have a slight problem. We have an awful lot of sherry lying around. Is there anything you can do about it?" I asked what it was. "Well, they're all sweet sherries, very old and of the highest quality". I said, "Look, the only way to do this is to be brazen and optimistic, and hold a big sale. And what I would like to do is make it a 5,000-dozen bottle sale." We did just that. There were just eight different types of sherry and we catalogued 5,000 dozen, just as in June 24, 1901. In fact, we held the sale on June 24, 1983. I will be absolutely frank, we did not sell all of it, perhaps about two-thirds, but happily on this occasion it created a new market for fine sherry. As a result of the sale, Sandeman's re-introduced a range of their mature sherries. You can buy their Royal Esmerelda and El Corregidor now in North America. I am only trying to point out, you see, there is nothing new.

After royalty comes the diplomatic corps. I think we have cornered the market in sales of wine for ambassadors and such like. In January, 1770, His Excellency Count Sielern sold a fabulous collection of wines "laying in His Excellency's house in St. James' Square"-around the corner from Christie's. In 1772 we sold some for another ambassador "returning home". In 1778 we sold wine for the Marquis de Noailles, a very famous French family, at his mansion in Whitehall. Marvellous cellar! It included Chambertin, Pommard, Nuits, Montrachet, Meursault, "a hogshead of Canon" etc. Amazing range; and this was in 1778. All these great sales were very well attended and high prices were paid. For the eighteen years I have been at Christie's, we have sold wines for several ambassadors returning home including the Danish ambassador, the Spanish ambassador; but usually more discreetly. They do not like to publicize the fact they are selling. We have sold for, and to, British ambassadors overseas; and so it goes on. Nothing changes.

...The other main reason for selling, is that people run short of money ...

The other main reason for selling, is that people run short of money. In the eighteenth century they had the most delicate way of putting it: "The Household Furniture and Wines of a Gentleman Gone Abroad". This was in February, 1767. There were masses of gentlemen and ladies "quitting house-keeping" - all escaping creditors, avoiding bankruptcy. If we dealt with royalty and the nobility, we also dealt with the lower orders, like publicans and sinners, and actually still do - dukes and dustmen are commonplace at Christie's. In August 1770, we sold "burgundy, madeira, claret, rhenish (which is Rhine wine), Florence (chianti), Englishgin and Usquebaugh (whiskey)"-for Thomas Murphy, a bankrupt, at his house, "The Star and Garter Tavern".

And if you think speculation in wine is a new thing, think again. In September, 1769, Christie's issued a catalogue of "neat wines" - "neat" meant unadulterated - "the property of Captain Fletcher from the West Indies". Here was a sea captain, who would go out and pick up a cask or two of madeira in Funchal, sail on to the West Indies and bring it back to England. The long sea journey and the heat was said to improve the flavour and the wines fetched very high prices. In 1874 Christie's held a sale of 6,000 dozens of claret, all the 1865 vintage, for a wine merchant in the Adelphi who speculated in this great vintage, and got caught by the recession.

... The first auction entirely devoted to wines was at Christie's in 1769 ...

Exactly one hundred years later, in 1974, when as you all know, the property market collapsed, the wine market collapsed, almost everything collapsed. The secondary banks were propped up by the Bank of England, and a whole heap of firms got into terrible trouble. For the next two years Christie's disposed of massive stocks of wines for brewery groups like Bass Charrington, for Bordeaux shippers such as Cordier and Delor, even for the famed Chateau Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild.

Before coming to the present day I must explain that quite a lot of wine used to be sold in mixed household sales. The first auction entirely devoted to wine was at Christie's in 1769, though specialized wine sales and mixed sales continued until the Second World War.

To demonstrate just how mixed some of the sales were, I shall quote briefly from the title pages of a few early catalogues: "In March 1767 James Christie offers for sale `a Harpsichord, Wines, Two Large Ricks of Hay, a Fine Black Coach Horse and Other Valuable Effects'." A year later, for "an Innkeeper and Farmer, at the White Hart, Petersfield, Hampshire .... some Coopers' Tools, Three Draining Bags, Five Prickles and some Hampers". (Believe it or not, we are selling next month, at Christie's South Kensington, a collection of coopers' tools and cellar equipment for H. Allen Smith, by appointment wine coopers to Her Majesty the Queen Mother and to previous monarchs.)

Mention of the Second World War brings me back to Christie's main preoccupation which was to get the fine art business back on its feet. Having been bombed out, the firm used borrowed premises and, true to style, the sales were held in the town houses of the nobility - in Stafford House, St. James's and in Spencer House, nearby. As it happens, there has always been a close connection with the Spencer family. My present Chairman, John Floyd, is Princess Diana's godfather.

Let us return to King Street where Christie's eventually rebuilt their premises in exactly the same style. We moved back in 1953. However, wine auctions did not resume at that time. For complicated reasons, lingering wartime restrictions did not permit public auctions and only the licensed trade could buy and sell at auction. By the time I joined Christies' in 1966, we were able to get the department going. Restell's, the only other wine auctioneers, fell into our lap, and young Alan Taylor Restell became my most efficient second-in-command. We actually held twenty-four wine sales in the first season. I cannot tell you how worrying it was. My wife will confirm that I used to wake up at three o'clock in the morning fretting about where the next lot of wine was coming from. Fortunately, we had considerable success.

The first real breakthrough arose that autumn and culminated in the great "Rosebery Sale" of 1967. This is how it happened. The Hon. Patrick Lindsay, one of my senior partners, came in with the Marquis of Linlithgow who mentioned casually that he and his brother were frightfully bored drinking eighteenth century madeira. Some bottles were very good, some were not, and they threw most of the bottles away. I asked if I could see the cellar and he said "why not?" So I went up to Edinburgh by train, was picked up by a girlfriend who drove me to Hopetown House and dumped me on the doorstep. It was rather dark and I could not actually see anything to ring, but I eventually pulled something and His Lordship and the butler, putting on their jackets, arrived at the door. I had timed it beautifully. It was just after the Miss World Contest and they were comparing notes. The next morning I checked through the cellar. It was full of wonderful old wines, but I had no time to list them then. As I was leaving, Lord Linlithgow said, "Look, my neighbour Harry Rosebery has a good cellar, including a wonderful collection of old Lafite. His mother was a Rothschild, he's rather old, and I think he's probably willing to sell." He gave me a scrappy hand-written list, suggested I write to him and recommended that I quote pretty high prices - remembering the Rothschild background. I wrote to Lord Rosebery and obtained permission to see his cellar at Dalmeny, in Scotland. Then I went to Mentmore, his principal seat near Aylesbury and checked the cellar there. We had lunch in an enormous dining room, not quite as big as this room, but it seemed to me absolutely huge, with a small round table in the middle. Lady and Lord Rosebery sat on either side of me with some historian lady opposite. It was quite an amusing lunch. They

... I seemed to spend my time going around grand houses ...

argued throughout the meal while I was eating away, taking no notice. I remember that his everyday port was Taylor '20. The other thing that I remember was a long sideboard with every sort of pickle you could ever imagine, and a huge gun carriage which I thought must be Napoleon brandy. In fact, it was Old Grandad bourbon whiskey. It was the same Lord Rosebery - he is dead now - who was reputed to have cabled his butler in Scotland: "I leave for Dalmeny in the morning. Lady Rosebery and the other heavy baggage will follow." The Rosebery sale put Christie's wine department on the map. We sold 1858's, 1864's, three triple magnums, eight double magnums, several dozen magnums and bottles of 1865 - all Chateau Lafite, as well as masses of the 1874 vintage and a host of other old wines.

Of course, after that I seemed to spend my time going around grand houses. The Duke of Buccleuch, several earls, an army of baronets - sold their wines. But the greatest coup was Glamis Castle. This arose when a wine merchant friend in Perth phoned and said, "Look, I've just been up to see the cellar at Glamis and I think nobody's drinking wine at all. They might be persuaded to sell." I rushed up, saw the cellar, which was in perfect order, with a cellar book which had been immaculately kept by butlers for generations. The only problem was how to remove the wine. The Earl of Strathmore was not interested in wine - I am not saying he didn't drink, but he was not interested in wine - so I had to go and

... It took fifty years for Lafite 1870 to become drinkable ... The wine was absolutely perfect. It could have been twenty years old, not a hundred years old ...

see a trustee, Lord Elphinstone, a rather formidable gentlemen who, fortunately, gave me permission. We got the wine out as fast as we could, piled it into the wine merchant's van, careened down the road to Perth (I was terrified, as it was not insured) and eventually to London. I wanted to get it to Christie's and catalogued before Sotheby's heard about it because (this was 1970) our competitors had just started a wine department. Not only that, but a member of the Bowes-Lyon family was on the board directors. Well, the star of the show was the 1870 Lafite; there were 42 magnums of it, binned in 1878 and scarcely touched - I think two had been drunk. The thirteenth Earl had been a tremendous connoisseur but, clearly, he did not like this particular wine. It had a reputation for being "black strap" and it was enormously tannis, like red ink. The Earl died about 1913, long before the wine became ready to drink. It took fifty years for Lafite 1870 to become drinkable. Andre Simon was writing about it in the late twenties and early thirties. I thought that as this was the star of the show, and it was just possible that we had a bad batch, I had better open a magnum. We had a great dinner before the sale at Christie's with all the wine luminaries present: Harry Waugh, Hugh Johnson, Cyril Ray, David Peppercorn, Edmund Penning-Rowsell, etc. Very nervously I withdrew the cork. The original cork had never been changed. The level was excellent and I decanted it carefully. The wine was absolutely perfect. It could have been twenty years old, not a hundred years old. On the nose, it was sweet and wholesome and fruity; it seemed to blossom in the glass - not a trace of oxidation or over-acidity. I am very often asked by journalists which is my favourite wine. This, I believe, is the most spectacular and memorable one. It was not the first and it will not be the last of the great wines.

... The universal problem for people with great cellars is-with whom doyou share rare wines?...

I am very spoiled; I am invited to endless tastings. In the late 1970s I thought I might "plough back" some of my tasting experiences, so I wrote The Great Vintage Wine Book which is basically an analysis of vintages going way back. I used my tasting notes to illustrate what the wine of a particular vintage was like, and what it is like now. I am happy to say that it has been very successful. One of the results of publishing this book is that I get even more invitations to taste wine; to taste wine with the very generous owners of great cellars, who happen to notice that I have not actually noted Petrus 1945 in my vintage wine book, and it is high time I tasted it. There are chaps in the outbacks, like Houston, who have not anyone to taste wine with. So, if you are ever passing Houston, perhaps on the way to L.A., I suggest you stop and help these fellows out! The universal problem for people with great cellars is - with whom do you share your really beautiful and rare wines? It is not a question of expense, it is a question of waste.

I also get asked to talk a good deal about wine and to conduct tastings, which I greatly enjoy. I have done seven "en route" on this little trip. Sometimes I even get paid for it! But, as you can imagine, wine events can sometimes be rather heavy going. Last October I was invited by a German wine buff, a wine fanatic - a client of Christie's, who buys a lot of fine wine - to a big annual event. I flew to Dusseldorf early that morning. I was picked up by a doctor, another connoisseur and driven to a country restaurant about half an hour away. We sat down to lunch at quarter to twelve noon. I got up from table at quarter to twelve midnight. In between times we had actually consumed, between twenty of us, sixty wines; some of the greatest you can ever imagine - D'yquem '59, '53, '45, the great '21, 1883 and 1869. The 1883 was just amazing; it was poured about quarter past noon and I kept some in my glass for nearly twelve hours and the bouquet still filled the room. It was just absolutely fabulous! We had Petrus '71,'47 and '28; Lafite of several great vintages; Mouton '29; Palmer '61 and '20; old sherry; 1789 madeira.

This is all rather name-dropping I am afraid, but it was a marvellous occasion! Unfortunately, the chef produced - over twelve hours - twelve dishes, and with every dish he tried to excel himself. By the time I arrived at my airport hotel, I was not well - in fact I was fearfully ill that night. It was necessary to rise early to catch the eight o'clock flight from Dusseldorf to London. As we flew through a thunderstorm, our wings were struck by lightning, but I could not have cared less. In a daze and looking green about the gills, I took the tube to Christie's, and at eleven o'clock precisely took a sale of New World Wines.

It is a very hard life.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by J.A. William Whiteacre, a Director of the Club.

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My Life and Hard Wines

Personal and professional reminiscences of the speaker, focussing on the wine auction business. Much colourful history of acquisitions and sales with many details including money figures.