April 06: World Wine great Michael Broadbent, the prolific wine writer, author and senior director of Christie's wine department since 1966, with a collection of 90,000 Tasting Notes to his credit, passed away in London on March 17 at the age of 92, leaving a void in the wine industry. John Salvi MW who had known him as a friend for over six decades, reminisces and pays him tribute on his own 83rd birthday today
I first met Michael, in 1957, when he was working for Harveys of Bristol and I was a salesman for Sichel & Co. for the West of England. He has been a firm friend ever since and I mourn his loss. I was fortunate enough to share a magnum of 1870 Château Lafite with him, which he discovered at Glamis Castle. He considered it his greatest find.
When the affair of the Thomas Jefferson Bottles of 1784 and 1787 became news, involving Bill Koch, the late Hardy Rodenstock, who never confirmed exactly how many bottles there were, and Christie's, Michael came under criticism for auctioning bottles that were thought by some not to be genuine and that many believed were fraudulent. Michael believed, and has always continued to believe, totally and viscerally, that they were genuine. He spent a great deal of time, money and energy trying to prove beyond doubt that they were NOT fake.
He sent me all the way to Virginia, USA, to the Jefferson Library in Monticello, to spend 2 wonderful days researching all Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence of the period- before, during and after 1784 and 1787. The closest that I could come to helping was a letter to a supplier insisting that the corks be covered with “concrete”.
He went even further. He borrowed one of the famous bottles from the English Rothschild family (who insisted on a colossal insurance) and flew to Bordeaux with it together with his wife, Daphne. We had made an appointment with Professor Philippe Hubert at the Centre Etudes Nucléaires de Bordeaux, Gradignan (Centre of Nuclear Studies).
Professor Hubert is one of the people who analyse particles brought back from space. He also tests great bottles (36 bottles of Château Margaux 1945) for authenticity. Together, we put this precious bottle on a particle accelerator and held our breath. Thankfully, it came out intact at the other end! We were able to analyse and date the glass, but were no further forward with the wine; problem was that in those days they re-used the bottles repeatedly, so the date of the glass was no proof of anything.
Nonetheless, Michael was happy that there was nothing to prove that it was false, and the bottle was still intact. His next project was to visit a world-renowned engraver, but it was now lunchtime and Michael, Daphne, the Professor, my wife and I went off to lunch and drank my last bottle of 1961 Latour before my wife and I put them on the home flight for more research.
I have since seen one of the bottles, which is lying in the cellars at Château d’Yquem. Michael also recounted the story of the bottle bought at Christie's, for the then record price, by Malcolm Forbes, of £105,000. It was taken back to the USA by Christopher Forbes and put on Thomas Jefferson’s dining room table with a spotlight trained upon it. Michael got a phone call at home in the middle of the night and an unannounced voice croaked, “it’s broken”. Michael elicited the fact that the precious bottle had broken from the heat of the spotlight and when asked what to do about it said, “go back to sleep and mop it up in the morning”.
Great times. A dear friend. Requiescat in pace, Michael!
John Salvi Master of Wine
Michael Broadbent is referenced in the writer’s book John Umberto Salvi: The Count of Wine reviewed by delWine in an earlier edition where he conceded that he used to pull his leg sometimes, saying that he was responsible for the phenomenal rise in the prices of fine old wines because he had made such a remarkable success of auctioning wines for Christie's (since 1966). The moment he discovered ‘Collectors’ the prices always went through the roof. Michael was 10 years older and did his MW also 10 years earlier in 1960, though John did it in 1970 and celebrates the 50th year of MW completion in November this year.
Many Happy Returns to John Salvi MW who turns 83 today- April 6- editor
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