March 13: I have not come across an autobiography by a celebrity wine personality like John Umberto Salvi MW whom I have known for several years, written like the movie script with him as the protagonist, true to his honest and colourful personality in the wine trade for 60 years as he completes 50 years of passing Master of Wine examination this year, writes Subhash Arora who finds the book reading like an easy, fictional novel you could finish during a return journey from Delhi to Bordeaux where he lives in Margaux
Count John Umberto Salvi MW is a thorough wine professional and a man of integrity. In his book he gives an honest account of his life-including good times and bad. He admits the book was not written to make money- it is very reasonably priced at £4.99 on Amazon UK and $7.88 in the US. Obviously he loves to share his experiences of life that has been colourful, enviable and king- size.
A Master of Wine, he learnt Russian language and once was even a spy for the British government during the Hungarian Revolution, in 1956. He was coaxed by many friends to pen down his story. His brief to the publisher was that he wanted to keep £1 per copy sold and to keep the price as low as possible so more people could enjoy the book he has written over many years. The accounts are so intelligible and detailed that he must have kept a diary throughout his active life.
The book starts with his family history and going up to his maternal and paternal grandparents-his grandfather was from Italy and a Count (Conte), thus entitling John to get the use of the title as Count John Salvi. His father was a well-known wine personality that helped him taste fine wines since the age of 8 and also got him his first job with Chateau Palmer in Bordeaux. The book takes you through his life starting from school days and later years even after his retirement and in the process he shares several interesting stories and anecdotes everyone may not be comfortable sharing. The book appears to be the script of a Hollywood wine movie that shows the good, the bad and the ugly side of wine life.
It is written in simple, easy to understand and yet immaculate English that would do his Westminster School proud. It is full of lucid details of various wine personalities he has met and worked with, his shenanigans in the wine trade and the colourful life he led. He and his two close friends were named as The 3 Little Pigs (Les Trois Cochons) by a leading lady wine writer of her time and he is not even sure if that was a compliment.
As a Wine Apprentice he talks about the Art of Traditional Winemaking in the 1950’s, working in the Bordeaux Cellars and the diet of an Apprentice and The Staff. He is happy enough to talk about breaking law and being in Jail in Pamplona. The book is full of such antics.
John was born with a silver Taste du Vin around his neck. In the section on Great wine, he talks about Lafite 1870, Cheval Blanc 1947, Chateau palmer 1953, Krug 1928 and several other fine, old vintage wines as if they were available in Super- markets. He often dined with a half bottle of Chateau Palmer 1961 when he was working with the company. He talks enough about Bordeaux and several famous chateaux that the book is a good lesson in wine history of the last century. By his own account, he has been an outstanding salesman and that also meant sharing a glass of wine or champagne with buyers at every stop in those days.
John has had a cavalier attitude; once when he was having Lunch with Steven Spurrier and a few other guests at the London office of his employer, Maison Sichel, he received a call announcing the birth of his child. When egged on by the guests that there ought to be a celebration, he stepped out and reappeared with a bottle of Chateaux Margaux 1900 belonging to the Sichel’s cellar and opened it for the guests proclaiming the boss won’t find out about the missing beauty.
There is an interlude of 18 pages with monochromatic photographs about him and family that his friends and admirers would take delight in looking at. Second part of the book, simply entitled as Stories and Anecdotes is what I found very fascinating. He categorises his experiences about Food, Great Wine (it would appear all his life he has enjoyed several great wines), Travel and People. He seems to be friends with many well- known wine personalities in UK, France and Italy.
One of his favourite Great Wines was Dos Cortados Sherry 1937 from Williams and Humbert which he has had on several occasions and has an interesting anecdote to share. He was appearing for MW examination which he admits clearing in 1970 on the 5th attempt. John is forthright about the third attempt when he drank three-fourth of the bottle in the tasting exam and was admonished for ‘the conduct unbecoming of a potential future Master of Wine.’ In his 4th attempt he admits to cheating by passing sheets but failed. He stresses however, that those days MW was not a career choice and a non-commercial institution unlike today and most people out of UK had probably not even heard about it.
John is candid to admit that his regular drinking of fancy wines got him to be over dependent on wines and he turned alcoholic. Fortunately, he came out of the experience after damage was done to his body and the support of wife Petronella. He has seen many peaks and touched the nadir due to excessive drinking. He stopped drinking 20 years ago when he realised he was a total alcoholic and went for the cure. Luckily, he never touched a drink ever since; he merely swirls, sips and spits wine but is still an excellent taster nevertheless.
John has been extremely well travelled gourmet who loved to cook and shares experiences of several countries throughout, particularly in the Travels section of the book. Montespertoli (Tuscany), MW Tour of South Africa, his house in Spain, visits and stays in Austin Texas, Japan, Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong. Taiwan, Tbilisi and of course several cities and towns in France where he resides now and England where he grew up are a part of the book. (his 2 visits to India have not been included perhaps in another book!).
He talks unabashedly about his personal amorous life and shares the travails of his married life the first time and even the torrid affair he had with his present wife Petronella when he was still married and later divorced and has spent 40 years married to her.
John shares his life post- retirement when he became a writer, consultant and an international wine judge (incidentally I met him for the first time in 2005 at Vinitaly and he became very good friend since). He has a tip for the budding alcoholics-those who increasingly drink more and even better wines but without reins, ‘one remains an alcoholic until the day of one’s death and that I must never again take an alcoholic drink again.’ However, his philosophy as a wine collector as he describes it, is ‘to always drink your friends’ wines of a particular provenance and vintage until you find that they are ready to drink and then start drinking your own!’
A highly recommended book for wine lovers. It’s hilarious in parts, informative and very gripping. I found it hard to put it down till I finished reading from cover to cover. I loved the anecdotes, wine wisdom and the history of wine and the enviable, colourful life of Count John Umberto Salvi Master of Wine has spent and wish him a long, alcohol-free life.
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