Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (below right being greeted by the Master of the Vintners Michael Cox) was one of several hundred guests, the great and the good of the wine world, who attended a dinner on 20 May to celebrate the 650th anniversary of the Vintners' Company in Vintners' Hall in the City of London (seen, left, from above). He contacted me earlier this week to ask whether there was anywhere online he could read the speech I had to give after this dinner. Fortunately, for once I did write it in advance, just in case I should be too tempted by the Roederer 2000, Girardin 2006 Folatières, Chx Cos d'Estournel and Pichon Longueville 1996, Suduiraut 1997 and Fonseca 1970 to extemporise satisfactorily. Here it is, Aubert.Master, Wardens, Your Royal Highness [Prince Robert of Luxembourg, and Haut-Brion], Distinguished Guests, Ladies & Gentlemen,
I'm often asked what I love about wine and I usually say that not only is the liquid itself delicious - and intellectually as well as sensually stimulating - and the places it's grown in so much more beautiful than, say, financial centres and most places of work, but it's the people. There are so few boring people in wine. And so many lively intelligences and quirky oddballs. Is it just the wine itself that gives us this impression, I wonder? I really don't think so. I think wine naturally attracts interesting, generous and generally witty people. It's lovely to see so many of them together in one place tonight, and I would like formally to thank the vintners of the UK and particularly London for making our working environment so congenial.
For not only have I been extraordinarily fortunate in the timing of my working life, I have been hugely lucky with my location. I'm sorry, all you Frenchmen here tonight, but there is no better place in the world to learn about wine than London (as witness all those young French sommeliers we have working here now). Although we have our own increasingly successful local wine producers (thank you, climate change) they are not so numerous as to distract us from London's status as prime importer of the wines of the world. Here on a typical working day we have a choice of between three and six professional tastings of wines literally from anywhere. Last week, for example, the hundreds of wines I tasted included a Nova Scotia fizz, a Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc and an Indian Viognier. And that was just the whites! But London also occupies a very special place in the fine wine market, partly thanks to Michael Broadbent, who in 1966 revived wine auctions and thereby spawned a host of fine-wine traders to give our rich legacy of traditional wine merchants a run for their money. Today, the vast majority of those who dominate the fine-wine market, whether in Europe or that new hub of the fine-wine trade Hong Kong, are based in London [so far, although I expect this to change - JR later]. And then there is the importance of London as a wine publishing centre. We're lucky of course that the English language is so important worldwide, but our long history trading the wines of the world laid the foundations of a tradition of connoisseurship that has resulted in an extraordinary concentration of wine writing, based here but read and admired the world over. We didn't admittedly invent scoring wine, and we're proud of it!
I suspect some of you esteemed guests may be more aware of the effects of the Vintners' Company than of the Company itself (about which the Master will be talking in more detail, I believe). You probably won't be aware of the charitable activities that have, since the 1400s, been so important a part of livery companies' continued existence, including in the case of the Vintners, The Benevolent, of which the Master's twin brother David Cox (left) has recently become chief executive. But most of you will have heard of the Masters of Wine, of whom there are now 300 spread around the globe and an almost incredible further 300 studying in order to gain those elusive initials MW. It was the Vintners who originally gave birth to this elite educational body, hosting the first lectures to wine-trade students exactly 60 years ago in this very hall. John, father of Renter Warden Rupert Clevely, became a Master of Wine in 1957 and told me that in those days there was one two-hour lecture called 'Other Wines of France' which covered all of France except for Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Things have changed…. We MWs will be celebrating our much more modest anniversary in September and links are still strong between the Institute of Masters of Wine and the Vintners' Company.
On the way to the MW pinnacle, most people take the courses offered - again around the globe - by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, the world's leading provider of wine education. Last year almost 45,000 students - from sommeliers to disaffected bankers - took a WSET course, in 60 countries, and the Trust's dynamic chief executive Ian Harris (who, incidentally, was the person who tipped me off that I would be giving this speech) expects the number of students in China to overtake the number in the UK this year. The WSET was another Vintners' Company initiative and links between the two bodies continue to be extremely strong, even if the Trust no longer needs to depend on the Vintners financially. As one might expect, the trade body the Wine & Spirit Association was also set up under the auspices of the Vintners and the Master tells me that his maternal grandfather Michael Gordon Clark was closely involved in the inauguration of both the Association and the Masters of Wine. So in 1959, to thank him for this, The Vintners made him an Honorary Freeman of the Company, just as they kindly did for (to? in/on/at?) me earlier this month.
I can honestly say that to be recognised by such an ancient, and predominantly male and 'slightly conservative' (though definitely pro-European) body, for what I've done for wine is possibly one of the things that has made me most proud. The day I was made a Freeman was one of the happiest I can remember and I am thrilled to be part of this 650-year-old company of wine merchants and wine lovers. It therefore gives me particular pleasure to propose the traditional toast to the Vintners' Company:
The Vintners' Company, may it flourish root and branch for ever, with Five and the Master!
You can read Michael Cox's reply here.
Below: A very relieved speechmaker on the left looking forward to getting stuck in to her Fonseca 1970 and a relaxed Edouard Moueix recovering from the dinner with a (half) pint.