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 feel extremely honoured to have been asked to speak to such a collection of wine expertise, achievement and luminosity – even if strictly speaking I was never asked. Our beloved Master 'forgot' to spell out that his longstanding invitation to dinner tonight came with a certain string attached. But it's a string, as I say, that I feel very flattered by – particularly when I look around this magnificent hall (in which I've spent so much time during my nearly-four decades writing about wine), and see so many others more eloquent than me.
We're here to celebrate an extraordinary six and half centuries of commercial activity – but aren't we fortunate with our own particular era? When the Vintners' Company was formed, when the Father of English Literature Geoffrey Chaucer's father John was a London vintner, a signatory of one of this Company's charters, and even 300 years later when Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary exactly 350 years ago drinking a rather good wine called 'Ho Bryen', vintners were mere tradesmen. Wine did not have anything like the cachet and social status that it enjoys today. In this country in my short tenure as a wine writer I have observed, delighted, wine's reputation climb from something regarded as both dangerously exotic and irredeemably frivolous to being a pick-me-up so popular that it now features routinely in our soap operas, without any comment whatsoever – while wine expertise is nowadays (thank goodness) revered alongside scholarship, or musical prowess. Charles and Oz – you manage to combine both!
What wonderful times we wine professionals live in. Never has our raison d'être been so popular the world over, with both consumers and would-be producers. (Who would have thought that Asia would become a significant wine consumer and producer?!) And, perhaps even more importantly, wine is irrefutably better quality than it has ever been. Many people in this room tonight, those who have been kind enough to accept this invitation to celebrate with us, have played a significant part in that. I so well remember an evening event at L'Escargot (which dates it) with Paul Pontallier and various other Bordeaux luminaries complaining gently that we should be even more enthusiastic about bordeaux than we then were, because so many improvements had been made to the way is was made. What we had to spell out was that while they had been working so hard, everyone else had too. Today's world of wine is so competitive that to stay in the game as a producer, you have to up your game every single year. Much to the benefit of the consumer.
At the risk of sounding valedictory (and I should say most emphatically that I have no intention whatsoever of hanging up my laptop!) I would like to spell out what a wonderful experience I have had observing and chronicling this particularly blessed era. I started writing about wine on 1 Dec 1975, when Michael Broadbent would personally spell out words like G-R-U-A-U-D when giving me auction results, obviously worried by my achingly obvious lack of knowledge. Only the next year, Jean-Michel Cazes – surely in a case of mistaken identity – invited me to join the Commanderie de Bontemps du Médoc et Graves (red velvet rather than blue silk in that company!). And by 1980 my good friend Hugh Johnson was recommending me for the job as wine correspondent of The Sunday Times – thank you, Hugh, for this and much else. The wine world in general has been most generous to someone who joined it looking far from conventional. Anthony, father of Swan Warden Simon Leschallas, took me out to lunch at the Savoy Grill once (oh those magic days when somehow long lunches fitted themselves into the working day… ! what went wrong?). Towards the end of lunch he leaned over conspiratorially and said, 'I remember you in your hippie days'. And just now Michael Broadbent has been telling my neighbours here at the top table that in my early days as a wine writer, I was 'awfully women's libby'. Who'd have thought it?!
Above from right to left: Charles Sichel, Patrice Noyelle of Pol Roger and Mommessin, chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine Jean-Michel Valette MW, Robert Rolls, Paul Bowker of Wilkinson Vintners and Edouard Moueix of JP Moueix (see below).
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.