Clive Coates MW remembered

Clive Coates MW

It seems as though virtually everyone who met this powerful personality who played a major part in wine in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has a story about him – even a Booker Prize-winning novelist. See also this thread on our Members' forum.

‘Cleeve Co-atts’ was a name synonymous with authority for a generation or two of French vignerons and a legion of wine students everywhere. So much so that he managed to persuade the Bordeaux first growths to come to London to present vertical tastings of their wines to MWs and MW students in the 1990s (he’d passed the MW exams in 1971), as well as getting most of France’s finest producers to line up extensive tastings for him alone.

For wine students and professionals, he provided assiduously researched, highly regarded tomes on Claret (1982), Wines of France (1990), Grands Vins: The finest châteaux of Bordeaux and their wines (1995), Côte d’Or: A celebration of the great wines of Burgundy (1997), An Encyclopaedia of the Wines and Domaines of France (2000), The Wines of Bordeaux (2004), The Great Wines of France (2005) and The Wines of Burgundy (2008).

He also wrote and published 241 issues of The Vine, a handsome print publication that he founded in 1984 and handed over to Sarah Marsh MW in 2005. In an interview on his website he confesses that when he started The Vine, the French wine region he knew least well was Burgundy. This changed.

But before he became a wine writer he was a significant force in the British wine trade. He started out training to be a chef at Westminster Hotel School but soon became far more interested in wine and, after a traineeship at Hedges & Butler, worked for The Wine Society (see Julia's tips on what to buy from The Wine Society published today) as promotions manager, writing their lists and so on, between 1967 and 1973. He presumably learnt much from their then-buyer, the late Christopher Tatham MW.

Clive’s most powerful position in the trade by far was as executive director of the wine division of British Transport Hotels, a group of ex railway hotels owned by the UK’s nationalised railway company – so, indirectly, by us British taxpayers. From a Victorian Gothic turret high above St Pancras station, between 1975 and 1981, he formed and ran Malmaison Wine Club, a popular, high-profile outfit, not unlike The Wine Society, that sold fine wine to its members and organised tastings and dinners for the delectation of both members and Clive himself.

He was a particularly fastidious professional wine buyer, even if the quantities involved were sometimes even greater than the quality, as Neville Abraham found when he hired him to buy for Les Amis du Vin when British Transport Hotels was being wound down and the hotels (and wine stocks) sold off in the early 1980s. Barry Phillips of Four Walls Wine still blesses Clive for the 1978 white burgundies he was able to buy from BTH. David Boobbyer of Reid Wines reports, ‘We used to raise a glass every time we bought Malmaison stock. He did buy brilliantly.

I knew Clive best in his Malmaison days, which coincided with my journey towards the Master of Wine qualification, and I remember in particular his catchphrase ‘as it were’, said in his slightly sibilant bass. He was generous with his knowledge (and preferences) and loved teaching others, especially women whom he encouraged on their way into the wine trade. Liz Morcom MW and, briefly, Joanna Simon both worked with him at Malmaison. Rosemary George MW recalls that in 1979, when she and the late Aileen Trew MW doubled the number of female MWs, Clive took them out to a celebratory lunch at the Charing Cross Hotel (one of the BTH portfolio), poured them champagne, and warned that passing the MW was just the start of their learning process.

Rosemary also shared this MW story that I had never heard before: ‘I was on the panel for the tasting exam the year you passed [1984], along with Clive, Colin Anderson MW and one or two others. Clive recognised your distinctive handwriting, as did I, and when Colin Anderson observed, “this candidate is rather good, isn’t he?”, Clive said, “Colin, I think you will find that it’s a she.”’

Clive loved wine so much that, according to Mike Berry of La Vigneronne, for whom he used to conduct tastings, he preferred a light Mosel to a bottle of water by his bedside (and fresh orange juice and a fresh baguette in the morning). Berry also remembers encountering him just before conducting a particularly grand tasting at L’Escargot, sipping a fortifying Campari downstairs beforehand.

As he gained in gravitas, he was sometimes accused of a certain pomposity, perhaps underlined by his trademark bow tie, but self-doubt didn’t seem to trouble him. As Sebastian Payne MW, who took over from Clive as The Wine Society’s promotions manager and became the Society’s head buyer, puts it, ‘he used to give the impression of extreme self-confidence and, with a carrying voice, was a commanding presence’. He suggests Clive initiated the annual Southwold tastings of young bordeaux, ‘because he wanted to write up claret vintages for The Vine. He persuaded all the independent wine merchants he liked to chip in with samples to complete the range. He certainly made things happen and, though sometimes he was teased for pomposity, all of us were jolly grateful to him for his initiative and organisation.’

Rob Chase, who used to do all the hard work organising the original Southwold tastings, remembers that Clive’s visits ‘heralded a lot of heckling from old hands and friends like Jasper Morris MW, Nick Davies, Simon Loftus and Bill Baker – but from lesser mortals like me, much respect. I was always impressed by his equanimity towards his tormentors and his generosity of spirit to the Adnams workforce (me)!’

Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners also remembers his generosity. ‘He was always very friendly to me (when some senior people in the wine trade were rather snooty) and often invited us for dinner at his place in Woodstock Road, Chiswick. I remember his 60th birthday party at L’Arlequin in Queenstown Road where we drank 1937s because his 1941 birth year was no good.’ (Many of those I asked for memories of Clive commented on how generously he shared very fine wine.)

For many years Clive was also a leading participant in the Burgfest, an annual burgundy tasting originally held at Bill Baker’s Reid Wines HQ south of Bristol but, as at Southwold, Clive always refused to join everyone else in tasting blind. I think his argument was that, as a writer, he had to ‘get things right’. He also refused to allow any other writers to participate – which is why he and I never overlapped at these events.

He and Baker were partners in wine crime. David Boobbyer remembers that when in 2005 the Burgfest moved to France, ‘we were rung by our bank’s fraud section – very urgent !! – to be told “your card is being used fraudulently in France”. Firstly we asked, where in France? The answer was Chagny [the little town where the three-star restaurant Lameloise is located], and at 1.30 am. The amount was almost a thousand euros, easily €1,500 in today’s terms. You guessed it: Bill Baker and Clive Coates’ dinner for two.’

Somehow Clive let it be known that he expected regular infusions of Krug, as witness this tale from Greg Gregory, now of Napa Valley: ‘Oh the memories, the twinkle in the eye, the requisite “Anyway, anyway” comment after every lengthy diatribe and, most memorable, the request for a glass of Krug on arrival anywhere. Clive was coming to lead a Gaja tasting at the retail store in Tampa that I’m a small partner in. This is 2004ish and he’s also just released a book, so that’s part of the desire for the roadshow. I volunteered to pick him up at the airport and was told by our store’s majority owner, and former manager of Bern’s retail wine shop, that Clive likes to start the day with a glass of Krug. Soooooo, I pull up in the arrivals section of baggage claim at Tampa International at 9 am in my barely-used Black XJS Jaguar (the last year they were made in the UK) and took his bag, put it in the trunk, and when he got in I had a bottle of 1996 Krug on ice with a champagne glass waiting for him. As you can imagine, we became fast friends.’

Clive regularly hosted Burgundy seminars chez Becky Wasserman and Russell Hone for groups of mainly Americans until Jasper Morris MW took over. For Lindsay Hamilton of Vinum Fine Wines, ‘I have lots of good and funny memories of Clive but what I liked best was at the Burgfest seeing him sitting at the head of the table walking through the commune that we were tasting, remembering each vineyard and grower without fault or hesitation.’

Tim Sykes, who once worked at La Vigneronne, remembers attending dinners chez the proprietors Liz and Mike Berry that were effectively payment to Clive for his having hosted a tasting for their customers, and says they included some of the most memorable bottles he ever drank. But Mike Berry describes Clive as ‘always difficult with food and wines. He used to like pizzas, and after doing a vertical of Petrus back to the 1940s he invited Liz and me to Pizza Express in Earls Court’ which must have been a bit of a shock to their digestive systems. At dinner chez Berry, ‘when I opened our last bottle of Clos Ste Hune 1983 Vendange Tardive, his comment was, “I prefer the regular cuvée”.’

Berry is one of several British wine professionals who remember Clive as a vegetarian who made an exception for bacon, breakfast sausages – and foie gras, which he called ‘an honorary vegetable’.

Sarah Marsh MW comments, ‘Clive had phenomenal knowledge of the classic wine regions, built on a foundation of working in the trade and developed over years as a wine critic. As such he was deeply respected, if not revered by their wine producers. As his MW mentee it was a privilege, albeit sometimes daunting, to learn from him. He was both gruff and tremendously kind. He imparted his experience generously, but didn’t suffer fools gladly. He loved a good lunch.

‘Clive had a passion for all things Burgundian – wine, history, architecture and food, although his favourite cheese was Montgomery cheddar [confirmed by others]. His books on Burgundy have not been surpassed for their in-depth explanation of terroir on the Côte d’Or. When he moved to live in Burgundy with his dog, London wine lovers who flocked to sit cheek by jowl in his flat in Chiswick for his exceptional vertical and horizontal tastings of burgundy and bordeaux were the poorer. There has never been anything quite like them.

‘Both large in form, knowledge and personality, Clive was among the all-time greats of the British wine community and it was an honour benefit from his wine wisdom.’

In the last decade or so Clive lived peacefully in a little village appropriately called St-Bonnet de Vieille Vigne in the Charolais, apparently perfectly content with his books, his music, his dogs and his bottles. One of his lesser-known legacies is that, with his first wife Ros (before he married Juliet, daughter of David Burns MW), his flat was in the same north London house as Julian Barnes and his wife Pat Kavanagh. His donation of leftovers to this novelist neighbour lit the flame for an interest which has grown to inspire one of the best private cellars I know.

Barnes adds, When I met my future wife in 1978, she was living in the top half of a house in Dartmouth Park in north London. Downstairs from her lived Clive Coates and his wife Rosalind. At the time, I was on the nursery slopes of wine; that’s to say, I had grasped the fact that nice wine is nicer than nasty wine (and also that nasty wine can be quite expensive). One afternoon, there was considerable male noise from the terrace beneath our kitchen window: glugging and slurping and spitting and popping and chortling. A few hours later, Clive rang our doorbell. Underneath each arm, he carried four bottles, which he handed over with the words Cooking wine!

I took them upstairs and examined them. Only about an inch or two from each had been consumed; the labels were fresh and classy, and I recognised some of the names of wines I had never tasted; they were clarets, that much I deduced – and, indeed, very recent bottlings of either the 1978 or 1979 vintage. We contemplated them. They weren’t our idea of cooking wines – back then, before we knew better, we cooked with nasty wines, unfit for mere drinking. So we poured ourselves a couple of glasses: hmm, definitely not nasty – indeed on the way, I suspected, to being nice, if not very nice. Over the next week or so we drank them all, infanticidally, and my appreciation of non-nasty wine made a few tentative steps forward. Thank you, Clive!

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