J Michael Broadbent MW RIP

Michael Broadbent MW in his London study with tasting notebooks

We have lost one of the wine world's best-known personalities. See also Broadbent more memories.

Michael Broadbent, a towering figure in the history of wine, died late last night at the age of 92.

It was Michael who restarted wine auctions, at Christie’s in 1966, thereby establishing London as the thriving centre of the world’s fine-wine trade, a title it has recently regained from Hong Kong.

He consolidated his seminal role in the world of wine with his prolific output as a writer, most notably contributing the first thorough guide to the process of wine tasting with an eponymous book first published in 1968, translated into eight languages, and recently republished, with additional contributions, as the debut title of the Académie du Vin Library.

With his dashing looks, impeccable tailoring and authoritative demeanour, he was in huge demand as a speaker at wine dinners and leader of fine-wine tastings all over the world at a time when such events were hugely popular. He religiously kept a record and description of every wine he tasted in the little red notebooks shown in the photograph I took in his London flat two or three years ago. Their contents were distilled into two magisterial, unparalleled compilations of fine-wine tasting notes, The Great Vintage Wine Book in 1991, updated as Vintage Wine in 2002.

As well as wine, he loved women and gossip, which made him great company on the long journeys on the Piccadilly line we shared returning from Heathrow when, with Hugh Johnson and Colin Anderson MW, we chose wine for British Airways on the basis of blind tastings. Times long gone.

His long-suffering and highly opinionated wife Daphne, who transcribed so much of what was in those red notebooks, died in 2015. It surprised no one when last year Michael married again, the glamorous Valerie Smallwood, widow of fellow Master of Wine Simon Smallwood, who did so much to ease his final years when he lost full mobility. They put their considerable respective cellars together to host the grand November 2018 dinner at Brooks’s pictured here and below (left to right: Emma Arbuthnot, Michael Broadbent, Valerie Smallwood as she was still then, and Bartholomew Broadbent).

Left to right: Emma Arbuthnot, Michael Broadbent, Valerie Smallwood, Bartholomew Broadbent

John Michael Broadbent was born on 2 May 1927 in the West Riding of Yorkshire where he was educated. He came to London during the war to study as an architect, and his skill as a draughtsman was consistently displayed in his role as chairman of the Wine Trade Arts Society, which he founded as early as 1954. He was also an enthusiastic collector of drawings.

He admitted, ‘My lengthy architectural training was interrupted by military service [national service immediately after the war] and ended through sheer idleness. At the age of 25 a drastic change was called for.’ His mother spotted an ad for a wine-trade trainee placed in The Times by the late Tommy Layton, and spent a happy, if impecunious, year sweeping the cellar and delivering orders around Mayfair, followed by a year or two working in a wine shop. A move to Harveys of Bristol, then Britain’s leading wine merchant, where the late Harry Waugh trained a generation or two of gifted wine professionals, saw Michael become, inter alia, brand manager for a liqueur chocolate for which he suggested the slogan ‘the best liqueur chocolate is the one that makes you drunk before you are sick’. Most of his responsibilities at Harvey’s were more wine-related and he was able to qualify as a Master of Wine in 1960. The 11 years at Harveys gave Michael sufficient credentials, and confidence, that when Christie’s floated the idea of reviving wine auctions to Harry Waugh – at a time when none of the big auction houses dealt in wine - Harry put Michael forward for the job.

He worked himself and his staff incredibly hard. He was never a particularly accomplished auctioneer. He left that largely to Alan Taylor-Restell, whose family auction house in the City of London was absorbed into Christie's, and David Elswood who died, far too early, last year. Michael did the high profile stuff, and tirelessly investigated and packed up cellars, generally with Daphne and often with his children. Their daughter Emma would go on to become one of Britain’s most eminent judges and wife of Tory grandee Lord Arbuthnot. Their son Bartholomew (Bollew) runs Broadbent Selections, a respected wine importer in the United States with a portfolio that includes many of his father’s oldest friends.

The elegant Michael really drove himself, becoming chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine in 1971. He was president of The International Wine & Food Society from 1985 to 1992 and chairman of The Benevolent, the wine trade charity, for a year from 1991 immediately after his year as Master of the Distillers livery company. The Vintners' Company made him an honorary freeman in 2001.

Michael also set up Christie’s Wine Publications, publishing a series of well-designed monographs in the 1970s and 1980s that are still useful today. In 1982 with Steven Spurrier he founded Christie’s Wine Course, an early foray into wine education. He was to be the first honorary president of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in 2008.

I feel exhausted just recording all this frenetic activity, especially when I know how hectic his social life was. There were few free evenings for Mr and Mrs Michael Broadbent.

Life calmed down a bit after Michael retired from running Christie’s wine department full time in 1992. He was a director of Christie’s International until 2007. There was such fierce rivalry between Christie’s and Sotheby’s wine departments, fostered it has to be said by Michael, that this may have been a factor in his misguided decision to accept the German collector and counterfeiter Hardy Rodenstock’s notorious Jefferson bottles without a proper record of their provenance. This saga was chronicled in The Billionaire’s Vinegar, written by Benjamin Wallace, whom Michael, typically, entertained at Brooks’s, where, I would guess, the auctioneer may well have been too loose-lipped for his own good.

He and Daphne spent their latter years in a pair of adjacent flats – one for work, one for entertaining – high above the Thames in Fulham overlooking the Barnes wetlands. The River Café was one of his favourite haunts once Daphne was no longer there to look after him. My fellow wine writer Jane MacQuitty lives nearby and was very good at keeping an eye on the senior widower until he moved permanently to a cottage in the grounds of the Arbuthnots’ house in Berkshire.

Many wine lovers around the world will feel they know Michael best through his monthly column in Decanter magazine, illustrated with a photograph of a jaunty JMB on his beloved bicycle. He was extremely proud of being the longest contributor to that publication, from 1977 until 2012.

(One small measure of his significance is that if you put Broadbent in our Articles search box, there are almost 200 search results.)

He leaves the most magnificent legacy and many of us would be much poorer wine tasters without his magisterial lead.