A tribute to my Master of Wine mentor. See further memories in this thread on our members' forum.
18 April 2020 Liz will apparently be cremated very simply in Nîmes on Tuesday and Mike is to be allowed to take four friends. Her ashes will be scattered in their garden and in one of their olive groves on the Alpilles. Mike adds that if anyone would like to make a donation in her memory 'to the SPA in France or any other animal charity in the world, she would have been delighted. Those of you who can, please raise a glass to her next Tuesday.'
17 April 2020 Liz Berry MW died on Tuesday of complications after returning to her home near St-Rémy-de-Provence from Nîmes hospital, where she had successfully undergone surgery a week ago last Friday to remove what remained of a tumour.
Liz and her husband and business partner Mike Berry were hugely important figures in the development of the London wine trade when they established La Vigneronne wine shop on the Old Brompton Road in 1981, the year after she qualified as a Master of Wine. They moved to France in 1994, managing the shop from Provence, but sold it in 2003 and it is now the site of Handford Wines, owned by fellow Master of Wine James Handford.
She started out as a classical guitar teacher and was always gently didactic, knowledgeable but typically disseminating that knowledge with her head on one side, and with frequent throaty chuckles. Many Masters of Wine, including the interim executive director of the Institute Adrian Garforth, who was charged with spreading the sad news, remember her tasting coaching sessions in the basement of La Vigneronne on Saturday mornings fondly. He commented that ‘for those of us of a certain age … she was, without doubt, instrumental in getting so many of us into a practical exam-ready state, and for this we will remain eternally thankful.’ I remember her as my assigned mentor in the MW exams. She must have been a good teacher to have got me through both halves first time.
She went from teaching the guitar to working for Europa Foods, ending up as their wine buyer. This was in the late 1970s when working for a supermarket was regarded as beyond the pale of the ‘proper’ wine trade. Mike joined her in her own retail business from Standard Chartered Bank and doubtless his background in the law and accountancy played a huge part in the success of La Vigneronne.
What distinguished La Vigneronne, and made it a place of pilgrimage for wine lovers in the 1980s and 1990s, was the eclectic nature of its range of wines. Not for Liz the same old classical names that dominated offerings elsewhere – nor of course the cheap mass-market brands. The shop offered the then-exotic likes of Grange, Mouchão, Kreydenweiss, Torres Black Label and Chateau Musar, and frequent opportunities to taste them. The shop, justifiably, was recognised with a host of awards. The (rare) photograph of Liz above was taken at the wedding of Dion Gunson, who worked at La Vigneronne and who kindly looked it out and shared it with me.
The basement of La Vigneronne was frequently crowded with eager palates taking advantage of their series of tastings, and Nick reminds me that the Berrys held regular, creative tasting events on Monday evenings in the barrel-vaulted room at the top of L’Escargot restaurant in Soho when he owned it in the 1980s.
The Berrys loved food almost as much as wine and were the most generous hosts. I don’t think I have ever been served as much wine, and as many different wines, as at the Berrys’ table in their flat in Royal Crescent at the end of Holland Park Road. (Nick and I had the strange experience recently of being invited back to the very same flat, now occupied by the head of Chatham House. The food and wine were less copious.)
On their travels in France they were big fans of the wine-focused restaurant Le Mimosa in St-Guiraud north of Béziers (mentioned, as is La Vigneronne, in this 2003 travel article), where David Pugh whet their appetite for the best wines of this developing region. Once established in southern France, they set up Grand Cru, a ground-breaking business sourcing top-quality Languedoc-Roussillon wines, often backing very new domaines, for clients in the UK on- and off-trade. She followed her book The Wines of Alsace with The Wines of Languedoc-Roussillon.
We visited them once at their house and little vineyard and olive grove in the village of St-Martin-de-Crau and were once again treated royally. Mike long rivalled Liz for his wine knowledge and wine tasting skill. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, he was unable to accompany her to hospital. Our hearts go out to him.
Another prominent British member of the wine trade based in France who has, tragically, been widowed recently is Tim Johnston of Juveniles in Paris. His vivacious and hugely supportive wife Steph suffered a fatal car accident in Oxfordshire last month. Tim, one of the most popular wine personalities in both France and Australia, and his two daughters are currently stranded there by the lockdown.