How Henri Jayer burgundies benefited an Oxbridge institution. A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
King’s College, Cambridge – famous worldwide for its Christmas carol service – found itself richer by a million pounds on the night of 8 June this year.
The man likely to be most pleased by this is Professor Peter de Bolla, the son of a butcher, who as a child wanted to be a composer and whose subjects are 18th-century English literature, cultural history and aesthetics. He is also interested in a computational approach to the humanities (he has taught himself to code) and, in a major way, wine (he has taught himself to taste, buy and make a profit from trading in wine). As he puts it, ‘if you’re an academic, you’re always interested in learning’.
Last month Christie’s sold 41 lots from the King’s College cellar, overseen by de Bolla for the last 29 years, which netted more than £1 million and included, for example, a dozen bottles of 1999 Échezeaux, a grand cru made by the legendary Burgundian Henri Jayer, for which someone bid £100,000. De Bolla bought them on release and, as a guide price, paid £31.11 per bottle for the 1996 vintage of this wine.
One of the reasons this auction set several new records is that there can be no doubt as to the authenticity of wines that are so rare and so famous that they are prime candidates for counterfeiters. The wines, mainly late 1990s vintages, were bought direct from top-notch burgundy importer Roy Richards, who had been a Cambridge undergraduate and had already befriended de Bolla’s two predecessors (who were apparently rather more modest in their wine buying).
‘Then came Pete’, Richards emailed me recently, ‘also at least initially a man of the left, who appreciated grand wine and steered around the political issues by demonstrating that wine sales could make a profit, so benefiting the interests of all in the college. He was a brilliant taster (and, incidentally, cook), and bought very well and heavily from [our company] Richards Walford. Out of gratitude to Cambridge, I ensured that he had allocations of wines that were destined to become sought-after and famous.’
These were just some of the venerable bottles in the King’s College cellar – its treasures stored in a bonded warehouse far from thirsty students or even senior members of the college. De Bolla is fiercely proud of being in charge of the only Oxbridge college cellar that operates as a profitable wine retailer. Undergraduates can buy a rolling assortment of superior but not outstanding wines. The dons at High Table are supplied with wines a notch or two above, depending on the grandeur of the occasion. (On a visit to King’s in May I picked up a leaflet on High Table Protocol that runs to four pages.)
I asked whether his fellow academics ever criticised his choices. ‘I try to educate the Fellows’, he declared, adding, ‘they don’t dare display resistance to my choices.’ He is keen to stress his autonomy over his beloved cellar with its sound commercial base. ‘We’re just about the only college with just one decision-maker. With a committee you just get the most bland choices. I buy what really interests me. You shape a cellar by what you want to drink – although that’s always changing. I’m open to all sorts of wine (though I have yet to be convinced about natural wine).’ When he took over, the cellar was ‘mainly bordeaux and masses of port, plus a little burgundy and quite a bit of German. Since then it’s changed radically. I buy from the New World and all over Europe.’
He claims that King’s is one of the few Cambridge colleges to make a major investment in wines over £20 a bottle. This policy has attracted criticism from the student body but de Bolla claims that he always buys at the best, release price and ‘unlike other Oxbridge colleges we send out regular wine offers to alumni and so forth to move the wine through’.
Although de Bolla is substantially assisted by wine butler Mark Smith, it must take quite a lot of de Bolla's time to organise all this but he’s clearly good at spotting new talent as well as being much more commercially acute than the average academic. He bought Arnoux-Lachaux burgundies from the moment the influence of risen star Charles Lachaux was first felt at this domaine. Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey is also now regarded as a Burgundy superstar but ’twas not always thus. De Bolla has been buying PYCM wines from his second-ever vintage, from Colin-Morey’s UK importer A&B Vintners. He admits that when he started buying for the college he would assiduously attend the many tastings held in Cambridge (which could be as many as two a day, so popular are Oxbridge colleges and their reliable bursars with British wine merchants). But he has now developed personal relationships with suppliers and producers, buying from only about a fifth of the former as he used to.
He acknowledges in particular the generosity of Roy Richards when he was starting out on his wine journey. It was a Ch Lafite 1953 that lit the flame (‘I suddenly realised here was a wealth of stuff to learn about’), and it was Richards who organised his first wine trip, to the cellars of the famous Chave family, where he first tasted wine from barrel and fell in love with their Hermitage. ‘The most interesting thing to me is meeting the winemakers’, he told me. He clearly soaks up everything they have to say, if a conversation about whole-bunch fermentation with potential buyers at Christie’s pre-sale dinner is anything to go by.
But he operates on the fringes of the UK wine trade rather than being immersed it. We most often see each other in January at the crowded London tastings that constitute Burgundy Week. De Bolla is one of the very few tasters to concentrate quietly and exclusively on the wines rather than the chat. He reckons he tastes abut 2,000 wines a year, including checking on the evolution of the cellar’s contents.
Like me, he remembers a time when sherry was regularly served to undergraduates during the personal supervisions (called tutorials at Oxford) that characterise the Oxbridge system but maintains that academics’ lives have been transformed. Mentioning doors carefully left open, he assured a group of visiting international members of the Young Presidents’ Organization’s wine network that I tagged along with, ‘we teach in a completely different environment now’.
Before lunch (three Chardonnays, three Syrahs and Ch Suduiraut 1997 Sauternes) he gave us a blind tasting which turned out to be suitably outré and geeky. They were six red Bandols from the same famous producer, Domaine Tempier: their four different bottlings of the 2015 vintage and two older vintages of their most expensive, Cabassaou 2000 and 1999. De Bolla seemed pleased that we preferred the least expensive by far, the Classique 2015. He told us how, when Tempier’s winemaker Daniel Ravier and PYCM visited King’s, he gave them their own wines to taste blind. Ravier also favoured the Classique apparently.
De Bolla, who has just been elected, along with Salman Rushdie, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, comments on his sideline as an entrepreneur, ‘it’s been an interesting thing for me to do’.
Recent enthusiasms of the King’s College wine steward
La Spia 2017 Valtellina Superiore
UK importer Astrum Wine Cellars
Noah, Salero 2018 Bramaterra
UK importer Astrum Wine Cellars
Grillo Iole, di Prepotto Schioppettino 2018 Friuli Colli Orientali
£21.55 Gauntleys Fine Wines
Broccardo, Paiagallo 2016 Barolo
$59.99 MacArthur Beverages, DC, USA
Dom Garon, Les Grandes Parcelles Viognier 2020 IGP Collines Rhodaniennes
£75 per case of 6 in bond Clarion Wines
Kranz, Ilbesheimer Kirchberg Riesling Grosses Gewächs 2017 Pfalz
Schloss Reinhartshausen Marcobrunn Riesling Deutscher Sekt Extra Brut 2012 Rheingau
Schoffit, Clos St-Théobald Rangen (Fut 06) Riesling 2019 Alsace Grand Cru
£31.33 Gauntleys Fine Wines
Godeval Godello 2020 Valdeorras
£17.50 NY Wines
Brick House, Les Dijonnais Pinot Noir 2018 Ribbon Ridge
$54.99 The Wine Connection, CA, USA; UK importer A&B Vintners
Hundred Suns, Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 Yamhill-Carlton
$49 Peak Beverage, CO, USA; UK importer A&B Vintners
Crystallum, Agnes Chardonnay 2017 Western Cape
UK importer Liberty Wines; more-recent vintages currently widely available retail
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