Michael Broadbent, who put wine on the auction block, dies at 92

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Michael Broadbent, who put wine on the auction block, dies at 92
In an undated image provided via Christie's, Michael Broadbent leads a Christie’s auction. Broadbent, a leading English wine authority who codified the practice of tasting and describing wine while, as head of Christie’s wine department for many years, virtually created the modern wine auction, died on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Berkshire, England. He was 92. Via Christie's via The New York Times.

by Eric Asimov

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Michael Broadbent, a leading English wine authority who codified the practice of tasting and describing wine while, as head of Christie’s wine department for many years, virtually created the modern wine auction, died on Tuesday in Berkshire, England. He was 92.

His son, Bartholomew Broadbent, confirmed the death.

Broadbent was a prolific author and wine columnist whose most important works, “The Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting,” first published in 1968, and “The Great Vintage Wine Book” (1980), have appeared in many editions and languages.

“Tasting” was an effort to organize and articulate the various components that go into tasting, describing and judging a wine. Describing wines has been a pastime as far back as Pliny the Elder, but it was often done haphazardly, by tasters given to whimsical flights of doggerel or, by the early 20th century, to reflections on social stratification, with references to breeding and nobility.

Broadbent instead set out a methodology that gave structure to tasting. He outlined the importance of every element, from the time of day, to his preferred glassware, to the order of wines and even to the lighting in the room.

“Daylight is best, preferably a good north light, as artificial lighting can affect both hue and tone,” he wrote, presumably for an audience based in the Northern Hemisphere.

He outlined the characteristics to observe — appearance, aromas, taste and aftertaste — cautioning readers not to ignore the price of a bottle. “Only a real wine snob or hypocrite (often the same person), and perhaps the carelessly rich, need not heed the price factor,” he said.

Broadbent’s language in describing a wine was judicious and reserved. Not for him the grocery list of aromas and flavors made popular in the 1980s and ’90s by the American critic Robert M. Parker Jr.

“Medium-deep, maturing, its color soft and mellow; warm, rich, slightly earthy nose and taste,” Broadbent wrote of a 1989 Château Haut-Brion, one of the world’s great Bordeaux wines.

His “Vintage Wine” book, last published as “Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine” in 2002, encompassed notes on more than 10,000 wines in vintages from 1680 to 2001.

Broadbent also wrote for Decanter magazine, a British wine publication, turning out 433 consecutive monthly articles from 1977 to 2012.

With all of his writing, Broadbent also had a day job. He was head of the wine department at Christie’s auction house, where, beginning in the 1960s, he essentially created the notion that wine could be a valuable commodity, like antique furniture or art, with enough demand to warrant auctions of rare and coveted bottles.

“You can’t overstate his influence — he really created the whole wine auction field,” said Fritz Hatton, principal auctioneer for Zachys Wine Auctions and proprietor of Arietta Wine in Napa Valley, in a phone interview.

When commercial wine auctions got going in Britain in the 1960s, they were largely illegal in the United States, a result of archaic Prohibition-era laws and lobbying pressure from the wine and spirits industries. But Broadbent noticed wine being shipped by American collectors to London for auction only to be then bought by Americans, who shipped their purchases back to the United States. He wanted to get in on that market.

Christie’s was able to navigate the thicket of Illinois laws to arrange auctions in Chicago in the 1980s, and when New York City finally legalized wine auctions in 1994, Christie’s was among the first to hold auctions there, with Broadbent arriving to conduct several of them early on.

“In New York, they really took off,” Hatton said. “He was so charismatic and so engaging, I think his personality was a big part of their success.”

John Michael Broadbent was born on May 2, 1927, in West Riding, Yorkshire, in the north of England. His father’s family owned cotton mills, but Broadbent set out to become an architect.

He lost interest, however, in finding that designing buildings required knowledge of practical matters, like plumbing. While looking for an alternative career, his mother encouraged him to apply for a job in wine. He was promptly hired by Laytons, a London wine merchant, in 1952.

Through the 1950s and early ’60s, Broadbent worked in sales positions for several merchants. In 1966, he had a novel idea. He wrote a letter to the chairman of Christie’s, proposing that the auction house create a department focused on buying and selling old, rare wines.

This was something different. Christie’s had auctioned off cases of wine here and there, generally as part of estate sales, but wine at the time was not considered a collectible. It wasn’t clear whether a market for wine even existed.

But Broadbent was persuasive. He suggested selecting, as head of the proposed department, a young, energetic wine authority who could ferret out caches of old, rare wines, someone who had successfully endured the grueling testing procedure to earn the credential Master of Wine, as he had in 1960. Someone, in short, like himself.

“He basically wrote his own job description, and they offered him the job,” Bartholomew Broadbent said in a phone interview.

Before long, Broadbent was traveling through Britain and Europe, often accompanied by his wife, Daphne Broadbent, visiting old manors, chateaus and castles and unearthing collections of dusty old bottles whose owners had little use for them.

His efforts gave him access to a remarkable number of great bottles, which he tasted through diligently before putting them up for auction. He was an assiduous note-taker, jotting down in small red-bound notebooks the characteristics of the wine, the circumstances of the tasting and the names of those present.

He eventually filled more than 100 notebooks, and those observations became the basis of his “Vintage Wine” books.

Daphne Broadbent, to whom he was married for 61 years, died in 2015. He married Valerie Smallwood in 2019. In addition to his son, Bartholomew, the founder of Broadbent Selections, a wine importing business in the United States, he is survived by his wife; a daughter, Emma Arbuthnot, the chief magistrate of England and Wales; and six grandchildren.

For Broadbent, finding and tasting old wines was a joy, but in one case it brought heartache. This involved the auctioning in the 1980s of several bottles of Bordeaux said to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

The bottles sold for extraordinary prices — one, a 1787 Château Lafite, was bought by Malcolm Forbes in 1985 for $156,450 — and Broadbent at the time vouched for their authenticity and the reliability of the seller, Hardy Rodenstock, a German wine collector.

Their provenance, however, was never clearly established, and most experts have since concluded that the bottles were fraudulent. One book about them, “The Billionaire’s Vinegar,” by Benjamin Wallace, published in 2008, suggested that Broadbent had been too credulous in his assessments of the Jefferson wines.

In response, Broadbent in 2009 sued Random House, the publisher, for libel, contending that the book falsely depicted him as complicit in a crime. Wallace maintained that the book never suggested that Broadbent had acted in bad faith. The suit, filed in London, where the libel laws are more lax than in the United States, was settled, with the publisher agreeing not to distribute the book in the United Kingdom.

Bartholomew Broadbent said that his father had continued to believe that the bottles were genuine, though not without reservations.

“If it had been proven he was duped or fooled, he would have accepted that,” the son said.

Broadbent retired as head of Christie’s wine department in 1992, although he stayed on as a director of Christie’s International until 2007. He continued tasting wines into his later years, and taking notes on them.

“Wines are like people,” he said in 2002. “Some are perfect but boring, some are precocious but fail to live up to their promise, and some may be flawed, but the way they develop is endlessly fascinating.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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