Michael Broadbent, 86, is one of wine's foremost authorities, and has been for many years. In honor of his service to the wine auction industry at Christie's, he was the recipient of Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award in 1991. A prolific author of more than a dozen books, he is a scholar with a preoccupation for ancient wines, mostly French, but also German, Vintage Port, Champagne and Madeira. His two reference works, The Great Vintage Wine Book (Knopf, 1980), and its successor, The New Great Vintage Wine Book (Knopf, 1991), should be in any wine lover's library.
The first book is my favorite, one of the reasons being the color photos of different wines at different stages of their lives. You can see a young vs. old Bordeaux, or Rhône, or Sauternes.
The color photos are a reminder of Broadbent's approach to tasting. He influenced many writers with his note taking (a must), discipline in studying color, body and aromatics, as well as the fundamentals, chief among them the importance of blind tasting.
Last year, Broadbent penned his last wine column for the British wine magazine Decanter. The decision to hand in his pen was arbitrary, he explained in his farewell letter. "Truth is, I have much more to do. 433 consecutive monthly articles is enough."
Yet for all his accomplishments and experiences, he kept wine in perspective. Writing about wine was a hobby, he said. His day job was as a salesman, working both in retail and at auction houses. "I have never regarded myself as an expert, more of a communicator; less to do with facts, more with encouraging understanding," he wrote. "You see. It is one thing to be able to taste and write a copious note, and another thing to convey it with words in a language that the consumer can fully comprehend."
I had the opportunity to listen to Broadbent lecture about tasting on several occasions and the good fortune to taste with him several other times. The most memorable was a blind tasting in 1986 of 1982 Bordeaux and California Cabernet organized by Wine Spectator. We invited several outsiders with experience in both regions. Broadbent sat across from me and I watched as he sniffed and swirled and scribbled notes.
After the tasting, each of the participants ranked their favorites. Wine Spectator editors used our 100-point scale. Broadbent preferred a five-star system in his books, but didn't quibble about the ratings. "I can just multiply my [20-point] score by five," he chuckled.
He did pick out all of the Bordeaux first-growths, but favored the Dunn Vineyards Napa Valley Howell Mountain as his favorite.
One thing wine lovers share is a desire to enhance our wine-drinking experiences. We all want to be better tasters and better appreciate what we're tasting. Broadbent's pocket guides, about the size of a checkbook, are a great starting point. You can turn to any page and learn something new.