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Tasting with the Master

Michael Broadbent's vast catalog of wine writing offers much to learn
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 21, 2014 11:50am ET

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.

Paul P Ritter
San Jose, CA —  February 21, 2014 4:37pm ET
1982 was my daughter's birth year... I picked up a 6 pack (half a case) of the '82 Howell from a fairly big retailer in Austin, TX (I was moved there by my employer of the time)... in '03 we tanked them at a coming of age party for her... They were great...I had and still do have a pair of 360 Vinothéques that do the job very well. Now starting to work on my 94 ports!
Bartholomew Broadbent
Richmond, Virginia, USA —  February 21, 2014 5:20pm ET
What a very nice tribute to my father. Thank you. You mentioned The Great Vintage Wine Book and The New Great Vintage Wine Book but not the most recent version called Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine published by Harcourt in 2002. Winner of the James Beard Award and numerous other awards, it is the more important book, and there is an addendum called Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine Pocket Companion. I hope you have those books in your library but, sorry, it doesn't repeat the color photos, nor does it repeat tasting notes of wines which he didn't taste again after publication of the The New Great Vintage Wine Book. However, it has 560 pages of notes, in small type, so plenty to read. What is new in this edition is a bunch of stories and anecdotes about various tastings and those who put on such events. Thanks again for the nice blog.
Quek Li Fei
Singapore —  February 24, 2014 6:50pm ET
I always read and (thoroughly) enjoyed Michael Broadbent's monthly columns in Decanter. It was in fact the very first page I turned to in each month's issue. I am of course sad about but do understand Mr. Broadbent's decision to "retire" from writing a regular column. I hope that in his golden retirement, he will continue to write ocasionally and thereby share his wealth of experience & wonderful palate with us. Thank you Mr. Broadbent for the many interesting and always readable columns. I will miss reading them.

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