NEW YORK — In a tony private club on the Upper East Side, Michael Broadbent, at 75 perhaps the most venerable figure in the wine world (an industry full of venerable types), leans against an end table and offers a broad toothy smile toward the camera.
“Christie’s,” he says, a thick British accent purring through his grin. “Christ-eeeee’s.” After all, the remarkable sights and tastes Broadbent has enjoyed since joining the auction house in London in 1966, and turning its wine department into an international force, have given the master of wine plenty to smile about. There was the 1898 Lafitte, opened during a grand lunch at Chateau Lafitte, and served, puzzlingly, with soft-boiled eggs. There were glamourous auctions and far-flung travels, the cold, dark cellars beneath majestic estates. There were the fantastic bottles of 1921 Chateau d’Yquem, which Broadbent has tasted, at last count, more than 30 times.
Though wine fans love Broadbent for his keen taste and witty descriptions, his latest book “Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine: Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wine,” offers more. Tucked in between the 10,000 tasting notes, each culled from the 85,000 notes Broadbent recorded in 133 red tasting notebooks during a half-century on the job, are the anecdotes, memories, people and places that make every old dusty bottle come to life. And from the Clos de Tart 1978 (“an attractive, buxom, nubile, highly scented tart”) to a German wine from 1653, tasted in Bremen at the Rose Cellar (“very sharp and not very nice”) to a 2000 red Bordeaux from Chateau Latour, which earns five stars out of five, Broadbent has tasted it all.
“My note-taking is a bit of a fetish,” says Broadbent, visiting from London to promote the book. “I’ll continue to do it until I fall off of my perch. There are still wines that I’ve never heard of, it’s endless. I’m never bored.”
Of course, Broadbent also does his best to keep wine tasting interesting for others. A few years after buying a $10,000 bottle of 1864 Lafitte from the cellars of Mrs. James de Rothschild in London, the new owner invited Broadbent to officiate over the bottle’s opening during a banquet dinner in Memphis.
“I went down to the cellar and there was a terrible smell of vinegar,” he says. “The cork had lost its elasticity.” Still, Broadbent saved the day, infusing the moment with a little romance.
“I stood in front of the long table and nodded sagely as the owner had the first sip,” Broadbent says, savoring the memory. “Then I told the group, ‘This is a very old wine, and you’re tasting history. The grapes for this wine in 1864 were being picked at almost the very moment that General Sherman was marching across Georgia towards Memphis.’”
Unlike many in the wine industry, who are taken with New World wines — from Australia, New Zealand, California — Broadbent champions the classics, Bordeaux and Burgundy. He includes California wines in the book, a couple of pages on the rest, but it’s not where his heart is.
“I know I’m going against the tide,” he says. “But this is not a book about wines that you grab off the shelf to drink tonight. I’m writing about wines that have a past and a present and a future.”