Michael Broadbent MW: a tribute

Writer, critic and auctioneer Michael Broadbent, who has died at the age of 92, was a colossus of wine

Words by Adam Lechmere

Photography by Lucy Pope

Broadbent with Ben Howkins and Adam Brett-Smith

When Bartholomew (‘Bollew’) Broadbent broke the news last year that his father had just got married, no one was particularly surprised. The fact that he was 92 and wheelchair-bound didn’t make any difference. There was hardly a beat before the crowd in London’s ancient Vintners’ Hall burst into applause, cheers and wolf whistles. Michael (main pic, centre, with Ben Howkins and Adam Brett-Smith) sat there and smiled, his new wife Valerie by his side. He took it as his due, as well he might.

Michael Broadbent bestrode the wine world. He has his own (substantial) entry in the Oxford Companion to Wine. His books are as relevant now as they were decades ago: The Great Vintage Wine Book and Vintage Wine are still in print; his seminal work, Wine Tasting, was re-issued by L’Academie du Vin Library last year. First published in 1968, it set a standard for tasting that is followed today. The jacket of the new edition carried praise from Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson MW, Steven Spurrier and others of his peers – but also from the celebrity auctioneer Fritz Hatton. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Broadbent’s influence over the auction world is as important as his writing. He was taken on by Christie’s in 1966 to revive their wine auctions. He did: you could argue that today’s $500m world auction business sits on his pin-striped shoulders.

Broadbent with his son Bartholomew
Broadbent with his son Bartholomew

With his death we take one more step away from the old ways. Michael, with his notebooks and his pen (his hundreds of columns for Decanter were written longhand – sometimes he dictated, like Milton – and sent by post) was of an era that was disappearing when I joined Decanter in 1999. I remember once offering him a taste of a mighty Californian newcomer. “Not my kind of thing at all,” he said, declining it with a gentle, understanding smile. But he was no prude. I sat next to him at a Christie’s vintage cigar dinner where we puffed our way through some large Havanas. “I never thought I’d be doing this,” he said, his half-moon spectacles glinting through a cloud of smoke.

He was approachable, generous and patient with green young journalists asking for comment, and he had a robust, occasionally ripe, sense of humour (his Decanter columns could be ribald). At Vintners’ Hall last year, when his marriage was announced at the launch of the new edition of Wine Tasting, he was obviously tickled by his son’s tribute to Valerie (who is the widow of his former colleague Simon Smallwood MW). “Valerie will keep him alive,” Bollew joked, to cheers.

Michael Broadbent MW with his wife Valerie
Broadbent with his wife Valerie

Immortality is conferred on no-one, but Michael Broadbent’s name will live on. He was a hugely influential figure in the wine world; for generations to come, aspiring MWs, wine professionals and amateurs alike will pay respect to his memory, wittingly or unwittingly, as they nose, sip, swirl and spit.

John Michael Broadbent. 2 May 1927 – 17 March 2020