How does one remember someone who was a role model in the wine world and a benchmark as a teacher and communicator?
Michael has been part of my life since I first met him at Christie’s in 1966, soon after he’d recreated the famous wine auctions there. I recall watching him taste from a long line of wines, learning each one carefully and noting down his findings in a little red notebook. He showed me that wine tasting could – and should – be structured. His precise, somewhat schoolmasterly presence meant that I was a little in awe of him, but he helped me find my way in the wine trade and, by the time I had my own wine shop and wine school in Paris, I was lucky enough to become his understudy, attending wine auctions and master classes when he was busy elsewhere.
I have known and admired Michael for almost longer than I can remember, and find it hard to put into words the loss I feel at his passing.
Perhaps the esteem his colleagues showed with the tributes they wrote for him in the commemorative edition of his seminal work Wine Tasting (1968), republished by the Académie du Vin Library last year, show truly how he was valued? Michael was present at the launch of this, our first title, full of his own inimitable bonhomie – it was at Vintners’ Hall on April 30th, just two days before his 92nd birthday. This is what they said of him, and I agree with every word:
Hugh Johnson – ‘He added what the wine trade had lacked: a veneer of scholarship, and a dealer of genius’.
Jancis Robinson MW – ‘I – rightly, I’m sure – regarded [his] as advice from the god of wine tasting’.
Gerard Basset – ‘Elegant, polite, highly professional and a little eccentric, were my first impressions when I first met Michael. Having the pleasure to get to know him better I found him to be someone totally dedicated to fine wines…each book [he wrote] a joy to read.’
Paul Bowker, his successor at Christie’s – ‘He looked as natural on the auctioneer’s rostrum, ivory gavel in hand, as he did with a tasting glass held to his nose.’
Fritz Hatton, North America’s foremost wine auctioneer – ‘My close friend and mentor…Observing his extraordinary zest for life in his tenth decade, I will be able to blame him, and credit him, if I am never able to retire.’
There were further tributes, too, that underlined Michael’s many talents beyond the world of wine. Family friend and principal of London’s Royal Academy of Music, Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood CBE, recalled his enthusiasm at the piano ‘tinkling the ivories in his own mischievous excursions’. He marvelled: ‘It always interested me that Michael should recoil at the temptation of seeking glib similarities between wine and music, except as an entertainment in adjectival pyrotechnics.’ Charles Marsden Smedley, one of the UK’s most celebrated museum and exhibition designers, who worked as Design Consultant at Christie’s from 1995 to 2003, talked of Michael’s remarkable ability as an artist, saying that ‘nobody could be in any doubt as to his extraordinary talent’.
‘He loved practical jokes as much as I do!’ were the words of Michael’s son, Bartholomew, who spoke with affection of his father’s great sense of humour. And his third grandchild, Leaf Arbuthnot, journalist for The Sunday Times, called him a ‘warm and funny man’ who would always let her try the wine at mealtimes and took her views about it seriously: ‘We learned (without realising we were learning) that wine must be drunk with food, that it’s best enjoyed not guzzled, that different wines sit differently in the glass’. She called him ‘the most wonderful grandfather’.
I headed my own tribute to him ‘My Mentor…and Hero’. This he always was and always will be.