In The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Broadbent” falls between “brix” and “Brouilly.” Yet this venerable surname is revered beyond units of sugar and Beaujolais crus. Michael Broadbent was senior director of Christie’s wine department in London and in his 80s remains the world’s foremost authority on rare and old wines, particularly Bordeaux. Grapes don’t fall far from the vine, and son indeed followed father, though Bartholomew picked a different continent, spending 21 years in San Francisco while building Broadbent Selections, Inc., a wine import company, and becoming North America’s reigning expert on port and Madeira.
In April, Bartholomew and Spencer Bowles Broadbent relocated to Richmond with their 3-year-old twins, bringing his wife full circle to her hometown, parents and St. Catherine’s School roots. Pausing from unpacked boxes, Bartholomew joined me to swing croquet mallets and throw dice, winning by one wicket and then foiling me again on the backgammon board. His aplomb was keen, too, at Bull & Bear Club, where he guided wine professionals through a fascinating tasting highlighted by a 1930s Madeira.
Why Richmond? Witness protection program for oenophiles?
At Thanksgiving, we were having drinks with friends who live on Monument, [who said,] “There’s a beautiful house for sale … you’d love it.” They weren’t suggesting relocation, but I thought, if I could buy that house, I’d move. We went back to San Francisco, and my mother-in-law looked at the house the same day: “It’s great, you should see it.” Spencer flew back the next day and rang me [to say,] “It has terrific potential.” I took the redeye that night. Saturday morning we submitted the offer, and by Saturday evening, three days after first seeing it … we’d bought the house.
What have you been doing for leisure since landing in the 804?
My social life was geared around business, and I didn’t have room in my little Pacific Heights Victorian for a ping-pong table. Here, the welcome’s been astonishing. I’ve met people playing tennis and attended great lectures at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, including Philippa Granville’s “The Art of Drinking,” plus a Jerry Jeff Walker concert and two hoedowns.
[Coming from a West Coast foodie hub, Broadbent was understandably skeptical of Richmond, but he’s softening to the local scene. He gave a rundown as we walked to 81⁄2 for pizza.]
Fifteen years ago, The Frog & Redneck was the only good restaurant. Now there are lots. I’m very impressed with Verbena. Service will improve, but the food was San Francisco-level and wines were reasonable. I also like that you can go to Strawberry Street Café and find international wines; it’s not xenophobic like those Napa-centric lists in SF.
How do American and British tastes differ?
This is a huge hot-button issue [‘ISS-you’ in Broadbent’s marvelous English]. Americans like younger wine with higher alcohol, more intensity, extract and sweetness. In the ’70s and ’80s, Napa made great wines, but today the wines are 15 percent alcohol or higher, and they just don’t go with food. Recently, I went to Barboursville Vineyards and had six vintages of Octagon—four or five were the best American wines I’ve had in the past 10 years. Virginia is capable of producing balanced, Old World-style wines—the types that made Napa what it was 25 years ago. That gate is ajar; Virginia’s reputation is ripening.
Where do port and Madeira fit in?
When I started selling port, total U.S. sales were under 20,000 cases. Today, it’s half-a-million. Besides port, table wines from Portugal are vibrant and exciting. And Madeira has a stunning history in America. George Washington drank a pint a day, and the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were both toasted with Madeira. Port is an after-dinner drink, but Madeira is suited to the American palate and more versatile due to high acidity. Yet, Prohibition nearly killed Madeira, since 95 percent of sales were in the U.S.
(Originally published in the August 2008 issue.)