Bartholomew Broadbent is the founder and CEO of Broadbent Selections, one of America’s leading wine importers, which he founded in 1996. He has been named one of the “fifty most influential people in the wine world” by various publications in each of the last three decades. One of the world’s foremost authorities on Port and Madeira, Bartholomew is credited with revitalizing the markets for both in the U.S. in the 1980s. As a producer, he makes Broadbent wines from Portugal, Argentina, Austria, and South Africa. Bartholomew’s father was the late Michael Broadbent, esteemed wine writer and educator as well as a pioneer and leader in the world of fine wine auctions.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Bartholomew Broadbent for WineSpeed in January 2020.
Karen MacNeil: Your father Michael’s renown was based on his command of the written word, while your fame comes from the spoken word. You’ve been a contributor to, and resident wine expert on, the web-based television channel, Into Wine. And the San Francisco Bay Area knows you as the “Wine Guy” on local radio station KFOG. Was that deliberate?
Bartholomew Broadbent: Actually, I have done wine writing in the past. I was a columnist for several publications when I lived in Canada. I majored in English and French, and I believe my writing skills to be stronger than my speaking abilities. However, writing is a commitment and I do not have enough time to commit to it regularly. I was also influenced to refrain from writing by the late Murray Tyrrell. When I visited him in 1980 and he drove me all around the Hunter Valley in Australia, he showed great disdain towards young wine writers who had no real experience and nothing new to say. I vowed not to write until I had something new to say. I would like to write an autobiographical book, filled with wit and irreverence, in the style of Bill Bryson, David Sedaris or Jerome K. Jerome.
KM: You left California after 20 years for Virginia where you are pioneering the distribution of wines from your adopted state. What makes Virginia wines special?
BB: In 2002, my father’s new book, Vintage Wine, was published and I arranged the book tour for the publisher, including book signings and wine tastings. Luca Paschina, the winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia, heard that we had a book signing in Charlottesville and he invited us to do a dinner at Palladio, the winery’s restaurant. It was on condition that he could pour some of his wines alongside some of mine. It turns out that Barboursville was superior to any of the wines that I had brought. It opened our eyes! After living in San Francisco for 21 years, we moved to Richmond, Virginia 13 years ago. I asked Luca if we could represent his winery outside of Virginia, since he did not sell wine beyond his border. He was delighted and Barboursville became the first American wine that we represented. What struck me about Virginia wines were that they were much more European in style than American. When I moved, it was at the height of Napa’s trend towards over-extraction, over-concentration and over-ripeness, resulting in high alcohol levels in wine. I found that Virginia’s wines were much more to my liking. So, it was only natural to promote my new home state. It coincided with an explosion of wineries, around 300 today, and a booming restaurant culture. Richmond, where I live, was becoming an amazing restaurant city with a fantastic wine culture. I like to think that I am promoting the state of Virginia and the city of Richmond. I like to introduce wines to new markets, having pioneered Ports, Madeiras, Chateau Musar from Lebanon, and several others. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in Virginia.
KM: I’ve often read that, as a child, you spent many school holidays in dusty, damp cellars helping your parents pack up some of the world’s finest wine collections to be auctioned off at Christie’s where your father was the Wine Director. Can you remember dropping anything? What was it?
BB: Ha! No, I never dropped any bottles. I was an extremely careful child because when I was about 3 or 4, I broke something in the kitchen and then my mother broke something of mine to punish me. I hardly ever broke things after that! Every Easter holiday, we would drive to France, Germany, and other European countries to pack up the great cellars of châteaux and castles, in preparation for auction. I remember when we discovered the bottle of 1806 Château Lafite; it went on to fetch a world record price of $28,000. I was the one who took it out of the wine rack, told my mother what it was—her job was to write down all the wines—and then I put it in a box. My job was always handling the wines, my mother catalogued them and my father would sometimes be found sitting in the warm sun outside or sketching something beautiful. [On my personal Facebook page, there is an album with about 600 of his drawings]. The cases of wines would be picked up later by a Christie’s van but we smuggled the very best bottles back to England in the trunk of our car, buried under piles of children’s dirty laundry. The customs officers never touched them!
“Every Easter holiday, we would drive to France, Germany and other European countries to pack up the great cellars of chateaux and castles, in preparation for auction. I remember when we discovered the bottle of 1806 Château Lafite, it went on to fetch a world record price of $28,000.”
KM: From the earliest days of your career you have been a nomad—selling wine in France, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, China and the U.S. And now producing wine in Portugal, Argentina, Austria, and South Africa. Do you ever forget where you are?
BB: I’ve certainly woken up in the night wondering where the hell I am but I never forget who I am!
KM: Was there ever a time when you imagined a life outside of wine?
BB: Yes! When Hugh Grant appeared in Four Weddings and a Funeral, I thought that I could have played that role! In fact, some of my friends from England were involved in that movie, some producing and some as extras. I’d love to have been an actor, which is why I do so well onstage giving wine lectures. To me, speaking is a standup performance. Plus, when I met Francis Ford-Coppola he said that my name would be a perfect name for an actor. I missed my calling! Politics might have been my next choice.
KM: You’ve said that you were “brought up drinking the greatest wines from the age of 7,” and that the 1945 Bordeaux was an “everyday wine” in your household. What is your other favorite beverage?
BB: Though I was drinking wine every day when I was at home from the age of 7 up and certainly tasted wines earlier than that, my parents were protective of me taking too much of a liking to spirits. They told me it would stunt my growth. I believed them and didn’t start drinking spirits until I was about 14 when I first tasted Pimm’s and decided the risk of being short was worth it. I’m now 5’11½”. Incidentally, when I was a young boy, say around 4 or 5, I would only drink water from the upstairs bathroom taps, not the kitchen faucets. They didn’t believe there was a difference so they gave me a blind tasting of the two. Sure enough, I could easily pick out the upstairs tap water. They decided to figure out what the difference was and inspected the respective water tanks in the attic. The tank feeding the kitchen was covered and clean. The bathroom tank had no cover and there were dead pigeons floating in it, so it had more flavor.
KM: In 2006, you entered the Chinese wine market as an investor, advisor, and distributor of a wine called Dragon’s Hollow. What is your take on the rapid growth of the Chinese wine market?
BB: China is one of the oldest wine producing countries in the world, if not the oldest. David Henderson, an American, moved to China about 40 or so years ago, and couldn’t find any decent wine. So, alongside his work for IBM, he started the first company importing wines to China. He also founded Dragon’s Hollow winery in China and, after I went to be a speaker at the first China Wine Expo, he invited me to be his partner in the winery. My job was to sell the wines in America. We were way before our time and the venture wasn’t a huge success. The winery got lots of press, including being featured in the New York Times Magazine’s New Ideas issue. However, the wine was inconsistent in quality and, in the end, I sold back my share to David at cost. The Chinese have become very wealthy and, with the opening of borders, they’ve travelled and found that wine is very prestigious. That has fostered the growth in the number of wineries being built in the country.
KM: Broadbent Selections represents Chateau Musar, a Lebanese winery. Why should we be paying attention to wines from that part of the world?
BB: You should be paying attention to Chateau Musar, not necessarily Lebanese wine. Chateau Musar is one of the greatest wines in the world, and it just happens to be made in Lebanon. It is an international wine with no relevance to other Lebanese wines—it is unique. Another example would be Bodegas Weinert in Mendoza. That is a great wine, introduced to the world by the wine critic Robert Parker who describe it as “the best wine in South America, as good as any great wine in the world”. It has no similarities to other Argentinian wines and is truly world class. It is just one of those great international wines. Wines like Lopez de Heredia from Rioja, Spain, fall into the same category. Just truly great wines.