MICHAEL Broadbent leafed through his 1982 diary. It was, he told the caller, awfully full. The diary of a wine auctioneer and international authority is indeed full: auctions in Britain and the United States, speeches to give, articles to write for both sides of the Atlantic.
Broadbent, director of Christie's Wine Department, London, and a 54-year-old, distinguished-looking Englishman with graying hair, leaned back and closed his eyes. "This year, I've been traveling constantly. I'm trying to cut back. One has to pace oneself."
Open a wine journal and there's his name. If he's not contributing a column, he's written a letter to the editor, or he's listed as a guest at a marvelous tasting of rare and fine wines, the wines which most of us would like to taste once a decade.
Does he tire of it? Can he, the author of "The Great Vintage Wine Book," a compilation of over 25 years of tasting notes, still enjoy the many tastings he attends? "Oh, yes. I find them enormously useful."
Christie's holds some 60 auctions a year, mostly in London, and mostly conducted by Broadbent. It's physically and mentally demanding work. For Washington's first wine auction, last Saturday, he arrived three days ahead to prepare himself: to study the catalogue, to check the order bids -- those which had been mailed -- and to conduct a seminar the day before at the Madison Hotel, venue for the auction.
When he arrived the dust was still settling from the latest in a year-long round of legal battles being fought between Christie's and the New York State liquor authority and a group of New York merchants. Referring to it as harassment, he said that the New Yorkers didn't understand that Christie's were opening up the market by holding auctions.
"The advantage of an auction is that it's public. It offers the private owner of wines an opportunity to sell them legally." Dismissing the criticism that the auctions will be inflationary, encouraging speculation, he said that there had never been any evidence of that in London. "It just needs more auctions here for the prices to simmer down."
"I don't mind publicity seekers, because there are usually only one or two per sale. There ought to be four or six sales per year to maintain quality. Auctions are not actually very profitable, but the American market has tremendous potential." He sat back and smiled. "All those old cellars."
Why do American wine auctions have English auctioneers? He smiled again. "We happen to have an expertise for it. We have a credibility. It would be hard for one American to be trusted by another, whereas English auctioneers have a flying start. We have to be fair. We have no affiliations with the trade. We accept no gifts. We must be absolutely ethical so that we're never in a position to be caught out. Personally, I'm probably as immoral as anyone, but professionally ..."
However, Broadbent, the claret classicist, has been known to raise hackles on some occasions. Eternally a bordeaux lover, he has gotten into hot water with statements on the wines of Italy and the New World. Why was his book, "The Great Vintage Wine Book," so severely classical? It turns out that he had prepared larger chapters on the Loire, Rho ne, Australia and South Africa, but the publisher's allocation of pages caused them to be dropped.
He wasn't overly concerned. "My business is with the classics. It is presumptuous of me to write on California or Australia based on my limited tastings. Their changes are so rapid that one would have to keep up tastings on a regular basis. That's not really my job. My job is in the classics."