What the Broadland Conservative Association (BCA) and my 2002 Haut-Medoc Bordeaux being flown to China, have in common, would be a tale worthy of Conan Doyle’s finest, if it were fiction of course.

But a week in the life of a Norfolk wine merchant can offer bizarre twists on occasion.

Approaching September, I receive a number of requests for wine tastings to be undertaken. The lady from the BCA asked if I would do an evening of wine-talk to assist in the fundraising. My answer was yes (bang goes my socialist credentials, I thought), and she would call to get some background information.

I am often asked for some sort of curriculum vitae presumably in the mistaken belief that my own history may put bottoms on seats, although I know it is the quality and more often the quantity of wine offered on the night that really does the trick. “Where does the wine go, have you done it long, where did you qualify, do you write for the local rag?” are amongst the questions posed.

Apart from a few dusty certificates from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and the odd prize on the kitchen window, my qualifications are borne out of a lifetime interest.

The major gong in the wine profession and the most demanding qualification in the world is set by the Institute of Masters of Wine. To date only about 250 souls are worthy of the initials M.W after their name. I had often toyed with the idea that although the course runs over a period of years, visits to the world’s vineyards and gallons of blind tasting are the norm, I never managed to foresee my time management ever matching the demands required. I of course used to fancy my chances, although when questioned recently I answered that Italian white wines would struggle against the Australian onslaught to ever gain a foothold in this country, least of all its simplest of grapes – Pinot Grigio.


But in terms of the worth of an M.W. I always consoled myself after reading Jancis Robinson’s quote from her autobiography that one of our foremost wine merchants in East Anglia, Simon Loftus of Adnams was “the finest M.W who never sat the exam”. Praise indeed, odd though that she didn’t mention me back then.

Additionally the man who has probably influenced the world of wine above any other was similarly unqualified. His name, Robert Parker.  Now Robert may be known to some of you but he is hardly a household name. Parker was born in Baltimore in 1947 where after dropping in and out of high school, trained and worked as a successful property lawyer. In the late 60’s America was hardly a hot bed of wine appreciation. Most consumption was based on sweet wines, and many would seem undrinkable in today’s sophisticated markets. High alcohol and screw tops were the order of the day, more akin to Australian sherry than fine wine and their makers then came from families later to be hallowed, names such as Gallo, Masson or Mondavi.

Robert, frustrated by the home-based traders lack of independence when describing wine, launched his own newsletter – the Wine Advocate, in 1978.

His concentration then and now were the wines of Bordeaux. He regailed against the self-serving snobbery of French wine and tore to shreds what he saw as the many vapid and unattractive Claret vintages of the early 70’s.

He single-handedly created a system still used today of a scoring method for wines. This 100 point rating system was based on appearance, clarity, bouquet and taste. It went as follows – below 60, to be avoided, 60-64 the wine had noticeable flaws, 65-74 was average, 75-79, above average, 80-89 was very good. Finally an outstanding wine scored 90-95 and 96-100 was solely reserved for extraordinary wines.

What this formerly unheard of procedure achieved was two-fold. Firstly it gave customers an arms-length guarantee of a wine’s quality and allowed them to make more educated guesses as to French wines unarguable qualities when faced with obscene price hikes, and secondly it created a marketeer’s dream in importing wines after only a cask sample had been tasted. In effect it created a futures market which still continues today and has a more dramatic effect on French wine prices than any micro-climate can innocently achieve. His detractors cite the flaws, arguing that such judgements made at the start of a wine’s organic journey (Bordeaux changes dramatically over a twenty year period) is therefore no help in a wine’s final destination. With an ever more discerning wine drinking public, I feel Robert’s star may be beginning to fade. His unique influence on the purchasing and importation both here and in the States has clearly been substantial but who else is importing wine today?

When I got the call that regrettably a French negotiant from whom I occasionally buy, said that although I had booked a parcel of the aforementioned Haut-Medoc, his principals had succumbed to the new found wealth of a Chinese entrepreneur desperate to get on to the Bordeaux bandwagon, and he had sold the lot to Beijing!

Nils desperandum” he added, he had so much new demand from China that they were desperate for an unqualified Parker look-alike, “how was my Mandarin and did I like Chop Suey?” The job’s mine I thought.