My Early Life

An Interview with Clive Coates

Q. Clive, you were a wine merchant for twenty years, before becoming a full-time wine writer. How did you get started?

My first ambition was to be a chef. So I enrolled at the Westminster Hotel School in Vincent Square, London.

But I soon found out that cooking commercially was quite a different thing from cooking for one's friends. It was hot in the kitchen. One was always under pressure. It was noisy. One was on one's feet all day. It is a hard life. Moreover, not that there aren't other jobs like it, one was working when others were playing. Not good for the social life.

And then there was the fact that I was a fussy eater. Most chefs are omnivores: they will eat and enjoy more or less everything. Even then I was picky. I didn't like bloody red meat. I didn't like offal. I didn't like oysters - not that I ever saw an oyster at Hotel School.

And I was not interested in being a hotel manager. Luckily there were a number of wine trade stalwarts who came by a couple of times a term to give us a lecture on wine. I was already very interested in wine. Every weekend I would buy a decent bottle which my flatmate and our respective girlfriends would drink – I like to think at least reasonably seriously – before going off to the inevitable party. I still have my notes, somewhere.

This was for me, I decided. Fortunately I did very well in the final exams and won a travelling scholarship which enabled me to make a brief whistle-stop journey round the vineyards of France before becoming a stagier (intern) with Calvet in Bordeaux. I remained with Calvet for five months, during which I became more and more convinced that this was the metier for me, and also discovered, from the reaction from the professionals on the spot to what I said about the wines we were offered to sample, that I had a certain talent for the product.

I came back to London, wrote round to a few companies saying 'bright young man seeks job' and was appointed a trainee manager with Hedges and Butler, at the time one of the half dozen fine wine merchants in West End of London. A few years later I joined the Wine Society, the best move I ever made. While I was there I passed the Master of Wine examination. It was then that I began to be sent abroad to buy wine. That's where you really begin to learn a bit about it.

Q. Clive, you are known as being somewhat of a specialist in the lesser wines of France.

Twenty or thirrty years ago: yes. Now I'm rather out of date. But I did pioneer a bit where others had not yet ventured. On my trips abroad, as well as obviously not leaving a decent church or whatever unvisited, I also used to poke my nose into the lesser A.C.s and V.D.Q.S.s. The best introduction, to Cahors or whatever, was to go to the local one-star restaurant and see whose wines they had on their list. In 1971, to take Cahors as an example, the price of one bottle of champagne would buy you all the Cahors, in bottle or in halves, that they had on the entire wine list. So these investigations didn't have to cost the earth. One took one's notes, shared the bottles with the proprietor and his friends at the end of the meal, listened to the gossip about all the wine-makers in question, and then sallied forth the next morning to visit the best.

Finding good value in the backwoods of France fascinated me. I enjoyed the challenge. And I was the first to import several into the English market. Cahors, perhaps not. Bellet, yes for the first time since Gerald Asher in the late 1960s – a wine merchant before his time who over-reached himself. Bugey, the Côte Roannaise, the wines of Orléans. Yes, I was the first. And I listed four Bandols in the days when few others had any at all.

Q. But Clive, you first began writing about Bordeaux.

This all started in 1966 or so. I changed jobs, sold an apartment in London and bought a house in Berkshire. After I had installed central heating, re-fitted the kitchen and so on, I found myself with a surplus of around £1000. I wrote round for wine merchants' lists and bought one or two or three bottles of all the classed growth clarets (or equivalent) in the best years that I could get my hands on. The vintages stretched between 1959 and 1945. This was before the days of sales en primeur. Merchants matured their stock before selling it.

My £1000 bought me about 1000 bottles of wine. Over the next few years I would open, twice a week, three bottles at a time: three vintages of Cos d'Estournel, or three Léovilles of the same vintage and so on. I kept the 1959s to the end: I had about 40 different wines. I got together with a group of friends who could fill in the gaps. We assembled a comprehensive tasting. This I wrote up and sent off to a wine magazine. To my surprise they published it. I've been wtiting about wine ever since.

I also found myself with about nine vintages of Durcu-Beaucaillou, a wine I have always adored: the quintessence of the elegance that is Bordeaux. I wrote to the late Jean-Eugène Borie, and reveived the most generous of replies within the week. Come and stay at Beaucaillou. I have several old books you can consult to flesh out the history. We can open any vintages you wish to taste. And so on. Naturally I embarked for Saint-Julien as soon as I could, and wrote up a château profile, as I called it. Others soon followed.

In those days vertical tastings of the type I was able to do in Bordeaux were rare. Michael Broadbent was being invited to prestigious first growth tastings in the USA, but no one covered the rest. Indeed in many cases I found the proprietors themselves had never participated in a serious vertical tasting of their wines. And at that time they had the library stock, which sadly they do not possess any more, for they have been inundated with requests for old vintages from all and sundry ever since, and there are wine weekends going on all over the place.

Over the years, increasingly in the 1970s, I visited and wrote up château after château. I must have covered at least 150, some, as time went on, three or four times. I have always collected old books on wine, and it this that helped me in my research into the château background and the personalities of its previous owners.

Q. And Burgundy?

It may seem curious, but when I lauched The Vine in 1984, the wine area I knew least about was mainstream Burgundy, i.e. the Côte d'Or. As a wine buyer I had need of large quantities, and this precluded buying from the domaines. I also prefered to cherry pick the vintages. So, though I had visited the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Leflaive, Gouges and so on, and in somecases done business, the Côte d'Or was largely unknown territory. I must also underline the fact that large scale domaine-bottling was only just starting in the early 1980s. In those days there were hardly a handful of estates in each commune which bottled a serious percentage of their production. Now, of course, just about everyone with a piece of grand cru or some serious premier cru bottles it all on the spot. Once again I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I could follow the evolution of today's Burgundy from the beginning.

Which I am still doing.