A toast to wine legend Joseph Berkmann

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Jancis Robinson and Joseph Berkmann in London

Joseph Berkmann pioneered so many things we now take for granted – popular wine journalism, consumer wine guides, wine clubs, comparative tastings, dinners devoted to a single top estate and, perhaps less gloriously, Beaujolais Nouveau. But although he is now 82, and is neither retiring nor retired (his London-based distribution company Berkmann Wine Cellars has a turnover of about £40m), I have never read a profile of him. He holed himself up in Mexico not long ago and wrote his memoirs, only to destroy them because he felt he couldn’t achieve accuracy and flattery at the same time. I have tried to write about him before, but until now have been fobbed off. His colleagues claim he has avoided this sort of spotlight for fear of its seeming valedictory but he has finally given in, hoping, he says, that what I write will serve as “a record to use in the obituary or, much better, on my 100th birthday”.

Although Berkmann was born and brought up in the Austrian Tyrol, retains an Austrian passport and a thick, guttural accent, he writes English with enviable facility, claiming to have been tutored by his friend, the late Clement Freud. Before we met recently, over lunch at his flat in London, he sent me his potted life story. It began, “Sent to various boarding schools run first by Jesuits and then by Nazis; began work at 14 breaking stones at a river irrigation project; then as a miner drilling holes at 3,000m altitude; became a waiter to get the girls and never looked back. Lived in Germany, Switzerland, Libya, Rome, New York, Caracas, Istanbul. Invaded UK on 20 May 1956”.

His personal life has certainly been colourful. The oldest of his six sons is the journalist and author, 52-year-old Marcus Berkmann. The youngest, Alexander, is 11, one of three sons he had with his fourth (and soon to be divorced) wife, Aida. They are all based, as Berkmann has been for decades, near St Tropez, but now in two houses. “We get on much better that way,” he assures me over our lunch, shared with his third, Polish ex-wife, Ewa, and their two children, Rupert and Catherine, who are in their early thirties.

An almost incredible tale of trying to escape Libya (“the only country where you didn’t need an entry visa but you did need an exit visa”) took up most of our first course. After Libya he worked on the Holland America cruise line and picked up the pretensions of what he describes as “international French cuisine”. On his arrival in London in 1956, he parlayed this into opening a restaurant in Marylebone Lane, Le Petit Montmartre, for someone else. In 1958, he opened a French restaurant of his own nearby, Genevieve, without ever having been to France. “Just like the other supposedly French restaurateurs in London then, I didn’t have the faintest idea of what real French cuisine was like. We had to wait until the Roux brothers arrived to show us.”

He threw himself into restaurateuring with enthusiasm, building up a group that was to include Minotaur, L’Opéra, Lockets, Lafayette, Au Jardin des Gourmets, JB’s Brasserie and part-ownership of the louche Covent Garden club Zanzibar. But he realised that he and his customers needed to learn about wine, so dived next into matters liquid. My predecessor as FT wine correspondent, Edmund Penning-Rowsell, had in pride of place on his dining room wall a signed menu from one of Berkmann’s famous wine dinners in the late 1960s, this one devoted to Château Margaux. In 1971 Berkmann wrote a slim wine primer for customers of Genevieve Wines, the wine company he formed in 1964 to supply his restaurants, subtitled “May God and My Wine Merchants Forgive Me!”

But he was interested in writing about all sorts of wines, not just the smart ones. Having been practically bought up on skis, he came to know the editor of The Sunday Times, Harold Evans, when he was in his ski-mad period. He told Evans he ought to have a wine club, and in the mid-1970s colonised several pages of the then hugely influential Sunday Times Colour Magazine for a report on the everyday wines on sale in the UK via a giant tasting of them with wine luminary Harry Waugh. “We made ourselves very unpopular with the wine trade by writing about fraudulent wines, which then made up 60 per cent of UK sales,” according to Berkmann. (Grants of St James’s Bordeaux Rouge at 69p a bottle was one­ of the few wines to escape their opprobrium.)

Now it was the turn of another craze to grip Berkmann, that of consumer advocacy. Much to the dismay of the Consumers’ Association, which by that time was publishing The Good Food Guide, Berkmann nabbed the Good Wine Guide title and embarked on the most exhausting, least profitable enterprise of his life. With his friend, the talented but bibulous Sunday Times journalist Allan Hall, he toured the UK buying thousands of bottles to be sorted, tasted and rated in a room they rented above Berwick Street market. He published the Good Wine Guide in 1976 and 1977, “but gave up because Allan wouldn’t sober up”.

In the early 1970s, through Waugh, he had taken on the agency for the Beaujolais made in vast quantity by his contemporary Georges Duboeuf. The two of them last week celebrated the 40th anniversary of a relationship still based only on a handshake. His close relationship with Hall and The Sunday Times led to the dubious antics of the annual Beaujolais Nouveau Race, which at one stage was so important that he was physically threatened by a putative winner whose flouting of the rules he unmasked. He is a lover of the good life, a great raconteur, a voracious general reader and remarkably modest in view of his reputation as a taster.

The only boast he made over our lunch was that in the 1970s, with a factory he acquired, 40 years ahead of his time, in east London, “I was the biggest producer of meringues in the country.” Pâté production preceded the meringue operation, which had to be sold to pay for his divorce from wife number two. At another point, he set up a wine company in New York with the famous Russian wine merchant and author Alexis Lichine, and for a long time had a bottling plant in southern Beaujolais. Another company he set up more recently, and sold to his ex-managing director, is now India’s second biggest wine company, he claims.

His big confession is that “I’ve never been a businessman. I’ve never done things for money. I just wanted to do things I was passionate about.” Although he readily admits that restaurants are much more profitable than the wine business, in 1982 he sold his restaurants, for reasons he can no longer recall, “too cheaply” to the Kennedy Brookes group, who then “buggered them up”. Since then he has been commuting between various amours, St Tropez and Berkmann Wine Cellars in London.

He laments that he is too interested in the product itself rather than in, for example, the marketing aspect in which he feels his more successful rival, Bibendum Wine, excels. His 33-year-old son Rupert now runs the company, although father and son are very close. It was Rupert who cooked the three-course lunch, with his father gently commenting that the white Châteauneuf his son had chosen had been a bit too heavy for our crab salad first course, all the while batting off his children’s prompts about how many languages he speaks and his prowess on skis.

I asked him about the allegations of fraud levelled a few years ago at his friend Georges Duboeuf, and he outlined some of the complexities of the greater Duboeuf family. “In every business there are grey areas,” he said wearily, “but Georges has always been my best supplier. He never once said, ‘You didn’t sell enough.’”

Joseph Berkmann has witnessed at close quarters the evolution of modern wine. Comparing it with what was on sale when he started out, “when more than half the wine was undrinkable”, I wondered whether he thought wine was continuing to improve. He is adamant that quality is better than ever, “but prices are now crazy; it’s become a lifestyle thing – not like the lovely dinner parties we used to give in St Tropez where we’d serve things like Petrus ’64 without a second thought”. He and Rupert were particularly sobered by a wine shop they visited in Beijing last year, where they found 10 vintages of both Chx Lafite and Latour, at $4,000 each irrespective of vintage, and selling an average of three bottles a week.

A long way from the “very beautiful château wine of the 1970 vintage” about which he enthused in the Daily Mail in the late-1970s – at £15 a dozen.

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com

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