Back in 1877, in a suburb of Paris, André Louis Simon was born. Aged 17 he was sent to Southampton to learn English. André then moved to London where he became a champagne shipper for the house of Pommery, based in Mark Lane in the City. But he not only sold champagne, he became a scholar, journalist and teacher – and most notably an author. His second book (and arguably his best) was the History of the Wine Trade in England. Nobody had written so deeply on the subject before, so he became the natural spokesman for the wine trade. In 1908 at the age of 31, with friends, he formed the Wine Trade Club where he gave technical lectures of a kind not seen before, the forerunner by some 45 years of the Institute of Masters of Wine.
At the age of 55 he began a second life, that of a spokesman for both wine and food and in 1933, with the writer, A.J.A. Symons, he founded the Wine & Food Society in London (subsequently renamed the International Wine & Food Society). His first lunch at the Café Royal, in the midst of the Depression, caused a sensation. Sponsored by the French Government, he also travelled frequently to the USA, forming branches of the Wine & Food Society firstly in Boston in late 1934, then in San Francisco in 1935. André sadly passed away in 1970 at the age of 93.
By the 60s and early 70s, the IWFS HQ was now based at the Edgware Road offices of George Rainbird, a great friend of André, who was a well-known publisher having originated the technique of using coloured illustrations in his books. Claude Mornay was the charming secretary at the time, later to be replaced by Jane Moore after his untimely death. The Society then moved offices to Seymour Place just around the corner, a few years later moving to the basement of the Reform Club, briefly in the Old Brompton Road, then to the Lansdowne Club followed by the final move to the re-sited In and Out Club in St. James Square where our International Secretary, Andrea Warren, still looks after the world wide affairs of the Society.
Whilst the Society held regular meetings in Edgware Road back in the 60s, there was a growing feeling amongst some of the younger members, that there was room for a Young Members section which was consequently formed in 1971 “to promote its objects amongst members under 36 years of age”. They organised some remarkable tastings over the subsequent years, as well as starting a School of Wine led by Jeffrey Benson and Christopher Davenport-Jones. Blind wine tasting competitions were also popular for many years, both In-house and competitive against the Oxford Wine Society. These were sponsored by Tony Hepworth and Avery’s of Bristol. Jeffrey Benson also recalls that his first tasting for the IWFS was a two-day Pomerol event at Edgware road in 1969.
However, as the majority of these UK based members were naturally located close to London, concern was expressed from some overseas branches that the IWFS HQ spent an excessive amount of time organising events purely for these London based members. Therefore, on 1st January 1981, a separate break away entity called “The London Branch” was created, largely comprising these young members with Clive de Paula, formerly Treasurer of the European Committee, as its first Chairman. It is perhaps worth noting that the annual subscription was then a princely £3.10.0. (£3.50) In 1982 Louis Hughes replaced him, followed by John Ivinson in 1983. Indeed, from the end of 1983 up until 1985, events run by this branch were entitled “London Branch and Young Members Events”. And in those early days, such was the demand, that it was common to run 20 events a quarter. And because of the success of this Branch, a few years following its creation, a second London based branch, “The St. James Branch” was formed. Subsequent London Branch Chairmen were Ruth Hewlett, Sheila Robertson, Andrew Brodie, Roger Ellis, Judy Taylor-Smith – up to the present day with the aforementioned Jeffrey Benson.
From the beginning much attention was given to the educational aspect, not only of wines (and other beverages of course), but also of food, expertise provided by the likes of food writer Lucille Barber, who also provided a series of classic recipes in the programme, to which were added wine recommendations. Another popular series was the Meat Crafts and Skill courses held at Smithfield, with full participation in preparation for cooking of the full range of meats, poultry, offal, even sausage-making. Indeed, the emphasis was frequently on food as well as wine with many suppers after tastings highlighting dishes associated with the wine region under review – and these were usually prepared by members. There were also many memorable food tastings including cheese tastings, several caviar tastings over the years and a bread tasting organised by Silvija Davidson just after her book ‘Loaf, Crust and Crumb’ was published in 1995. We even had a tasting of soufflés, cooked in person by that notable chef, Albert Roux.
The wine tastings were frequently led by experts in the field. For instance, in 1992, Remington Norman MW led a tasting of fine Burgundies, in 1994 Clive Coates MW led a tasting of Château Haut-Marbuzet and Adam Bancroft MW, a tasting of red and white wines from the Rhone and the Ardèche. There were also many tastings led by the producers of the wine including wines from Savigny-Les-Beaune from Lucien Jacob’s vineyard and a Coonawarra tasting led by Kym Tolley, Managing Director of the Penley Estate.
And one has to remember that these events organised thirty years ago were when the concept of ‘New World wines’ was in its infancy. Back in 1992 Christopher Davenport-Jones arranged a New Zealand tasting organised by the newly formed “Guild of New Zealand Wine Producers” and in 1992 an event was held entitled ”What’s Afoot in South Africa”.
Also, one of the great strengths of the branch in that era was how forward thinking the organisers were. For instance, on 10th March 1994 a dinner was organised at a restaurant called “Aubergine” which had just been opened by ‘The Young Chef of the Year’ – one Gordon Ramsay.
And looking back at some of the wines tasted in those early days, they include a Jaboulet Aine’s 1961 Hermitage, a 1862 Terrantez from Camara Lomelino, another Terrantez from 1795, Mouton-Rothschilds of many vintages including the 1949 provided by John Avery, a 1953 Château Lafite and numerous other vintages, a Palmer 1961 on several occasions, Latour from many vintages including 1928, 1929, 1947, 1949 and 1953. Vintage Ports were not neglected either, with tastings from 1860 onwards with some lovely examples from 1896, 1927 and 1945.
But equally there have been so many other memorable events over the decades where the surroundings played an equal part in the dining experience. Who can forget, if they were present, that most memorable of dinners held at the Leander Club in Henley in July 2012 (the year of the UK Olympics) when we were joined by that most eminent Master of Wine, Michael Broadbent MW. And the following morning (as most of us stayed in the Leander overnight), during breakfast, to be visited by Sir Steve Redgrave, the Olympic Gold medallist – and the Olympic Torch. Or perhaps the dinner held in Dr Samuel Johnson’s House in 2010, the house where, in 1746, Dr Johnson compiled the first English dictionary.
But surely one of the most memorable occasions was held on 17th October 2013, the anniversary of our founder’s wedding day some 113 years ago, when we held what we entitled the “Ultimate Tasting” featuring superb wines going back over the decades including Burgundy from the 40s and 50s and a Madeira dating back to 1795. And talking of André, Jeffrey Benson (the current London Branch Chairman) recalls being told of the first visit André made to the Hambledon English Vineyard (England’s oldest commercial vineyard – established in 1952) for lunch. Apparently, the dining room was situated right in the middle of the vineyard. Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones (the vineyard owner) poured André a glass of the new vintage, naturally expecting a comment. No comment came forth. Pressing André (and remembering where the dining room was located), André replied that “he did not think it had travelled well”.
Finally, I would like to recall those many characters over the years that helped shape and aided the growth of the branch but are now sadly departed. They include Hugo Dunn-Meynell, Andrew Brodie, John Avery, David James, Ian Rushton, John Barker and Carole Goldberg.
Now wine has become a drink for everyone, but it is strange to recall that it was only in the 70s that wine became such a popular beverage, replacing spirits and sherry as the conventional drink. And with this change has come a bevy of wine tasting societies so the competition is quite strong throughout the UK, but the IWFS in general, and the original London Branch in particular, continues to draw a good level of membership and continues to organise interesting dinners, tastings and conferences.
With grateful thanks for the contributions and memories of Jeffrey Benson, Christopher Davenport-Jones, Sheila Law Robertson, Ruth Hewlett and Crispin Dunn-Meynell