Looking back on a vintage life
Michael Robinson loves educating people about wine.
Working for Burrows&Lightbourn for 22 years as director of wines, he led many wine-tasting events and discussions. He also writes about wine in his weekly Royal Gazette column, Grape Expectations.
But he is always careful to admit when he doesn’t know the answer to a question.
“If I didn’t know the answer, I’d look it up, or Google it,” the 81-year-old said.
He retired from Burrows&Lightbourn this month, and is considering writing a book about his experiences.
Back when he started in the industry in 1975, he didn’t know much about wines and spirits.
He had been selling office equipment for IBM in Hamilton.
A large clunky calculator that could do half of what it could do today, sold for $3,000.
“Then, almost overnight, the price of the electronics seemed to drop by more than half,” Mr Robinson said.
The machines he sold were getting paradoxically more efficient but less expensive.
Paid on commission, he wasn’t happy.
“I didn’t like the direction the electronics industry was going in,” he remembered. “I decided it was time for a change.”
So he responded to a newspaper advertisement looking for a general sales manager, not knowing who had placed the notice.
A short time later, he got a call from liquor company J E Lightbourn&Co Ltd.
“They said I guess you knew that was us,” he said. “I said no, I had no idea.”
He went in for an interview, knowing virtually nothing about wines and spirits.
The people interviewing him quickly picked up on his lack of knowledge, but the deal breaker was what he wanted to be paid.
It was too much, as far as they were concerned.
“I had my hand on the door handle and was leaving and there was another gentleman sitting in the office,” Mr Robinson said. “He spoke up and said, ‘If you don’t mind, I suggest you hire him. Pay him what he wants and send him out to us to learn the wine trade.’ He was from the Gallo Wine Company in California.”
Founded in 1933, Ernest and Julio Gallo Wine was the largest exporter of California wines.
While training in California, Mr Robinson fell in love with wines from the Napa Valley, California region. He loved how close the wineries were to one another.
“In places like Argentina you might have to drive 50 miles through the desert to get from one winery to another,” he said.
At the time, American wines were only just starting to win respect.
“I came back to Bermuda and started to tell people that Americans can really make wine,” he said. “I think they were quietly saying, ‘Poor boy. Why didn’t he stay with IBM? He had a good job’.”
But in May 1976, American and French wine went head-to-head in a blind taste test in Paris, with some of the world’s most revered wine tasters choosing the best. The event was organised to celebrate the bicentennial of the American Revolution.
Many wine connoisseurs assumed French wine would win. They were wrong. The wine world was upended when the judges chose a California red and a California white as the best wines.
“That put the fox in the chicken coop,” Mr Robinson said. “People didn’t expect that.”
The event vindicated Mr Robinson’s faith in American wine.
“If there is one term I hate, it is ‘wine snob’,” he said. “Why don’t they talk about boat snobs or car snobs?”
Growing up on Cedar Avenue in Hamilton, his family really didn’t drink wine very much.
“I think people drank other things like Scotch,” he said.
He feels that today, wine is something appreciated by a much wider spectrum of people than when he started 45 years ago.
“It was once considered upper tier, economically, to consume wine,” he said. “Now it has become a far more popular thing.”
Over the years, he has worked hard to educate himself about wines and spirits. “Going back to IBM, they said to me knowledge is power,” he said. “I knew if I wanted to sell something I had to understand it. I still tell people please don’t call me the expert. I hate that word. There is always something to learn and something you don’t know.”
When giving talks about wine, he never tries to fake knowledge.
“The other day someone asked me if the grape that is used for Prosecco is used with still wine,” he said. “I said I don’t know. I googled it because I wanted to know for the next time. And it is used for still wine, but not much. You just have to be honest with people if you don’t have the answer. But I try to have the answers. I have tried to study and have an understanding.”
He admitted to being an extrovert.
“I like to talk,” he said. “I like to get ideas and discuss things with people. I absolutely like to meet people. With the wine business, we have just met so many wonderful people from all over the world. The winemakers want to visit Bermuda. We have had them as house guests or had them over for dinner. The nice thing about my job was I got to know them.”
He met his wife, Gay, while on a business trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1977.
“I met her in the lobby of the hotel where I was staying,” he said. “When I met her, I said could we get a bottle of wine together. I was on a beer trip. She is from Milwaukee. I was very wet behind the ears in those days. I really liked a bottle of wine she picked out for us. She was in the restaurant business and understood food and wine. We got married in 1978.”
One of their hobbies is collecting wine.
“I have a few hundred wines in my collection,” Mr Robinson said.
Some of his favourites are California wines from the 1970s and 1980s.
His only regret is that to enjoy wine, you have to destroy it by drinking it.
“A bottle of wine is not like a painting where you can keep looking at it,” he said. “Once you drink it, it is gone.”
He worked for J.E. Lightbourn for five years, Goslings for 17 years, then transferred to Burrows&Lightbourn.
“I ran the wine programme,” he said. “Over the last year, I stepped down from that and other people took over.”
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