Nick Faith remembered, by Anthony Rose

18 October 2018 by in Classic Wine Library, Wine and spirits

Affectionate memories and thoughtful assessments of Nick Faith’s life have been duly posted in a host of obituaries paying tribute to the qualities that made Nick such a great journalist and author, and to his legendarily sociable, gossip-laden, complex personality. So here I’d like to confine myself to a few reminiscences of my own.

I first came across Nick by way of the articles he wrote for the wine trade magazine, Wine & Spirit. Not yet a wine journalist, I found them so inspiring that it dawned on me that writing about wine could be a worthwhile endeavour. It was only a little later, after I joined the Independent as its wine correspondent, that I came to know Nick, who wrote for the paper as a freelance financial journalist, in person. Did he have a hand in my appointment? I don’t think I’ll ever know but it wouldn’t surprise me, because he had the ear of its editor, Andreas Whittam Smith, and the freshly-minted Independent was looking to blood a newbie to wine writing.

As soon as you met Nick, it was clear that his mischievous demeanour spelt trouble for the establishment. He liked nothing better than to dig, poke and provoke. Famously, or should that be notoriously, he wrote a piece in Decanter entitled ‘On the Vileness of Vintage Port’. It did not go down too well in the Douro Valley and Michael Symington of Dow’s, Graham’s and Warre’s fame was clearly enraged. Despite the provocative title, it was in reality basically a rant on how vintage port with its fiery spirit was so often drunk too young.

Nick’s brilliant book The Winemasters was published in 1978, and re-published in 2004 titled The Winemasters of Bordeaux. The Winemasters is arguably the best wine book ever written – a worthy winner of the André Simon Award. Investigating a story was Nick’s forte, but the results of his researches were always communicated in a prose style that was vivid, accessible and witty. Opening with a chapter entitled Hollywood-sur-Gironde, the story of the tensions between the aristocratic Médoc château owners and the Chartronnais merchants unfolds as a political, economic and social drama culminating in the Cruse scandal, aka Winegate, that reads like a crime thriller. It deserves a film.

The Winemasters apart, of the many books that Nick wrote (more than 20, covering, inter alia, railways, the rotary engine and plane, train and car accidents), the two for which I remember him most are Cognac and The Story of Champagne. They dealt not just with the nuts and bolts of brandy and fizz and how they were made but the more far-ranging stories of the unsung heroes, the impetus behind developments in style and the successful battles fought against competitors. Typically, in The Story of Champagne he thanked his editor in his acknowledgments for making sure that it was ‘accessible to anyone interested in the subject and not restricted to the army of champagne-bores’.

When Nick travelled, it was as often as not to his favourite regions of Cognac, Bordeaux and Champagne. In Bordeaux during en primeur, he was to be found slumming it in some Médoc or Graves château or another, enjoying nothing more than hobnobbing with the French owners he describes in the preface to the revised edition of The Winemasters as ‘eccentric enough to justify the gossip that makes Bordeaux, like every other society, go round’. So it was a little off-message for him to have joined a small trip to Georgia we were both invited on back in 2001. It could have had something to do with the fact that his muse, Sophia Gilliatt, former Vinopolis director of wine development, had organised the trip, and where Sophia went, Nick followed.

Every moment was memorable but in particular the celebration of Nick’s sixty-eighth birthday in a distillery outside Tbilisi. Becoming steadily merrier as the evening wore on, we were eventually driven back to the capital with Nick doing his best to help Sophia ward off the attentions of a drunken, lovelorn distillery manager. As it became increasingly difficult, Nick resorted to a ruse. On the outskirts of the city, he got the driver to stop and we all piled out into a crowded local pub, ostensibly for a drink, but in fact managing to make a swift escape through another door. The distillery manager cottoned on too late and we abandoned him shaking his fist in frustrated pursuit of our Transit van.

Last time I saw Nick was at the tasting in London organised by Champagne Deutz almost exactly a year ago. He was on typically fine form, but much frailer than I remembered, and, for the first time, he was showing his age. Nick Faith was my journalistic mentor. I shall miss him, his sharp wit, the gossip of course, and the unique contribution that he brought to wine writing.