Without Pamela Vandyke Price, the top tasters might all still be men
The phone may not ring quite so often, but Pamela Vandyke Price is still regarded as the doyenne of women wine writers, the first of her sex to tackle wine as a subject in this country.

There she is, between Valtellina (an Italian wine region) and Varietal, in Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine where she is accorded the ultimate tribute of being the "first woman to write seriously about wine in Britain and who did more than most to popularise wines after World War II".

In her time, Vandyke Price has swirled, sniffed sipped and spat thousands of bottles of wines, from the humble to the majestic. It has left her with the stained ivory teeth of a veteran elephant and a memory to match that of the wisest of pachyderms; a wine library of the mind.

Her hide, however, may not be quite so thick. A few years ago, she was "let go" as a Christie's lecturer by Michael Broadbent, the disciplined and traditional Master of Wine who heads the auctioneer's wine department. To this day, she will not sit at any table where Broadbent is seated ("I am very sniffy with whom I break bread"), and, despite the protestations in her autobiography, Woman of Taste, that she has been surrounded by love all her life, she is able to summon up a few good hates to keep up her resistance.

For some reason, she hates bought sandwiches ("never have"), bad manners, "nappy talk", the fact that the wine stars of today fail to attend enough tastings and people who pretend to know about wine but don't.

"There has always been sufficient tannin and acidity to keep me going," she says in Woman of Taste. The tasting room is a place of intensity and study where "humility is essential". That's why, she says, she is very opinionated outside it.

She is currently locked in an unsettling battle with a prospective publisher who was to have published her book about South African wine. Vandyke Price, who has written at least 28 books and was the Times wine critic, was miffed when the original manuscript came back full of scribbled suggestions. "This woman demanded that I list my favourite wines - I am not doing that!" To do so, she insists, would be to diminish her integrity.

In Vandyke Price, the wine world does not have a dusty relic - she is a Trustee in Perpetuity of the Circle of Wine Writers - but a flamboyant character whose trenchant views enliven all of their meetings. There is a touch of Margaret Rutherford about her, which is not meant to suggest a battle-axe, but a woman who knows her place in the world and who has made a living from the pen since the death of her husband 33 years ago.

Educated at Somerville, Oxford, by such luminaries as CS Lewis ("no sense of humour, a maimed person") and Tolkein, she began to have thoughts of going on stage. There are those in the wine trade who, having heard her lecture, think she is still on it.

Now in her seventies, she has lived alone since the death of her doctor husband in a flat near Hyde Park, where once she gave dinner parties distinguished by grand clarets. But the space is now filled with the paraphernalia of the wine writer. She is surrounded by hundreds of books on wine and food, crusted bottles of label-less wines hinting at greatness, sheaves of notes and mementoes from her trips to the wine regions of the world.

The centre of the room is dominated by an octopus-like light bracket of such extraordinary ugliness that it should probably be in the V&A. There is just room enough for a chair for guests, who, when they sink into it, are overwhelmed by the Vandyke Price library which towers all around.

From somewhere, she produces a couple of glasses and a just-chilled bottle of champagne. Vandyke Price's phenomenal interest in wine came about after the death of her husband, Alan, when the grieving widow was persuaded to take a trip to Bordeaux by Allan Sichel, of the famous wine family.

Sichel was to become her mentor and might have been her husband had he not already been married. I ventured to ask if she had considered marriage. She had, but it was not to be.

A few days after our meeting, a letter arrived at my home which included these sentiments: "I have been very, very fortunate in the people who have been fond of me - but I'm an all or nothing person. I once said to Allan S that I am like a bulldog - I don't let go. He said, `So typical - how boring to have to go about all your life with a man in your mouth'."

She remains in awe of his knowledge and authority. On his buying trips, she would listen to Sichel appraising the wines in the growers' cellars. She would drink in the knowledge and wonder how he managed to identify a sample of claret as having being hailed on when the grower insisted it had not. But it had. He proved it by finding a damaged cutting in a corner of the vineyard.

Once, when Sichel's colleagues in London objected to women being present at a tasting, "because they said women make the glasses smell", Pamela threw them a challenge.

She would take a sip from one glass when they were out of the room. On their return, could they identify which had been her glass? "They all failed, except Allan who later told me he could smell my hand on the foot of the glass."

It is easy to make fun of oenophiles - persons plucked from the pages of PG Wodehouse who describe wines as having impudence or breeding. But, although Vandyke Price is happy to admit her mistakes in blind tastings, she can detect the most subtle of nuances in samples put before her.

A recent challenge was mounted to see if she and others could detect the differences in wine made from vines from the same vineyard which either had, or had not, been grafted. "I got nine out of 11," she says without vainglory. "It's an alertness to something. They were different. I can do this with red wines."

Mistakes in blind tastings can often be hilarious. A top French sommelier recently identified an English sparkling wine as a typical French champagne. Pamela remembers a Beaujolais producer being unable to identify his own wine at a tasting.

In a recent tasting, she mistook a humble Mouton Cadet for a grand Chateau d'armailhac - which is three times its price. "I thought that was terribly funny."

This expertise ("Don't call me an expert. It's a pejorative term. If you say that, I will give you a very beady glance") was learned at a time when women did not inhabit the wine world.

"I happened to be taught on French wines, mostly claret. It was stressed to me by many people that I must not concern myself much with `commercial' wines. This, I think, was right - if one begins with second- or third-rate things, one cannot develop any sensitivity to what is first-rate."

That is the clue to Pamela Vandyke Price. She hankers only after the excellent. As we part after lunch she says: "The thing I don't want wine to be is difficult, complicated or specialised." Her crusade continues

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