Thursday 07 February 2008
In 1981, a friend sent me Bill Baker's wine list, and I was immediately aware of the powerful personality who had prepared it,
writes Harvey Cole [further to the obituary by Anthony Rose, 5 February].
Apart from the amazing variety on offer – including clarets from most of the vintages of the 20th century, in quantities from one to 155 bottles – each wine-growing area was introduced with an apt, if often recondite, quotation indicating a widely inquisitive mind. Each vintage received a pithy and informative one-line summing up. There were also the amusingly deprecatory opinions about selections which had disappointed. One unfortunate, single battered bottle from a poor vintage, appearing in his list for the third time and progressively marked down, attracted the plaintive question: "Is there no price at which somebody will take this rotten bottle off our hands?"
I placed an order and a week or so later, on a snowy December evening, there was a ring on the door. Opening it, I was confronted with a solid wall of four cases of wine, held in a pair of massive hands, with the head of Bill Baker just visible above them, "I happened to be passing this way," he said, "and thought I might just as well deliver these myself."
I became a small (if regular) customer, and whenever I phoned and Baker answered himself, he always remembered what I had bought and had time for a (highly opinionated) chat and invariably wise advice. If you were lucky, when collecting an order yourself, you would be taken to visit the nearby caves at Hallatrow in the Mendips where his enormous stocks were stored in corridors excavated during the war for military material. Half an hour there was more illuminating than most guided tours through famous vineyards.
Bill was a marvellous example of the way in which a passionate and informed love of wine can widen and deepen the experience of life. Truly, in vino civilitas.
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