Edmund Penning-Rowsell

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The Independent Online

Edmund Lionel Penning-Rowsell, wine writer: born London 16 March 1913; Chairman, Wine Society 1964-87; married 1937 Margaret Wintringham (one son, two daughters); died Wootton, Oxfordshire 4 March 2002.

Edmund Penning-Rowsell, who was probably the world's longest-serving wine correspondent, was an engaging bundle of contradictions. A lifelong, habitual dissenter who relished his contacts and friendships with establishment figures, a Communist who worked for the Financial Times and liked his lunches with Baron Philippe de Rothschild or at his club, the Travellers, Eddie Penning-Rowsell was a high-minded man who enjoyed high living.

His father, who bore the same name (as does his son), owned a printing firm in the City and drove a Rolls-Royce. After his parents divorced in the 1920s, his mother lived in Knightsbridge and shopped at Harrods every day. Penning-Rowsell and his sister were born Roman Catholic, but he was, if anything, an atheist. He was at Marlborough at the same time as John Betjeman, where his disposition to dissent first showed itself when he was the only boy to refuse to join the Corps. His father seems to have lost his money during the Depression, which meant not only that Penning-Rowsell could not go to university, but also that he was very careful about money for the rest of his life.

When he left school, he got a job from 1930 to 1935 in the library of the Morning Post, an invaluable training for a career that depended on meticulous notes and a good filing system, for his responsibilities included reading all the papers, cutting them up, and reorganising and filing each story topically. It also gave him plenty of time to read.

About this time, aged 19, he met Meg Wintringham, the 19-year-old daughter of a Grimsby solicitor. They were attracted to each other because they happened to be in Hyde Park when a rider who gave himself airs fell off his horse, and they both laughed out loud. Meg was a soul mate (except for her family's being teetotal). She also had strong left-wing views – a brother fought with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.

Eddie had been attending the Fabian Nursery, and was learning about Marxism. Meg worked for the BBC, which then did not employ married women, and she had to leave in 1937 when they married at Chelsea Old Church. The wedding took place at a bizarrely early hour (their son thinks it might have been eight o'clock), with no thought for the inconvenience to which the guests were put, so that the couple could be in France on the same day for their honeymoon.

Following their marriage, Meg worked for the Czech Refugee Trust and they were active, along with Barbara Castle, in the Holborn and St Pancras Labour Party. Before long, they had left for the Communist Party, from which Penning-Rowsell never resigned, remaining a member of whichever splinter faction claimed his subscription up to the time of his death.

It is difficult to say whether it was loyalty or just the habit of dissent that kept this most genial and intelligent man in the Party through Hungary, Czechoslovakia and even the collapse of the Soviet Union. His interest was always in "High Politics", and he slightly despised activities such as the Party-supported artists' fund-raising sales during the Vietnam war. He wrote on wine for Marxism Today, contributing a (sometimes anonymous) Christmas wine column most years, making him surely the only regular contributor to both Marxism Today and the Financial Times.

After the Morning Post Penning-Rowsell went into publishing with the firm of Frederick Muller. During the Second World War he worked for the engineering firm Plessey in Swindon. He was sacked at five on a Friday evening for organising in the factory for the Clerical and Administrative Workers Union.

Called up in the early 1940s, he joined the Signals, where he eventually was raised to the rank of corporal, and taught Marxist history to the troops at Catterick Camp. After the war, he returned to Muller's and publishing, moved on to Batsford as sales manager from 1952-57, and became publishing director of Studio Vista at the Hulton Press. Penning-Rowsell enjoyed his publishing career, and often spoke of it with interest and pleasure. But his time at Hulton ended in tears, for in 1963 the difficult Sir Edward Hulton wanted the job for a member of his own family.

In fact it was of his making. Penning-Rowsell's interest in wine had begun with the case of non- vintage Moulin à Vent Meg's BBC boss gave them as a wedding present. By 1940 he had joined the Wine Society and by 1954 had begun writing the highly praised Country Life wine column that brought him in 1964 to the attention of Gordon Newton, then Editor of the FT.

It was tasting the Château Talbot 1923 that stirred his love for wine, and he began to buy wine in the late Thirties – the vintages of '20,'21, '24 and '26 – because he had realised that wine was about to become an expensive commodity. Penning-Rowsell never spent more than his income. He budgeted carefully, but paid 19s 11d for the first-growth 1945s, quite a sum when you consider that his weekly income in 1938 had been four pounds.

The Penning-Rowsells lived in a beautiful, but isolated, house on the Wiltshire Downs near Swindon, where their two daughters and son were born, until 1956, when Meg went on strike. Working in London during the week, Eddie stayed at his flat in Russell Square (where he, of course, was chairman of the tenants' housing association), leaving Meg on her own with three schoolchildren. On her insistence they moved near Woodstock in Oxfordshire, to a house with a dauntingly large garden, but an equally spacious cellar.

By now Eddie was beginning to look the part of a country squire. He was surely the most conservative Communist ever. Invariably dressed in a tweed suit made by a good tailor, he had a fine, if eccentric, crop of facial hair, and an upright, almost military bearing. At Wootton they entertained splendidly and formally, in the dining room lit only by candles, with polished silver and a forest of glasses at each place. First came champagne in the drawing room. Eddie insisted on nibbles and thought it both barbarous and asking for trouble to drink champagne on an empty stomach. In the dining room the red wines had been decanted, the placement carefully worked out and Meg's extremely good, carefully wine-friendly food was served piping hot.

Eddie drew the line at giving bottles from his cellar as Christmas and birthday presents, but he was extraordinarily generous about giving his guests wine to drink. It was at his table that I tasted my first (and probably only) Mouton '45. I was struck, as I was to be on many more occasions, by his being more curious about the views on the wine of those with relatively innocent palates than of those who wrote about wine or sold it. My wife had many a tutored tasting at Eddie's table, and I sometimes thought he had missed his vocation as a teacher.

Interestingly, because of the experience of the tough, slow- developing vintages of the 1970s, he was pessimistic when the great 1986s came along, and stopped buying claret. He felt he would not live long enough to drink the wines of the 1990s, and was proved wrong when they turned out to make delicious early drinking.

During his tenure of the FT column, there were some regular Penning-Rowsell landmarks, all made possible by his formidable record-keeping. Every autumn there was a report on burgundy prices based on those fetched at the auction at the Hospices de Beaune. There was a Bordeaux report, with his views, based on tastings, on which wines were good buys en primeur, before bottling and before shipping charges and duty were applied. And there was the famous institution of his reassessment (over a good dinner) of the finest clarets of each vintage 10 years on.

In the mid-1970s he felt he could no longer afford to buy the first growths, endangering the series of 10th-anniversary vintage tastings he did with Michael Broadbent and Jancis Robinson. The châteaux came to their aid with a modest "allocation" of six bottles a year, which he often collected personally and stowed in the boot of the car. Despite some silly comments by other wine writers, these gifts did not in the least affect his judgement – Penning-Rowsell was scrupulous, and a model of probity some younger wine journalists would do well to emulate: while he was chairman of it, he never once mentioned the Wine Society in the FT.

Penning-Rowsell was devoted to the Wine Society for ideological reasons as well as vinous ones: it is a co-operative. (As a friend, he insisted I join and nominated me himself.) He served on the committee of management from 1959 to 1987 and as its chairman from 1964 to 1987. During his time the society moved to dedicated premises outside London, which allowed it, at a time when wine prices were rapidly rising, to continue to provide excellent value. Penning-Rowsell presided over a sea change in which the society went from supplying bottles of sherry and little-known Portuguese table wines to country vicars and the widows of early members, to the vigorous, competitive and modern wine merchant that it is today.

Claret was Penning-Rowsell's true love, so it was no surprise that he should write its bible. The Wines of Bordeaux first appeared in 1969, and was in its sixth edition in 1989. Penning-Rowsell was a fastidious and elegant scholar and his work would have made any academic proud. It was recognised by the French government's award of the Ordre du Mérite Agricole in 1971 and the Ordre du Mérite National in 1981.

Though Eddie Penning-Rowsell gave me what experience I have of older vintages, and I in return introduced him to wine from countries where he sometimes feigned surprise that they grew grapes, we seldom talked of wine, but of music. From his earliest days in London he had frequented the Wigmore Hall and then, when they could afford it, Meg and he were at Covent Garden and the ENO as often as possible. They made a serious study of Wagner in the 1960s (Eddie's great passion along with Marx and William Morris) and succeeded in getting tickets for Bayreuth, which harmonised nicely with their frequent motoring trips to the wine regions of Germany, Austria and France.

He managed to get tickets for Glyndebourne, too, by the simple expedient of turning up one day and asking to see Mr Christie (as he then was). The startled owner of Glyndebourne agreed to show them around, and Eddie's charm did the rest.

He applied his record-keeping skills to his music collection, at first cataloguing the discs he played on the old gramophone with its enormous horn that he cherished long after there was better equipment to be had, and later the hundreds of tapes he recorded from the Third Programme. Music was some consolation to him in his last years, when he was losing his sight.

Eddie Penning-Rowsell died in his favourite place – his bed had been brought into the dining room – surronded by trophy bottles and wine paraphernalia. He will be buried according to his wishes in a family tomb in Brompton Cemetery, the only nationalised cemetery in the country, after a service in its very appropriate Dissenters' Chapel.

Paul Levy