With an actuary-defying cellar Whitbread chairman Sir Michael Angus, formerly of Unilever, is a fully-fledged wine buff. Wine writer and broadcaster Jancis Robinson met him for dinner to talk through a glass or two.
'I can't understand a thing you're saying,' said the photographer as Sir Michael Angus and I posed, talking wine together, for this photograph. Make no mistake about it, Angus is a fully-fledged wine buff who can bandy appellations and cepages with the best of them.
We met at Ransome's Dock restaurant in Battersea, at my suggestion, since I knew it has a good wine list and offers some wines by the glass in case we felt a single bottle too much of a restriction. 'I generally start with something dry and white,' said Sir Michael firmly, just back from his holiday home in Cahors, famous to us winos for its sturdy reds.
'When I lived in France in the 60s they used to taste like liquid black pudding. They've got much easier to drink now, but they'll never be anything like a great bordeaux.' Only one Cahors estate gets the Angus seal of approval, Chateau Latuc, run by a couple of British emigres. 'The rest I slightly despair of. I quite like Buzet though.' He named a wine made downstream of Cahors, whose more bordeaux-like flavours struck a chord with this captain of industry.
By this stage we were sipping a glass of Sardinian Vermentino, a respectable La Cala 1994 from Sella & Mosca. I asked him which companies had the best cellars in his experience. He harrumphed somewhat ruefully. Barings apparently had a tendresse for Chateau Petrus, the world famous Pomerol that is the most expensive claret of them all.
'I'm increasingly drinking right-bank wines myself,' he volunteered, in an insider reference to that side of the Gironde from which the opulent wines of Pomerol and St-Emilion come, rather than the more austere wines of the Medoc and Graves. 'And Cote-Rotie's a wine I'm investigating, although I haven't really got to grips with it.' I suggested we increase his familiarity with this fashionable red from just south of Lyons by sharing a bottle of Guigal's 1990, a celebrated combination of producer and vintage on the Ransome's Dock list at £36. Without any prompting Sir Michael launched into the question of red wine and its apparent health benefits. 'You know the French suffer far less heart disease than the rest of us. I think it's something to do with red wine. Just to vaguely namedrop, I mentioned this to the Prime Minister the other day. I said I thought he should make red wine available on the NHS, but he didn't seem too keen.' Sir Michael first became interested in wine when working in France. 'Nicolas were terribly good there, and they used to sell some quite good-value things like Vieux Ceps over here, but I think people got a bit above them.' His stint in the US as a Unilever fireman in the early 80s rounded out his wine education so that he was ready to take a serious, proprietorial interest in wine on his return in 1984.
So what started him collecting wine? 'I'm not sure I'd call it that. There's a limit to how much you can drink. And I'm now getting into actuarial difficulty. I'm 65.' The 3,000 bottles in his cellar show a strong French bias, although there are some of California's and South Africa's best lurking there too.
Sir Michael is joint deputy chairman of British Airways and, while avowing that 'If I never see another airport again I wouldn't be sorry,' he admits of its in-flight wine selection that 'in first class you really get something worthwhile'. Likewise at Whitbread's wine retail subsidiary. 'Occasionally someone from Thresher is sent to take me through their wines,' he explained. And does Sir Michael ever interfere? 'No. If I express a preference, they've suddenly bought 2,000 cases of the stuff.' He had himself bought 10 cases the weekend before, of the fizzy Australian bargain Angas Brut. He's convinced the South Australian settler after which it is named was a relation, and serves it regularly for large parties.
I asked him whether, since becoming a brewer, he had become a beer drinker. 'I'm just a modest sipper,' he replied, adding with almost genuine guilt. 'I haven't really got out of the habit of drinking wine with my meals.' When he reached the top of Unilever's corporate ladder Sir Michael was fond of describing himself as a toothpaste salesman. Before we parted, after swapping notes on cheese (he and his wife produce a version of Valencay), I wrung out of him the admission that, in his new persona as wine lover, toothpaste with its palate-distorting mintiness, is in fact enemy number one.