One of the world's foremost wine experts, David Molyneux-Berry has been on a mission to revive Egypt's wine industry and open up the local culture's eyes to the art of drinking it. We talk to him to find out more about his impressive experiences...
Egypt is famous for many things. Wine, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. So what is Wine Master, renowned wine auctioneer and author David Molyneux-Berry doing here? Reviving our country’s historic wine-making industry, that’s what. We talk to the ex-Sotheby’s hot shot about ancient wine, perfecting one’s palate, and which wine goes best with shawerma…
Do you remember the first time you tasted wine?
When I was 15. It was the only bottle of wine I tasted before I was actually legally allowed to drink at 18. But I drank a lot of beer between.
Is the saying “Beer before wine feeling fine; wine before beer feeling queer,” true?
I just know that if you drink too much of either it’s not good. I’ve never had a problem with beer and wine together. They do say you should never mix the grape and the grain so whiskey, gin, vodka are fine with beer, but not wine. That’s what they say; I’ve never had a problem.
Was there a specific moment when you realised that you had a special affinity for wine?
I joined the wine trade with complete ignorance. I joined it because we went to see some companies in action when I was at boarding school, after I’d done all my senior exams, had two weeks left over at the end of term and nothing to do. I discovered we has a so-called Careers Master at school and I asked him if he could show me real life. When you’re in a boarding school for ten years, you don’t know anything outside. We went to lots of very important companies, one of which my father was involved in, Cadbury’s Chocolate. I will never forget the stench that was in the factory. Another of the companies I went to was a wine merchant and it was such a nice place. I met the chairmen and it was like a family. It was one of the most famous wine merchants in the world at the time. Everywhere I went, they offered me a job, except this company; Harvey’s Of Bristol. When I asked the personnel director for a job he said, “For every job we want filled, we have somewhere between 20-30 people applying.” So I said, “Well, if something did arise I will be very interested.” I then took three months off with no school. I did a bit of bumming around in Europe, came back and there was one letter and it said, “Owing to internal promotion a position had arisen for a commercial trainee”. When I asked my father what the commercial trainee was he said, “Well, you’d be the post boy. That’s where you’ll start. At the bottom.”
How did you get the job? What was the interview like?
I obviously showed a lot of interest and I think that is very important. I asked questions which I think a lot of people didn’t. I found out that was really how I did very well in my career because after I’d been in the post room for quite some time – maybe three or four weeks – I asked the senior dogsbody how long she’d been working there and she said eight months and I thought oh my God, I’m going to be in the post room for eight months! Suddenly, the purchasing director came down to the post room and said, “Could you come up to the board room?” I thought I was in trouble because we used to play around with the letters. He said, “No, there’s an opportunity in the group’s wine and spirit wine department. Would you like to apply?” Of course I said yes. He said that employ people in that department by you going in for a day and meet all the people who work there. If they think you’re the right person, they choose you. It doesn’t matter what you’re qualifications are.
Did you not have to have a background in wine?
No, I knew nothing about wine. I was underage; I wasn’t even allowed to drink.
What’s the difference between a sommelier and a Master of Wine, which you are now?
A sommelier is basically serving wine in restaurants. You have to be very good and you have to know a lot about wine. It’s also about service. It’s about advising your of what will go with the dishes they’ve ordered. A Master of Wine is knowing all about wine; where and how it’s produced, all the regulations. It’s very international.
So, you’ve been called upon to test very expensive wines?
That came later. I did a number of years at Harvey’s. There were two major takeovers and I suddenly realised I was sitting in the wrong chair. The power was now elsewhere and then I was headhunted to help set up the wine department at Sotheby’s.
How old were you then?
I was 22.
So your wine background improved that much from the ages 17 to 22?
Yes, because I used to go to the laboratories a lot and tasted whatever samples were coming in. So, I got an intensive training. There were five masters of wine in Harvey’s so I had great mentors and worked with the leaders of the industry.
Do you think you have the best job in the world?
Well, as my younger son Karim says: “My dad gets paid for drinking.”
Is there specific talent one has to have to be a wine taster or is it something natural?
You have to have a natural ability to sense things, just as a car mechanic has to have a natural ability to understand the mechanics of the gear box, the engine and so on. If you don’t like something or don’t have that aptitude, you’re going to struggle your whole life. It turned out that I have a very intense sense of smell, which helps me. I had very good trainers and a huge opportunity to train every day, five days a week. I didn’t realise it but the group’s wine and spirit department was the gem of the company. You report directly to the board of directors. To a large extent, you control all the warehouses and the distribution. I was the hub; I didn’t know it at the time, I was just looking for a promotion from the post room! That’s how I took off. Being headhunted for Sotheby’s was something very big because, at that stage it was the only auction house in Britain selling wine. There I learned about the top-end of the market; the super expensive bottles.
What’s the most expensive bottle of wine you’ve tried?
Prices have changed dramatically because I left Sotheby’s in 1990. Between then and 2010, prices went up. I used to regularly taste wines in the sort of £200 per bottle bracket, which today are £2000 per bottle or more.
Have you ever had an expensive wine that you did not like and couldn’t understand why it’s so expensive?
Sometimes they’re not kept properly and therefore they oxidise. The interesting thing about wine is, it never gets poisonous but it can get unpleasant. Some of the greatest wines I’ve tasted are from the late18th century and today, of course, they’ve virtually disappeared because they’ve all been consumed. Some of these are just nectar. I can’t describe them because you have to taste it yourself. The most important cellar I ever dealt with at Sotheby’s was that of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas. Of course, he was murdered in 1918. Amazingly, they kept his cellar. It’s a palace called Lividia, on an island, in the middle of a lake. Of course his winter palace is in St. Petersburg. It’s now a very famous museum with fabulous artifacts in it. So, he used to stay in St. Petersburg in the winter and in Lividia in the summer. It’s just like Victorian England. They have beautiful lampposts with a promenade along by the black sea and very expensive yachts bobbing up and down on the sea. I’m going to just the other side of the Sea of Azov, which is an independent part of Russia and the Ukraine. I’m hoping to see Putin. I’m told that I’m going to be introduced to him. I just want to see him, I don’t like him.
What wine would you offer Putin?
To be absolutely honest, I’m not so sure he drinks. I would go to his own country to the Tsar’s cellar because they’ve got some stunning wines, which date back to the 1890s. Their dessert wines are very rich and sweet and absolutely perfect. You just need a thimble-full because they’re so concentrated. I think because he’s not a wine drinker – I don’t believe he is – it’s suitable for him.
Who’s the highest profile character you’ve worked with?
Well, I can’t tell you some of them because when I worked at Sotheby’s some of our clients were confidential. There were well-known Greek shipping magnates, I’m sure you know their names.
Can we publish the name?
Well, okay. I used to sell to Aristotle Onassis and people like that. There were a lot of top end people but the majority of our business wasn’t with famous names. Although, today, it’s become very much a sort of celebrity business. International five-star hotels around the world; Singapore, Honk Kong, Australia and in Britain, of course, as well as all the 3-star Michelin restaurants in France. Believe it or not because we had much better sellers in Britain becayse they didn’t really store old wine in France. The Baur au Lac in Switzerland, one of the world’s greatest hotels, used to come and buy from us at least once a year.
Is there a wine in your career that stands out to you?
Oh, I can remember many. The oldest wine I’ve tasted was found in the City of London. They were demolishing a foundation in order to build a big tower block. As they got down to the foundation, they found two onion-shaped bottles closed with corks. They decided to analyse one of them. They took a hypodermic needle, put it through the cork and took out a small sample, which they chemically analysed. They then invited me to taste the wine on camera for television. The building belonged to the chief armorer of the City of London; a very important person in those days. That building was built in 1667 so the wine was made earlier than that. And it was still drinkable. Unbelievable. A white wine, very low in alcohol, very high in acidity, which is obviously what has kept it preserved for so long. My guess is it came from the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. At this stage, the slave trade was at full swing. The slaves were picked up from Africa and brought to Britain to Bristol and the City of London. For them to get there alive, they needed to have fresh produce. One thing you could was you could have wine because it contains vitamins and minerals and everything you need. Because, in that stage, Britain was a super naval power, we insisted that any ship provisioning to go to what is now known as the southern part of North America had to pass by England’s ports so we could make more money. Of course, the American ships didn’t want to do that; they were beginning to get very independent. So, they used to provision on the island of Madeira, which belongs to Portugal, and the Canary Islands, which belongs to Spain. I believe that this wine, because of its very high acidity – both these groups of islands are volcanic and that creates very high acidity. I believe that they would get a couple of barrels, put them on the boats, get as many of the slaves to the colonies as possible and then they would come back almost directly, and any surplus wine, they would sell in the coffeehouses. They used to have auctions in coffeehouses. Some of that wine will be bought – only the rich could afford bottles.
And you know that from just tasting?
What’s the first thing you do when tasting wine?
Look at it. Every wine that you drink should be bright and clear. Very few grape varieties give you an opaque color. Whether it’s a deep red or pale white, it should literally be brilliant in color. If it’s not, there’s something wrong with it. It could be bacterial or protein haze, because protein breaks up and tends to make the wine cloudy. That probably means it hasn’t been treated properly. Then, of course, you smell it. You can swirl the glass on the table, but not too fast because if it’s red wine and you’re wearing a new blouse, forget your new blouse. By the way, don’t put it in soapy water. It changes the color of the stain and fixes it for life. If you stain your clothes, rinse it three times in cold water, hang it up, let it drip and have a look at it when it dry. If it still hasn’t completely come, out put it back in cold water. Don’t add soap!
Is your palate strong enough to taste a wine and tell where the grapes came from?
Well, I ought to. One of the very first questions in the mastery of wine is can you identify this wine as closely as possible? Which means you need to know the continent, the country, the region, the grape variety and the method of production.
Was there a wine that fooled you?
I often made mistakes. It’s not a perfect science. It depends on your mood and the atmospheric pressure. I used to a triangular tasting every year in South Africa. We used to fly down to the Cape and we’d have a huge tasting of 400 – 600 people. We then fly to Durbin, which is subtropical but at the same sea level. And the same wines tasted differently. Then we’d fly up to Johannesburg, which has much clearer air and different atmospheric pressure. The same wine would taste differently there, too. Atmospheric pressure and humidity affect not only the wine but also you.
So, what is a Wine Master doing in Egypt?
Having some fun and watching all the goings-on. No, my wife’s Egyptian. I have two children with Egyptian nationalities.
So, it wasn’t the wine that brought you here?
No. I came here the first time in 1972, before any of you were born. The wine here was drinkable but not very good, and it steadily went downhill because it was nationalised. The people running were Muslim, ex-army officers who didn’t know or care about wine. They were making vinegar.
Could you pinpoint exactly what it is that makes you so passionate about wine?
It’s absolutely directly related to human beings and nature. There’s no subject more human than the wine industry. God makes wine, not us. We manipulate it but it’s the climatic conditions, the soil structures, the typography of the land, the amount of rainfall and the temperature levels. They’re all natural and they absolutely shape the grapes, which then makes the wine. Man only coerces the grapes into wine. But, actually, wine will form directly anywhere because on every grape skin there is wild yeast. All that has to happen is the skin being punctured and the yeast will attack the sugars and convert the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. It happens all over the world, all the time. It’s just that man, being a hunter-gatherer, would have collected grapes, taken them back to his home or his cave so he could eat them at leisure and some of them would have started to ferment and he probably thought, “Hmm, this is good jungle juice. We’ll get some more of those.” And so, man began to learn how to make wine. Don’t think that man invented wine, he didn’t. It happened thousands of years before man was anywhere near becoming civilised. Civilisation started 10 – 12 thousand years ago. Grape pits have been found inside a cave in the southern part of Russia, which are dated to 150 thousand years back.
Is there any competition between Wine Masters?
We do, every now and again, have a taste-off. The one thing I hate is when I go for dinner and someone tells me, “Tell me what that wine is!” It ruins the whole evening because I’m bound to make a mistake. The funniest thing is, I took my wife to the Bunny Club in London before they closed the whole thing down and There was a young waitress with a little bunny tail and the whole lot, looking very gorgeous. She must have been 18, I suppose. I said, “Can we have the wine list, please?” And she says: “We got red and white.” So I said, “I think we’ll have a bottle of the red, please.” She bought it in a napkin and poured me a glass and I picked it and said to my wife: “I know what this is. This is a Cotes Du Rhone. It’s last year’s vintage.” The young waitress said, “God, blimey!” I was a very good taster at that stage. I was tasting up to 200 wines a day.
Will you or have you already passed your knowledge onto your children?
I’ve taken Karim to Gianaclis Vineyards, although, how much he learned is inversely proportionate to how much he drank.
Karim: He used to teach me stuff when I was young. My brother and I would get two bottles from the cellar and get him to guess which one is which. And he would say, “Oh, I know this wine. They have a vineyard in South Africa!”
How many wines do you have in your own collection?
Hardly any because I drink them all. Here you’d have to have a purpose built cellar which would be very expensive and I’m renting on the third floor so a cellar is out of the question. There’s such a limited amount of choice here. In England I had some great wines like Constantia from South Africa 1792, Bual Madeira and the such. So the legend has it, and I think it’s true, Bual Madeira was bought by Napoleon when he was exiled on Elba. Unfortunately, he had a weak stomach and he didn’t like Madeira and never paid for the barrel so, eventually, it was taken back by the Blandy family that had sold it to him in the first place. Then Blandy’s daughter’s husband bought it in 1840. It was a 1792 Madeira bottle and one of the greatest bottles of wine I’ve tasted in my life and I’ve tasted it three or four times. I also tasted all the wines in the tsar’s cellar from 1830, 1860 and 1890, including the wedding wine when tsar Nicholas was married. That was just magic, I can’t tell you.
Is there a good wine here in Egypt?
We now have lots of good wines.
We understand you were involved in investigating a scandal involving counterfeit wines...
Yes, that went on for years. It’s still going on but it’s mostly happening in the Far East now. I reckon about 60-70% of all high-priced wines going into China today are fakes.
Do you think that China has the potential to have a credible wine industry?
They do. I actually believe that the grape that we use for wine making, which is called VitisVinifera, meaning the wine producing vine, originated on the eastern seaboard of China. And I believe that, over centuries or millennia, that grape traveled all the way to Transcaucasia; today known as Georgia. People ask, “How does the vine crawl that far?” Because it’s quite a long distance. I don’t think it did crawl. I think it was brought by migratory birds. They need energy to make this huge three or four thousand-kilometre journey. They obviously have to make pit stops and there’s nothing more nutritious than a grape. It has a lot of vitamins, minerals, sugars and acids. So birds would have just eaten a few grapes and then started off on their migration, dropped a few pellets, including the grapes’ seeds, and some of those would have then created a new vine.
How far away do you think Egyptian wine is from being world-famous?
We have two fundamental problems. One is volume. We don’t have enough volume to export. Number two is price because we import a lot of our materials, bottles, corks and cartons, as the industry here hasn’t developed to a high enough standard. Another problem is consistency of quality because, if you’re exporting and you make one mistake, you’re off the market. It’s fiercely competitive. But in terms of quality, we’re now making wines which would sell in the European and American markets. I have no doubt of it at all. We just don’t have the volume, the consistency and the price level.
Let’s say I go out on a date and I don’t know anything about wine. What sentence could you give me to impress the girl?
Now that’s a challenge. “I bet you’ve never tried this wine before! It’s the best I’ve ever tasted!”
What’s your favourite night spot in Egypt that has a great selection of wine?
The Fairmont has got a very good wine list, probably the best in Egypt. They’ve got by far the best wines. I’m talking, of course, about imported wines. They go for some of the high-priced wines because they have the clientele that can afford it.
What advice would you give to an Egyptian who wants to go into wine tasting?
At the moment it’s very difficult. If you’re in the hotel industry, I would strongly recommend trying to get transferred to a hotel in London. Then you can train. Here, you don’t have the opportunity. Training is very difficult here. In London, if you’re a waiter or you’re hoping to train as a sommelier there are one or two wine schools. I’ve been discussing if we should start a wine school in Egypt, but getting the right things is difficult because we have 360% import tax. And we can’t just taste our own wines because, good though they may be, they basically show exactly the same characteristics. You’ve got to have Lebanese, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Californian and etc. Otherwise you just don’t get the whole range at all and you will never get very high either as a sommelier or as a master of wine.
What tips would you give to someone to generally improve their palate?
If they’re here in Egypt, I would say don’t be afraid to try a new kind of wine. Experiment. A very good way to do it is to get six different bottles of wine and just try them and work out the difference. Soon you will find that some red wines taste more like raspberries and red fruits and some are black fruits. It’s the same for whites. They’re less expressive here because of the heat but, nevertheless, you can pick up things like apple, pear and peach. It’s like becoming a gourmet. We can all have a big piece of steak and fries but it’s rather limited. You need to try other flavours as well. You have to learn to recognise flavor.
So what wine would you pair with Shawerma?
First of all, if you like red wine, it would definitely be a red. Because Shawerma is very basic, something like a cabernet sauvignon based-wine goes brilliantly with it.
When you’re at a restaurant and you see people drinking wine, just to get drunk, does it upset you that they don’t appreciate it?
No, because it’s part of the human psyche. You only have to go to London to see people going out to get drunk. And when they get drunk they get lost. “Friday night! Let’s get pissed!” Ok, it’s their body they can do what they want with it, as long as they don’t upset me or anybody else. But it is absolutely gross. You see them puking and peeing in the streets. And girls with no clothes on. I’ve seen more you-know-whats than you can imagine. It’s not a pretty sight when they’re peeing in the gutter and they’re completely senseless. They’re walking around wobbling and I think, “Why do they do this?” But it’s part of the human nature.
You must have found yourself in situations where people know who you are and what you do and they try showing off their wine knowledge. Have you ever sat there and thought, “These people are talking utter bullshit”?
I think most people who try to show off are talking bullshit. What they’re trying to say is, “I like wine and I want to show you how good I am.” The wine snob is the worst person to ever meet but the trouble is we all fall for it a little bit ourselves. We find a wine that’s really good; forget the conversation and we’re looking at the wine, absolutely absorbed. My wife got furious one of my wine-tasting friends said: “Just listen to this wine, you can hear it talk.”
Does wine not talk to you, then?
Well, maybe it does but I keep quiet about it.