Ask a wine producer how they got into wine and they normally have a story about falling in love with a bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy somewhere along the line. Sir Ian Botham’s introduction to wine is a little different. It would have to be. It was not a particular producer, region or country that captured Botham’s imagination, but an individual. The legendary and incomparable BBC cricket commentator, John Arlott. Richard Siddle talks to Botham about his memories of tasting, drinking and enjoying wine with Arlott right through to his later days.
In the second part of our in-depth interview with Sir Ian Botham to mark the launch of his own range of Botham Wines, we go a little off script to look at how he was first introduced to wine and what started out as a hobby soon developed into a major passion.
“It’s a love. It’s a passion. I was first introduced to it by John Arlott when I was 16 going on 17 at Somerset,” is how Ian Botham describes his first encounter, not only with wine, but with a man who would go on to have an enormous impact on the rest of his life.
“He was down to commentate on the game and was up in the commentary box which was very rickety and inadequate in those days. I was asked by the secretary, as I was new kid on the block and not playing, if I would take up Mr Arlott’s basket for him. So I took it up, and John asked me to open the basket and take out what was inside. This included some bottles of wine including a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau.
“So I sat there whilst he told me all about how these wines were very short lived and there is a run into London and it’s all a bit of fun. And that was my first introduction to wine. A few days later we were on the same train up to London and we got talking again. It was the start of what over the years developed into a friendship.”
A relationship that blossomed as Botham’s own interest in wine grew. “He attempted to explain to me the differences in wine and what it was all about. He, of course, was very much into French wine and, in the later years when I had much better knowledge of wine, I would come back from Australia and bring back a good old bottle of Penfolds Grange or something with age. I would open it for him, not let him see the label and ask him to try it. He would say ‘not bad, not bad,’ but as soon as he saw the label – that was that. He was very set in his ways. But he loved wine and food.”
“Bring your thirst”
When Arlott retired, Botham took a holiday home just down from his.
“I got very close to him in the last 10 to 12 years of his live. I ended up living down the road from him in Alderney in the Channel Islands, when Kath and I bought a house there. Literally the phone would go at four minutes past nine precisely in the morning and I would pick it up and say: “Morning John, what time would you like me up there.” To which, he says Arlott, doing a very good impersonation, would reply: “As soon as possible. And bring your thirst with you.”
When he arrived he would be greeted by Arlott and boxes of wine. Wines that had been sent to him by producers from all over France that Arlott would then write a report on and send back to them.
“My first task would be take the wines that had arrived, which could be anything from six bottles to 36 – it really could be – and take them down to the cellar. Then when I came back up he would have this little whicker basket that could hold six bottles and he would have already written down from what he had seen that he wanted bringing back up from the cellar. Then we would taste accordingly what he wanted to taste. I don’t remember a spittoon then. He was very knowledgeable.
“I would then have lunch with him, which more often than not my wife would join us at, and then in the afternoon I would pop back and see the family. Then at 4 o’clock I would pick him up and take him for a little drive around the island.”
In the years after Arlott’s death in 1991, Botham looked to keep those memories alive the best he could.
“Whenever we used to go back to Alderney, often with my father-in-law, we used to go to the Rose & Crown up the hill and Basil the South African landlord would always have a very good selection of wines in there. I would have to get one with a cork. Then I would take the bottle, often with my father-in-law, and go down to his grave, where we would sit and drink it reminiscing about John. Then we would take the empty bottle, but always left the cork. So there’s quite a few corks there now. Even to this day we do that.”
“I have so many memories of him. He used to make me laugh so much. Even with the emphysema he would in a sentence, that might take him three or four minutes to get out, make more sense than what most people would say in three or four paragraphs. He was very switched on right the way to the end.”
To the present
So what does Botham think Mr Arlott would have thought of seeing his young protegé launching his own wine range?
“He would be drinking it for one thing, because I would be making him. He might just be raising a glass up there right now,” says Botham.
What stared out as an interest, a hobby even, quickly developed into a serious past time where Botham would spend as much spare time as his cricketing endeavours would allow him seeking out and discovering new wineries and winemakers he liked. The fact his team-mates were quite happy coming along too and winemakers were desperate to host them, resulted in some colourful stories down the years.
It was in those early days when he first met Geoff Merrill. “Travelling to Australia I got to know him very well and we developed a really close friendship.”
At the same time Botham’s own cricketing career was taking off, but there was always time for wine visits. Particularly as so many other members of the team also liked their wine, he says, including Graham Gooch, David Gower, Allan Lamb, John Emburey, Bob Willis. “There was quite lot of wine drinkers in that team,” he recalls. “In those days good wine in Australia was two and six, there was so much of it.”
He now looks back on his incredible career as covering three distinct periods. Cricket, charity, broadcasting to wine.
“Each one is a springboard for the other. So cricket gave me the springboard for the charity work, which in turn gave me the opportunity to move into my commentary career. But now this hobby will outlive the others. I hope I am still tasting wine in 20 years time and if I do that I will have achieved a great deal in wine as well – as well as build up a lot of air miles.”
And a certain Mr Arlott will certainly be raising a glass to the pavilion.