My Weekend: Michael Frawley

Times Online, May 25, 2007

The idea of formal wine tasting has never appealed to me. For a start, there is just too much etiquette. Holding the glass by the stem, peering intently at the wine, sloshing it around in the glass and then in one’s mouth is just so much unnecessary rigmarole. As for spitting the wine into a handily placed vessel, what could be more disgusting? Not to mention, for those who enjoy wine as a pleasurable means to ever greater conviviality, pointless?

These preconceptions led to some trepidation prior to my talk with Michael Frawley, the managing partner of City firm Taylor Wessing and a former champion wine taster. Wine has been Frawley’s passion ever since he was a young man in New Zealand. He maintains a well-stocked cellar to this day and holds regular wine tasting evenings at his firm. I was able to empathise all too easily with Frawley’s love of fine wine, but feared that he might prove to be a man whose predilection for terms such as “seductive bouquet” and “elegant aroma” would induce a desperate need for a calming pint of Tennants Extra.

Within just a few minutes of our conversation I realised that my fears were groundless. Frawley is as down to earth as they come, about as far from pretence as his Alma Mater is from Blackfriars Bridge. He was educated at Otago University, New Zealand, and graduated as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand in 1984. Frawley arrived in the UK in 1989 and qualified here as a solicitor in 1990, but prior to that he had already become a champion wine taster. He takes up the story thus:

“To pay my way through university I took a job in an off-licence run by a gentleman called Peter Munslow. He would frequently end the working day with the words ‘Have you ever tried this wine?’ He’d then invite me to sample whichever wine had taken his fancy. On weekends a group of us would take wines recommended by Peter to a Chinese restaurant, pour them into milk bottles and then spend the evening getting merrily plastered, trying to figure out what the wines were. We got to know wine really well, and had a cracking time in the process.”

Soon up to 30 of Frawley’s friends were honing their taste-buds in this way. When Wilson Neil, one of New Zealand’s leading wine importers, announced a wine tasting competition, Frawley was only too keen to sign up, in a team of four. “There were a number of rounds but we’d obviously put in enough practice – we just kept winning,” he says. “It was great because each time we won we’d be given wine vouchers. We’d spend them straightaway and keep back one decent bottle but drink the rest at the Chinese restaurant.”

Such devoted practice ultimately led to victory in the competition, as well as one or two wines lingering in Frawley’s mind forever: “The Penfolds Grange and Chateau Laffite were superb. It was a fantastic experience. By the time I was 24 I was drinking wines such as Chateau Petrus, one of the most distinctive in the world.”

Frawley brought his passion to the UK, though he says that now he prefers life as a social drinker to that of the seasoned wine taster. “I still buy a lot of wine and like to try different things, but I enjoy the social side more than all the pretence that can go with wine tasting. I like to find out about the village the wine came from, the person who runs the vineyard – that kind of thing.” His cellar boasts some fine, perhaps even seductive drops in various bottles of Brunello (“Italian wines are a favourite”) and a 1961 Tondonia Gran Reserva (“I’m saving it for a special occasion – probably the birth of my daughter in July”).

Frawley is also passionate about cooking, saying that he wanted to be a chef before he became a lawyer. His working week sees him immured in insolvency law but on weekends the fine wines come out. He agrees with me – spitting out wine is “a disgusting habit” – and it turns out we share another thing in common. “It’s harder these days to spend an evening getting through bottles of wine. As you get older you can’t hack it as you did as a young man.”

I’ll drink to that. And it won’t be with a can of Tennants Extra.