This week I attended the Memorial Service to celebrate the life of Michael Cox who passed away on 20 February after battling a rare and aggressive bile duct cancer for one year. The service was held in Southwark Cathedral which was packed to the rafters with his family and his many friends. I am reliably informed that 850 people attended and it was extraordinary to think how many people’s lives he had touched. My own relationship with him was largely through interest in Chilean wine (See my blog Fine Wines from Chile 17th December, 2011 tag: Chile.)
We were both members of the Cofradia del Vino Chileno, the Guild of Chilean wine, founded by Lord Naseby with the Chilean ambassador some ten years ago or so and supported by Michael throughout that time in his capacity as Director of Wines of Chile UK, a phenomenally successful organisation.
But Michael had many enthusiasms and there were people representing all of them there. His love of sport in general, rowing, rugby and golf in particular, meant that the guard of honour was provided by the Swan Uppers; wine writers Oz Clarke and Charles Metcalfe, who enjoyed watching rugby with him, led us in a spirited rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
; and his son Henry read John Betjeman’s poem, Seaside Golf
. There were many members of his Livery Company, The Worshipful Company of Vintners, led by their Master Mr Anthony Sykes, who was also representing the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Michael had been Master of the Company in the last year of his life, which was also the 650th anniversary of the grant of its Royal Charter.
Michael said that he was practically born with ‘wine in his blood’. He and his identical twin David are part of the greater Gordon Clark clan, the family responsible for the Clark side of Matthew Clark, once an important family-owned UK wine importer, now a leading British drinks wholesaler with two centuries of history. Matthew Clark himself was Michael’s maternal great, great, great grandfather and his maternal grandfather was closely involved in the inauguration of both the UK trade association, the Wine & Spirit Association, and the Institute of Masters of Wine.
During his year as Master he was diagnosed with this dreadful disease and somehow managed to combine his heavy duties as Master with six months chemotherapy. I saw him last at a Cofradia dinner at the Army and Navy Club in early December when he appeared to have recovered. He led us through the tasting of excellent Chilean wines with his customary style and good humour and I spoke to him about a possible joint event between my Livery Company and his in 2016 when, if elected, I will become Master. Sadly after Christmas it returned with a vengeance. He knew what was coming but still set himself a series of targets, each of which he met. Just a few days before his death he had lunch with Jancis Robinson, the well-known wine writer, at Cherwell Boathouse and went for a spin round Oxford in his wheel chair.[i]
Michael started with the family business Matthew Clark and then in 1990 branched out by setting up the UK subsidiary Negociants of Robert Hill Smith’s South Australian wine company Yalumba. In 2002 he formed the UK office for Wines of Chile and spent over ten years in that role. Wines of Chile is an organisation committed to promoting the quality and image of Chilean wine throughout the world. It has offices in Santiago, London and New York, as well as representatives in Canada, Brazil, Europe, and Asia. Wines of Chile also works closely with ProChile to develop and offer promotional and educational programmes in Asia, Latin Americas and Europe. It has 93 member vineries representing 90% of Chile’s bottled wine exports.
Its mission is to strengthen the image and recognition of Chilean wines in international markets by increasing the value of the “Wines of Chile” brand, thus elevating the average price, sales and added value for all Chilean wine industry stakeholders, including small and large growers, suppliers, wineries and exporters. The organisation has set clear numerical targets for volume exports and average price and is determined to gradually position Chile as not just a supplier of cheap and cheerful plonk but a source of outstanding wines that rival the best produced in any other wine region of the world.[ii]
Michael became regarded as one of the most influential figures in Chilean wine and in the international wine community in recent years. Claudio Cilveti, Managing Director of Wines of Chile said “According to his own words, this was his best work period which he put himself into fully with his characteristic joviality and intelligence. The Chilean wine community is mourning the loss of this great man in our lives.” This reputation in Chile had been cemented by the award of the country’s highest honour, the Comendador de la Orden al Merito de Chile in 2010. Michael was very proud of the fact that he first had to get the Queen’s permission to accept an award from a foreign Head of State and then received the award in person from HE Sebastian Piñera, the President of Chile.
In 2013 he received other awards including Lifetime Achievement Award by Drinks Business, Personality of the Year at the International Wine Challenge Awards and Personality of the Year at the Annual Wines of Chile Gala. Jancis Robinson paid tribute to him saying: “The British wine trade is much duller and sadder for the loss of Michael Cox…Michael was very sporty, enormous fun, extremely efficient and efficacious but never took anything too seriously. His reputation as a dancer was legendary and I should imagine that his dinner jacket was one of Britain’s most worn.”
One of the Directors of Wines of Chile, Eduardo Chadwick, President of Viña Errazuriz, changed his travel plans to visit New Zealand and came the other way to deliver a tribute at the service. He spoke most movingly of his admiration for Michael. Sam Dow, Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Vintners, told us that while expectations were high for Michael’s year as Master in their 650th
anniversary he had more than exceeded them despite his illness. He also spoke of his exceptional kindness and generosity. Michael’s twin brother David spoke with great humour of his older brother by seven minutes. They had done everything together. After all they shared a room together before they were born. When they went to nursery school there was only one place available. So for a whole term they took it in turns to attend and the teachers never knew. David didn’t mind that everyone thought Michael was more popular, more amusing because people always thought it was Michael when they met him. At one point while Michael was promoting Chilean wine David was doing the same for New Zealand wine so they would appear together in friendly competition at all the wine fairs. Towards the end David asked if there was anything he could do. Michael raised an eyebrow and said “Well, we came into the world together. We’ve done everything together. Couldn’t you come with me?”
The address was given by the Reverend Canon Mark Oatley, Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. Mark is also Chaplain to the Worshipful Company of Vintners so knew Michael intimately and spent a lot of time with him in his last months. He, Mark, had also been ill and spent some time in hospital, although with nothing so serious. Nevertheless Michael treated Mark’s condition with every seriousness as his own. He believed his life was a gift and so it was his duty to give. Mark summed it up with a quotation from Winston Churchill. “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Afterwards we were invited by Michael’s vivacious second wife Lynne to Vinopolis to raise a glass or two of wine provided by Eduardo Chadwick to Michael’s memory. Somehow we squeezed into the room where Lynne told us she had first met Michael on the dance floor. He was famous for his dancing and even participated in The Semillons, a male dancing troupe drawn from the wine trade that bared almost everything for an all-female audience in order to raise money for charity. That escapade earned Michael the nickname ‘Chile Willy’, according to Decanter’s
tastings director, Christelle Guibert, who created The Semillons. “Michael will always be a true hero in my heart and without a doubt the best dancer of the Semillon members,” Guibert said.[iii]
By some supremely fitting irony several of us who attended went on to a wine tasting of Concha y Toro wines organised by the Anglo-Chilean Society at the Chilean embassy. I am a member of the society and my wife is Vice-Chair. Concha y Toro is the largest producer of Chilean wines and was the first to import them to the UK. My wife and I were the second. It seemed fitting to close the day by raising more glasses of some excellent full-bodied, fruity wines to the memory of Michael Cox who did so much to popularise them, and so much more. He was only 62.