Neville Blech passed away on 6th September 2019, aged 82, following a long battle with cancer. Neville was an active member of the Circle of Wine Writers and also served as Honorary Treasurer. A wine writer, importer and restaurateur, Neville had worked in many aspects of the trade throughout his career. His co-founder at Wine Behind the Label, David Moore, shares his tribute to Neville, followed by tributes and words from other members of the Circle.
“Neville was a qualified chartered accountant whose very considerable knowledge and expertise encompassed both food and wine. He subsequently became a successful restaurateur and wine merchant before embarking on his final adventure as a wine writer and publisher.
Having qualified as a chartered accountant in 1959 he became passionate about food and wine whilst working (for Price Waterhouse in Milan) in the early sixties. It was there that he encountered not only his future wife, Sonia, but also 2-litre bottles of Valpolicella made in a cantina in the back streets of Milan.
He soon began to appreciate better quality wines, particularly French, and returning to London began building up his knowledge of wine with the help of Hugh Johnson. Wine and food soirées at the Blech’s South Kensington home became a regular feature and the purchase of a run-down pub in the Wye Valley, in Wales as a second home in 1971 prompted them to consider commercialising Sonia’s abilities as an accomplished amateur cook. “Sonia, darling – you can cook a bit – let’s open a restaurant”. The pub was converted into a smart restaurant avec chambres, and opened in 1974, and in 1976, Sonia became the first woman chef in the UK to obtain a Michelin star.
Returning to London to open the Mijanou restaurant in 1980, which became one of the fashionable restaurants of the decade, the innovative wine list resulted in many awards, and soon he was being asked to write a wine column for a magazine called Restaurant Business and to help other restaurateurs with the composition of their wine lists, (a function he still carried out until very recently). The consultancy developed and in 1989 he started his own wine importing company, The Wine Treasury, which specialises in wines from California, being one of the first in the UK to realise the quality potential of Californian wineries, some of which are now truly world-class players.
In 1996 the restaurant was sold to concentrate on the wine business and the soirées re-appeared in a much more professional fashion with regular visiting wine producers as special guests. He continued to write occasional articles for various wine publications and broadcasted on wine for Jazz FM in London in order to make the distinction between Brubeck and Brunello. He was a member of the Grand Jury Européen wine tasting panel and served on tasting panels for Decanter, Wine Magazine and other leading wine publications. In 2002 he sold The Wine Treasury to concentrate on wine writing and wine consultancy and his involvement with Wine behind the label.
Neville was a wonderful colleague, friend, mentor to so many people throughout his life and a great family man. He will be very much missed and his contribution to wine in the UK has been considerable. He loved the challenge of finding a great restaurant, with an intriguing wine list and above all one that offered good value for money! He was beginning to investigate and enjoyed discovering the wines of Eastern Europe and other small emerging regions.
Neville’s tenacious appetite for new discoveries, his love of travel, food and wine will be missed by many, including all the team at Wine behind the label. As Neville said in an autobiographical piece last September “It’s a never-ending journey in the world of wine – a learning curve that’s going on forever”. He will be very much missed by his wife Sonia and family as well as many friends and colleagues.”
– David Moore
“Neville joined the Committee in 2009, at the start of my second year as Chairman. He took up the office of Honorary Treasurer with immediate effect, though I cannot recall now if he volunteered to do so willingly…or was propelled into it! Either way, he was an excellent Honorary Treasurer and kept our accounts in healthy order. Alongside Stuart Walton, he was also instrumental in introducing the PayPal facility to our website, which has proved to be such a boon to so many members.
Looking back through the Minutes of our shared committee meetings (and he never missed one when I was Chairman), I am reminded of his passion for the Circle and his sage and invaluable contributions to all committee decisions, most especially with regard to the organisation of our memorable 50th anniversary dinner at the National Gallery Café in London in 2010.
I remember one particular Committee meeting taking place at Neville and Sonia’s house, as our regular venue was unavailable. Quite typically, they were excellent hosts, giving us a wonderful lunch prior to the start of the meeting. Thinking back, I am wondering how we managed to have a meaningful meeting afterwards!
My thoughts go out to Sonia and the rest of Neville’s family. I know that he will be missed sorely.”
– Julie Arkell
“Neville had been suffering for some time from prostate cancer, stoically borne. He had a sharp mind and sharp tongue. But behind the acerbic front was a kind man and loyal colleague. Multi-talented he had a good business brain, a first-class palate and had hosted Mijanou restaurant in 1990s Belgravia with his wife Sonia, a great chef. Regular parliamentary customers, both left and right flocked there in those less crazy times.
His real legacy is his encyclopaedic Wine behind the Label, which ran to hundreds of pages in eleven editions and continues in his memory.
Au revoir, old friend, hope you’re enjoying a Barolo Voerzio in Paradise.”
– Michael Edwards
“I have fond memories of Neville’s hospitality and lunches at Neville’s house while discussing the CWW agenda. He was always a committed and lively committee member.”
– Lindsay Oram
“Neville was one of the first people I met when I started exploring wine seriously. He and his wife Sonia – who called themselves Bacchus and Comus – invited me to supper clubs, which they hosted before supper clubs were trendy. I was lucky enough to attend many lively and irreverent gatherings of former clients from Neville’s Wine Treasury days; devoted customers of the Blechs’ Mijanou restaurant; and assorted opera and jazz fans, all of whom were drawn to Neville and Sonia through their shared passions.
While Chef Sonia ruled the kitchen, Neville circumnavigated the long table, pouring generously. His mellifluous delivery of the phrase ‘won’t you have just one more glass’ was enough to convince us to partake even after we were stuffed, just so we could spend more time in such hospitable company.
While Neville introduced me (in person) to revered winemakers including Roberto Voerzio; Luciano Sandrone; Giorgio Rivetti; and Dr Ernie Loosen, he was the opposite of a wine snob and found a way to highlight a good point in any bottle, regardless of price, varietal or even condition. For Neville, wine was used as the excuse – rather than the purpose – for a good chat.
I travelled with him to Germany, Italy and the US – sometimes with the wine friends, and sometimes with his family. Even when the travellers were pernickety and things didn’t go to plan, I never once saw him flag or lose his sense of humour.
One of my most memorable New Year’s Eves was spent with Neville and Sonia at their flat overlooking the Port of Genoa. When the clock struck midnight, Neville insisted I call my mother in the US to wish her a Happy New Year. When they weren’t using the flat, they insisted we use it, handing over the keys with a list of local restaurants and instructions to enjoy ourselves. The fridge was always stocked with Crodino.
I will miss this kind, warm, funny, smart gentleman very much.”
– Maggie Rosen
“It was with great sadness that I heard of Neville’s passing. He was an unfailingly diligent and reliable member of the committee, the sort of Treasurer all organisations need – financially rigorous but in possession of a human heart too. He will be much missed.”
– Stuart Walton
“I worked with Neville when he took on the role of Hon Treasurer on the Committee from 2009-2013. Despite taking his role seriously he would also made sure, on a number of occasions, that the Committee Meetings were a convivial process too. To do this, he invited the Committee to hold the meetings at his South Kensington home. The meetings would be held and then followed by a light lunch prepared by his wife Sonia, who was a chef by profession. The food was always delicious and the selection of wines was always diverse and interesting. Neville was a kind host and I will remember those times.”
– Andrea Warren
Photo from our interview with Neville Blech for The Circular earlier this year.