About André Simon
André Louis Simon (1877 - 1970) was the charismatic leader of the English wine trade for almost all of the first half of the 20th century, and the grand old man of literate connoisseurship for a further 20 years. In 66 years of authorship, he wrote 104 books. For 33 years he was one of London's leading champagne shippers; for another 33 years active president of the Wine & Food Society. Although he lived in England from the age of 25, he always remained a French citizen. He was both Officier de la Légion d'Honneur and holder of the Order of the British Empire.
A. L. S. was born in St-Germain-des-Prés, between the Brasserie Lipp and the Deux Magots (the street has since been demolished), the second of five sons of a landscape painter who died (of sunstroke, in Egypt) while they were still youths. From the first his ambition was to be a journalist. At 17 he was sent to Southampton to learn English and met Edith Symons, whose ambition was to live in France. They married in 1902 and remained happy together for 63 years. A.L.S. was a man of judgement, single-mindedness, and devotion all his life. He was also a man of powerful charm, the very model of his own description of the perfect champagne shipper, who 'must be a good mixer rather than a good salesman; neither a teetotaller nor a boozer, but able to drink champagne every day without letting it become a bore or a craving'.
He became a champagne shipper, the London agent of the leading house of Pommery, through his father' friendship with the Polignac family. It gave him a base in the centre of the City's wine trade, at 24 Mark Lane, for 30 years. From it he not only sold champagne; he soon made his voice heard as journalist, scholar, and teacher. Within four years of his installation in London he was writing his first book, The History of the Champagne Trade in England, in instalments for the Wine Trade Review. A. S. Gardiner, its editor, can be credited with forming Simon's English prose style: unmistakably charming, stately, and faintly whimsical at once. He spoke English as he wrote it, with a fondness for imagery, even for little parablesˇbut with an ineradicable French accent that was as much part of his persona as his burly frame and curly hair.
His first History was rapidly followed by a remarkable sequel: The History of the Wine Trade in England from Roman Times to the End of the 17th Century, in three volumes in 1906, 1907, and 1909ˇthe best and most original of his total of over 100 books. None, let alone a young man working in a language not his own, had read, thought, and written so deeply on the subject before. It singled him out at once as a natural spokesman for wine, a role he pursued with maximum energy, combining with friends to found (in 1908) the Wine Trade Club, where for six years he organized tastings and gave technical lectures of a kind not seen before; the forerunner by 45 years of the Institute of masters of wine. In 1919 he published Bibliotheca vinaria, a catalogue of the books he had collected for the Club. It ran to 340 pages.
The First World War ended this busy and congenial life, full of dinners, lectures, book-collecting, and amateur theatricals. Before war was declared Simon was in France as a volunteer, serving the full four years in the French Artillery, where as 'un homme de lettres' he was made regimental postman, before being moved on to liaison with the British in Flanders and on the Somme. It was in Flanders that the irrepressible scribbler wrote his best seller, Laurie's Elementary Russian Grammar, printed in huge numbers by the War Office in the pious hope of teaching Tommy, the British soldier, Russian.
In 1919, Simon bought the two homes he was to occupy for the rest of his life: 6 Evelyn Mansions, near Westminster Cathedral (where he attended mass daily), and Little Hedgecourt, a cottage with 28 acres beside a lake at Felbridge in Surrey. Gardening these acres, making a cricket pitch and an open-air theatre, and enlarging the cottage into a rambling country house for his family of five children were interspersed with travels all over Africa and South America to sell Pommery, until suddenly, in 1933, caught in the violent fluctuations of the franc-pound exchange rate when Britain came off the gold standard, he could no longer pay for his champagne stocks and Pommery, without compunction, ended their 33-year association.
Simon began a second life at 55: that of spokesman of wine and food in harmonious association. Already, with friends, he had founded the Saintsbury Club in memory of the crusty old author of Notes on a Cellar-Book . With A. J. A. Symons he founded the Wine & Food Society (now International Wine & Food Society). Its first (Alsace) lunch at the Caf╚ Royal in London in the midst of the Depression caused a sensation. But its assured success came from the ending of prohibition in America. Sponsored by the French government, Simon travelled repeatedly to the US, founding its first Wine & Food Society branch in Boston in December 1934 and its second in San Francisco in January 1935.
Meanwhile, while working briefly for the advertising agency Mather & Crowther, he conceived the idea of A Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy to be published in installments. It sold an unprecedented 100,000 copies. Research, writing, and editing (and finding paper to print) the Encyclopedia and the Society's Quarterly occupied him throughout the Second World War. His daughter Jeanne and her family moved into Little Hedgecourt for the war and thereafter. His son André was a wine merchant. His two other daughters and a son all retired from the world into religious communities.
Simon was a better teacher than a businessman. He was repeatedly helped out of difficulties by adoring friends. Thus the National Magazine Company gave him an office in Grosvenor Gardens in 1941, to be followed by the publisher George Rainbird, still in central London at Marble Arch. In 1962, his friend Harry Yoxall suggested that at 85, daily responsibility for the Society and its magazine was too burdensome and bought the title from him for Condé Nast Publications. But in his 90s, Simon was still exceptional company at dinner and gave little picnics for friends beside his woodland lake.
His final book, In the Twilight, written in his last winter, 1969, recast the memoirs he had published By Request in 1957. On what would have been his 100th birthday, 28 February 1977, 400 guests at the Savoy Hotel in London drank to his memory in claret he had left for the occasion: Ch latour 1945.
From The Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd edn, OUP)