Knowing my preference for wines of the Old World over the New, my son kindly obtained a licence to import French and Italian wines. Selling these wines to the world at large proved more difficult, partly because potential clients found difficulty in pronouncing the chosen name of his Lordship’s enterprise and because few understood its association with wine. The chosen name, Bouteiller (pronounced boo-tay-yea), is from the Old French Botellier, the officer in charge of the King’s wine bottles. It translates into English as butler. Both butler and bouteiller are from French botte which gave us boot and butt (a cask) as early wine containers and boots were both sewn leather sacks. A butt (or pipe) of wine (equal to two hogsheads) became the standard measure of 126 Imperial gallons (477 litres) of wine. From butt came buttery, a storeroom for liquor and still, in some of the older universities and private schools of England, the name of their eating places.
Butlers first came into view in Imperial Rome when food and wine at elegant dinner parties was served from separate buffets, the repositorium for food and the cilibantium upon which stood the oenophorus (wine container), the caldarium (warm water) and the crater (mixing bowl) , for in Roman times wine was drunk warm and watered.
In medieval times the kitchen and cellar were in the hands of the panter (from pane, bread) and the butler respectively. Apart from choosing and cellaring the wine, production of which was now firmly in the capable hands of the Italians, the Burgundians and the Bordelais, the butler would have played his part in testing the food and wine for poison. The ritual was known as ‘credence’ for it was designed to instil confidence in the diners, being performed before them on a special ‘credence’ table. Residue of this ancient ritual persists today in the Italian name for a sideboard (credenza) and the cork–sniffing activities of the sommelier.
A butler serves a household; a sommelier is a restaurant employee responsible for establishing the Wine List and advising customers on wine quality and food pairings.
In the early 20th century live-in servants began to die out as opportunities in the outside world became more accessible and the idea that a whole class of people should serve members of another class became unacceptable or as PC enthusiasts would say, inappropriate.
Famous bouteillers or butlers? The best known tend to be fictional characters such as Nestor, the butler of Marlinspike Hall in The Adventures of Tintin or Sebastian Beach the butler in PG Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle stories. Jeeves, another famous Wodehouse character, describes himself as a ‘gentleman’s personal gentleman’ and a ‘personal gentleman’s gentleman’, making him a valet, not a butler, as he serves a man not a household. Mr Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel ‘Remains of the Day’, immortalised in the film by Anthony Hopkins, is a famous butler as is, of course, Mr Carson, the pompous but loyal butler to Lord Grantham’s household at Downton Abbey.
Perhaps the most famous real butler in history is Sante Lancerio, Bouteiller (Bottigliere) to Pope Paul III, who produced a survey (I Vini d’Italia guidicati da Papa Paolo III dal suo bottigliere Sante Lancerio) of the best wines to be found in Rome. The finest, he concluded, was a Malvasia wine from the Island of Crete. His record, written in 1540 but only published in 1876, is remarkable for being the first occasion that the taste and colour qualities of the wines were described in similar terms used today by wine writers and experts. Lapposo (tannic), delicato (delicate), dorato (golden) and odorifero (perfumed) are some of the terms Lancerio employs. He is remembered today on the label of Melini’s ‘Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG Sante Lancerio’.
Of contemporary butlers, I can only think of Mr Paul Burrel, once Footman to Queen Elizabeth II and later butler to Princess Diana. After the death of his last employer Mr Burrel chose to publish details of his life at Highgrove and Kensington Palace, including letters of the Princess. Not something Mr Carson would consider. Apart from a sound knowledge of wine, including its cellaring and presentation, discretion and loyalty are also the perceived hallmarks of a good butler.