My Life in Wine – Part 1 – 50 YEARS UP!

Fifty years ago this month I finally fled school and, convinced by Brigitte Bardot, Inspecteur Maigret, Le Moulin Rouge and croissants that the French way of life was the one for me, immediately crossed over the English Channel.

As it happens, that same year – 1965 – a young journalist called Hugh Johnson also set off researching his first book; ‘Wine’. But he can tell his own story … and rather well, I guess. Which is why pictures of our younger selves currently adorn the Laithwaite’s Wine box you may just have received.

image002My story is … somehow I ended up with a job in a wine-making village called Sainte Colombe, near Bordeaux and it was like living in the Middle Ages. They were all still wearing clogs, and berets, the men were in ‘bleu de travaille’ the women in floral aprons, the grannies always in black. No Grand Estates here; they were all small farmers. From sunrise, men worked their small, tidy little plots of vines with oxen, mules or horses, weaving plough and harrow in and out between their vines and they all developed that front-row prop-forward look; massive, thick necks and shoulders. The women did the ‘petit facons’; the lighter work, trimming and tying vines with willow shoots. They often worked in groups to help each other; it was all very sociable. There was laughter and Ooooh! such rudery. I couldn’t speak French but certainly understood the gestures!

At midday the siren down the valley in Castillon-la-Bataille would moan, and everyone would just vanish. They went to the most important part of their day; their ‘soupe’ which was actually a lot more than soup, and then their very necessary little ‘sieste’. All went silent except for the frantic cidadas in the sun. When it cooled, everyone came out for a bit more work until dark, maybe tending the lettuces, carrots, tomatoes and such that they grew as catch-crops, between vine rows near the house. Or they’d collect wood – over which many still cooked – or scythe the road verges to fatten up their delicious rabbits. They’d pick fruit and nuts from trees that, back then, dotted their vineyards, collect corn for chickens, pigeons and ducks, and they’d go hunting for cepes and mushrooms. The men would climb up tall scaffolding towers in the woods and shoot at anything – truly anything – that moved. The women would milk the cow, feed peelings to the pig and corn to the poultry, then kill something for dinner. Evenings, the men would be in their cellars for remontage, or filtering or bottling or sampling with friends; essential checking on how the wine was coming along … ho, ho, ho! There were no TV’s, no fridges, no cars, no tractors. The village of Sainte Colombe was poor … but seemed very happy.

I was English, a Lancastrian – firmly Lancastrian – born amid tall, black chimneys and mills in 1945 … though I had grown up mostly in prettier, southern towns. However my favourite place as a boy was always Uncle Noah’s ‘Top o’ t’Hill’ farm on Rivington moor above Bolton. Constant daydreaming about that traditional small, tenant farm; the tractor-driving, haymaking, milking and collecting eggs, got me in so much trouble at school.

So is it at all surprising that I totally fell for Sainte Colombe, its people and ancient way of life? I did. So much so that I – we – still live there 50 years later. Except that’s not quite true; since 1965 I’ve sort of ‘commuted’ between my Saint Colombe home and my other – UK – home, near the Thames Valley headquarters of Laithwaite’s Wine; the wine company which grew from its beginnings in little Sainte Colombe. The Company grew up, went out and travelled and trekked, and still keeps going around the entire wine world.

It grew because since 1965, the good wine-loving people back home had shown great interest not just in the wines but in what really went on in the wine world. Encouraged by them, I started writing and talking rather a lot, as I busily poured the wines … and I have never stopped. I have, it seems, no off-switch for wine words.

But now, getting on a bit, not ‘wine trekking’ quite so much and getting all soft and nostalgic, I’m going to go back to the beginning and tell the story of 50 years in wine, in blog form. Then, if you seem to like it (all comments welcome) maybe someone will make it into a book. Like someone did once before; (‘Laithwaite’s Great Wine Trek Part 1’ can still be found – very cheap – on the web and in secondhand bookshops!)

It’s a very long story, which you might find a scary thought. I certainly do. But, God willing, I’m going to tell it all anyway: How it was my Sainte Colombe friend and mentor who gave me – unemployed and pretty much unemployable – the idea of starting a Company called ‘Bordeaux Direct’ with its long-distance delivery-round; how my girlfriend had to come in and sort out my finances – her words: ‘the mess’; how Fairy Godmother Sunday Times waved her magic wand; and the twenty five profitless years that ended in a heart attack. Then how everything had to change for the next twenty five roller-coaster years to now, where things – touch wood – don’t look too bad at all, really.

I plan – I will try very hard – not to bang on too much about me. Instead, I want to tell the stories of the wine men and women in every wine region of the world who have taught me wine. And I’ll pass on just what they taught me, about how the wine world really works, which is often somewhat odd, and not always what you find in wine books.

The first character on stage, the one who started the whole thing rolling, is my maternal grandmother; ‘Big Nana’ Florence Rudd, who never knew anything about wine.

Nana Rudd ran her corner grocery shop and the family too. A very strong personality, she had me – and my long-suffering parents – well under her thumb. Maybe she inculcated some basic business sense in me, but it would have been very basic. Later on, £700 of her hard-earned savings was vital in getting our business started. (Note to would-be entrepreneurs; always ensure you have the right sort of Granny; usually much safer than one of those rapacious ‘Dragon’ types … as we found out the hard way!)

It all began one hot summer’s day in 1964, when staying with us in Windsor, this formidable, Lancastrian ‘rescued’ a lost French tourist (who wasn’t lost at all, but just couldn’t get a word in edgeways) and dragged her home for a reviving tea. Our Florrie’s attempt at noble action set a whole, long chain of events in motion that has led us to today’s Laithwaite’s Wine: “the most successful wine merchant on the planet” – really?

Because that French lady came from … (trumpets off) ‘BORDEAUX’.

To be continued

About Tony Laithwaite

Tony Laithwaite, founder of Laithwaite's, whose passion for wine is still going strong!