Next Monday (9th September) is exactly 50 years since Laithwaite’s started, a few years after my lucky discovery of winemakers – the friendliest of people – their vineyards and cellars.
Such an exciting world, better than any I know, full of delights, never boring. Every wine year following a similar timetable but none ever remotely the same. I’ve spent my life trying to get everyone to join.
My start point was a small vineyard up on the Côtes de Bordeaux, Castillon. This was a little-known district next door to a famous and expensive one, and it put into my head the idea that less-well-known wines; ‘wines next door to The Greats’ were the best value. Hunting for these became my life’s obsession.
I’d had the amazing luck of being lodged and fed by a wonderful old French couple, the Cassins, who gave me their thorough but straightforward approach to wine and even got some business sense into my skull. They pushed this unemployable youth into selling their wine in England as a posh door-to-door salesman.
I found less-posh premises under a Railway Arch … and, at the same time, a partner who could cope with all the business stuff I couldn’t; anything good I’ve ever done since has been at least 50% down to Barbara.
I drove a Ford van shuttle service, and called myself ‘Bordeaux Direct’. Then Hugh Johnson published his mind-blowing Wine Atlas that fired me up to visit and buy from every one of those fascinating regions.
First Bordeaux … then the rest of the world
I discovered wine paradises like Languedoc where no British wine man had set foot before, the lesser-known bits of the Rhône, Loire, Burgundy, and Alsace and did, in time, ‘bag’ for my customers every single obscure wine appellation in France.
So then customers wanted the rest of Europe. Spain first, for Rioja is close to Bordeaux, then by another fluke contact, communist Bulgaria … and a fantastic Cabernet thanks to Pepsi Cola. Weird business … but very happy customers. Italy, my God, fantastic stuff but more complicated than the rest of the wine world put together.
Our business grew much larger thanks to a silly letter I wrote, slightly drunk, to The Great Editor of The Sunday Times. The result was a Wine Club which put me on planes, first to New Zealand where a wine miracle was about to happen, Australia which sort of took over my education from France, then South Africa in euphoric Mandela days, distant Chile, and Argentina when the fighting stopped. And, of course, California where my horizons were lifted by chats with Joe Heitz, Bob Mondavi, Ernest Gallo … great men. Just thinking about all this today makes me want to go lie down.
Raise a glass on our anniversary
And then meeting the Queen, planting vines in her Windsor Park, and, and … on … on. I am the luckiest of men, but I really do try my best to share my luck … through good bottles. So … Monday, please, it’s raised glasses of 20%-off fizz and a toast: “50 up … phew!”