My Life in Wine – Part 15 – Selling Wine in the Seventies

Back from Georgia and back to trying to remember the Seventies in the UK – which nowadays seems like it was a foreign country too. What was it like selling wine in the UK back then? Well, despite the generally knackered state of the country – three-day weeks and all – it wasn’t too bad really. It was, for us, that most blessed thing for any start-up: the right place, at the right time. Not something that is planned. Though you claim it was, afterwards.

For starters there wasn’t much competition. We were doing something which seemed unusual and different, which always helps.  Starting up any kind of business was just not what anyone did in those days. People said it was a brave thing to do. Not if you had no alternative and nothing to lose, it wasn’t.

It was good to have started young. People are kind to young entrepreneurs. And you have all that energy. And you are naive. You can’t, at that innocent age, see how it could all go so horribly wrong. You can’t see much ahead of today’s urgent stuff. But you can’t stop … even for a pee. I remember I always seemed to be busting for a pee in those days. No time to go.

Wine, which had been of interest only to a few wealthy and privileged people had begun to interest many more – previously beer drinkers or Martini devotees. They had been over to France and beyond on the new ferries or they had flown Freddie Laker to Spain or Italy. They’d seen vineyards and drunk what came out of them. This was a growing audience for us.

At the same time, Resale Price Maintenance, which allowed big wine merchants to control who could sell wine, had been abolished. This allowed small outfits like us to get in. The market was opened up.

And that also allowed more small producers to go out and – like Monsieur Cassin and his friends – market their own bottles directly, rather than having to sell their wine in bulk to the almost-cartel of big merchants who, so far, had dominated the trade. So we had a rapidly growing choice of wine producers to buy from.

However getting a Retail Licence in the UK was still tricky, as established traders would always gang up against would-be new entrants. They’d employ smart barristers to convince judges and magistrates that one new wine shop in town would lead to mass drunkenness, debauchery and widespread moral decay. This restrictive trade practice made it very hard for a newcomer to get a licence. For a twenty-something, long-haired likely lad, pretty much impossible. Luckily, though, I somehow discovered it was dead easy to get something quite unheard-of … a WHOLESALE wine licence.

You just paid five pounds, got a bit of paper and away you went! You didn’t have to trouble the Magistrates at all. True, customers couldn’t buy just one bottle, they would have to order a minimum of a dozen bottles, but that didn’t appear to be a problem. In fact it helped. The law may have implied, but didn’t exactly say all the bottles had to be the same. Which opened the way for mixed-dozens which, happily for us, turned out to be mighty popular and our stairway to success.

They said it would never work. But it did. And not just for us. Some years later, a smart couple of chaps tried the same thing, also in a railway arch, would you believe. Self-effacing types, they called themselves ‘Majestic’.

Rather than just buying a bottle from the ‘offie’ on the way home, people began to get the habit of spending Saturday mornings at the old Railway Arch, chatting, tasting, wandering about amidst dusty piles of bottles. (We kept a good supply of dust). They took home on average 24 bottles!

This week I read that some town centres are now actually opening places for weary blokes to rest and relax, rather than being obliged to trudge round after they who shop. An alternative to hanging around outside changing rooms like a spare whatsit is provided. These towns think this a new idea. It could be that back in Windsor in the early 70’s some men already thought that the wife doing the food shop, while they bought the wine at The Arch was a fair way of dividing chores. But those were such sexist times.

The emphasis on Saturdas gave us the idea of franchising using the wholesale licence idea. I wrote and asked if any customers would care to open their own version of our Railway Arch. They would be part-time hobby businesses for wine lovers. We proposed to call them Saturday Cellars. We ended up with a dozen or so customer-franchisees, in old stables, garages, cellars and even shops! All very low rent though. From Leeds to Winchester. They were fun but … in the end, didn’t work! It seems that to run successful franchises you have to be Very Strict with your franchisees. And we weren’t. So they all – but one – headed off in their own directions, buying cheap wine and rather losing the plot. Fun while it lasted.

With George, though, it lasted a good long time. Major George Lane was one of the most delightful people we ever worked with. Slightly – but actually very innocently – rascally, George was the only person I ever heard of who had served in all three Armed Services. When he finally retired he bought a van and, like me, went off to the vineyards. Only he hadn’t quite had my luck with contacts. So he fell in with us. Opened up in a cellar by the Law Courts in Winchester. The legal profession supported him enthusiastically. And he played it by the book. Stuck to our good wines. Ah! George we had some good bottles and good times!

Wholesale cellars; ‘doing a Majestic’ before Majestic did, was definitely an option for us. But we didn’t take it then. We went another way. Were we wrong? Maybe, but on balance, no. I still believed what I’d been told in the beginning; that wine selling was basically profitless. So if it didn’t make money, it had to be fun instead. I think building a chain of 300 shops probably gets a bit repetitive after 20 or so. Not fun, really. The road we chose brings up something new every day. Fun. Exhausting fun, but still fun.

The success of The Direct Sunday Times Wine Club showed us the way; ‘mail order wine merchant’ is what we realised we were and had to stick with. Though as will emerge later on in this saga, I have never quite cured myself of the addiction to recklessly trying new things.

My start up idea of a peaceful existence quietly and serenely shipping in and selling wine in and around Windsor got a huge jolt from the Sunday Times involvement. From then on I have been in a panic-driven race against deadlines. I still am.

There were these other options though.

Not a lot of people know that we worked with Michael Caine for a while. Pretty good on wines, Sir Michael. Our suppliers were always asking why we didn’t supply restaurants. They like to see their wines in famous restaurants. So we tried. But I wasn’t keen on that sort of work; what they call the on-trade. I liked selling to private customers. Restaurateurs are something else. Their ordering can be erratic, they can demand instant deliveries, they want credit and well, they can and do go bust. All problems for a fledgling Company.

So when I met up with a charming chap called Michael Druitt who had spent his life selling to restaurants, who really liked selling to restaurants, it seemed he might solve my problem. We helped him set up ‘Michael Druitt Wines’ and he brought in his friend Michael Caine as partner. (We all lived in Windsor). The Michaels took over ‘trade’. But, alas, that too didn’t last the course. I am still not quite sure why.

I was learning, the hard way – which is the only way I learn – that I should, as they say, stick to my knitting, to what I know. Mind you, walking round a trade show with Mr Caine was a real treat, I can tell you.

But, dammit, there were other tempting roads to take and I just could not kick the habit of trying them.

Around this time supermarkets – which as far as I can remember only got going in the late 60’s –began to take an interest in wine. Since the war, the trade had been dominated by several large groups of off-licences: Grants of St James, Peter Dominic, Victoria Wine, Unwins, Threshers, etc. These had all but wiped out independent wine merchants, but were now about to see their world taken over, in turn, by the supermarkets. (Who will, in turn, come and take it away from supermarkets is something I wonder about, often. It will happen. If only I knew how).

Anyway … one of my Gerrards Cross (always a good place for us) customers, Geoff Brown, rang me one day to say his company had just put him in charge of their new wine division and could I help him. By the way, he worked for Marks and Spencer! So I said “YESSS!” I sourced their new wine division an Alsace Riesling, a Champagne, a Rioja and other things from my suppliers. The orders were huge. Something like a third of our sales, pretty much all from the Champagne.

But a problem arose. I admired M&S, and still do; I wear M&S, I eat M&S. They were, back then, with one exception perfectly delightful to deal with. But a big up-front investment was required. Taking a big team of their buyers, merchandisers and technicians to visit the suppliers was expensive in time and money. Lots of labels had to be printed and packaging sorted. I and my suppliers ran up big bills.

But I enjoyed the experience and learned things of value from M&S like their almost obsessional insistence on hygiene. (My old friend Marcel on the co-op bottling line with the remains of a yellow ‘cloppe’ dangling from his lower lip would have given M&S a fit. I didn’t take them to see him.) But it all came to an end the day a new young man called and told me he thought I was making too much money from them (though I hadn’t yet made any!) and that my commission was to be cut in half. I can’t quite remember my reply, but Barbara and I quickly decided this would mean years of loss in the vague hope of a return at some future date. So I wrote, and said sadly, we would have to pull out and they should carry on with the suppliers without us.

What happened next did a lot to affirm for me that there is a true brotherhood amongst wine people. The co-operative that produced the Champagne wrote and said that they felt it only fair to continue paying me a commission even if I was no longer involved … I had, after all, got this trade going and they were very happy with it. So for many years afterwards I continued to receive a small commission on the – very successful – M&S Champagne. To the extent that it just about recouped all our investment. But that wasn’t enough to tempt me any further with this line of work. I liked – loved, even – my private customers and resolved to stick henceforth just with them.

Direct marketing is what mail order is more properly called, and I really took to it. I love it. It is addictive. I read every book on the subject and attended conferences all over the place. You put together an offer, you send it out. You get a response. You win or you lose. To wildly varying degrees. It is more exciting than betting on the horses … and as addictive. It is also, easily, the best way to learn your trade.

No way was I ever going to apprentice myself to some old wine merchant. With direct marketing, the customers were far better teachers. I wrote to them about wine and hopefully they bought some. If they didn’t the figures showed you immediately what you had done wrong. So you didn’t do it again. It’s like those experiments they do with monkeys. You write badly or choose wine badly, they don’t order. So no reward. Get it right, they order, you get your banana. You learn.

I certainly wasn’t going to sign up for more years of academic study.  About this time they invented Masters of Wine. It cannot, of course, be true but the word was that a bunch of wine trade chaps got together one jolly evening and decided to create this club. They all voted themselves in as the first ‘Masters’ but decided to set an exam for any that wanted to follow them in. They, of course, wanted their club to be exclusive. Don’t we all? So they made the exam jolly hard. I would have been very keen to join the first group – with no exam. But I wasn’t keen on the second or, even worse, subsequent groups, because, to keep the numbers down the exams got harder and harder. These days you have to be a genius to get in.

My experience of exams had never been good. I got what Hugh Johnson says at Cambridge is called a ‘Gentleman’s Degree’. Yes, I got a ‘Third’. Which at Durham is called ‘A Third’. With sniggering and derision. I thought I did work quite hard and am not all that stupid, but I have a problem. I can’t remember stuff. Under stress, my mind goes quite blank. I have sat through a three-hour exam and not written a word. I blame a teacher I had called Mr. Swindells. Not a nasty teacher, he nonetheless believed that the best way to teach facts was by walking around class barking out questions. He’d be right behind you and bark out “Laithwaite; seven eights?”  Answer instantly or ‘Thwack’ round the head. I just couldn’t get my mind off the impending Thwack. And still can’t. So me Master of Wine? More exams? Never. Very useful and charming people to know, though, the MW’s – just don’t mention wine.

The 70’s for me were mostly about travelling to discover new vineyards … in Europe mostly. But I did go to California, and that was like I really was dreamin’.




About Tony Laithwaite

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