Tony’s Diary: My first big lesson in how to buy wine

Take a trip down memory lane with this excerpt from Tony’s memoirs, published next April to celebrate 50 years since he brought those first few cases of claret back to Britain. We join the story with our hero taking on the noble job of bottle washing …

“The first Laithwaite started in the wine business as a stagiaire with the not very romantic – but quite key, I felt – job of washing bottles.

“From the moment I stepped inside the cavernous, concrete co-operative I was hooked. Wine co-ops mostly began during the Depression years after the First World War and were built of reinforced concrete, brutalist style. Inside they resembled old-fashioned prisons like the one in ‘Porridge’. The prison cells though, were cuves (French for vat) and contained wine, not felons.

“So the doors were much smaller. A person could still get through those doors if they were small and prepared to enter head-first and horizontally. They went in – someone has to – when the vat is emptied, to shovel out the sediment which drops out of a wine after it ferments and begins to settle.

Tony Laithwaite in France during the early days of his business

Tony Laithwaite (far right) revisiting his first job in wine in Lussac Saint-Emilion

“My ‘minder’ at the co-op was Serge, a small, wiry, and very kind man, who did this job. It was the work I immediately yearned to do. You will know how pleasant it is to inhale the aromas in the bowl of a glass of wine. Imagine then, climbing into a damp, dripping tank only just emptied of lovely wine. Pungent? The aromas are, quite literally, mind-blowing. You reel. Very happy work if you can get it. Alas, I was stuck on the bottling line instead, and became a robot.

“I stood beside the small line, on which I placed the cleaned, empty bottles. That is all I did hour after hour after hour, day after day with little Monsieur Ferrere, Marcel hair en brosse, and ancient Monsieur Poli. There were also two small, dark-haired, pretty young sisters who, alas, found me utterly hilarious and unbelievably stupid as I was incapable of stringing more than two French words together. The banter around me was continuous and witty, I think. I just couldn’t understand it. But by God, I wanted to. The little sisters succeeded where my teacher ‘Froggie’ Croker had failed … they made me desperate to learn French.

“They would run the risk of being apprehended by Monsieur Lafaye just to get to one particular wine. But Lafaye had only one eye; so you just had to stay on his left.”

“But at least there was the wine. There were a hundred taps in the immediate vicinity and only a few – those painted red – dispensed water.

“The bottling machine broke down fairly frequently; it was a primitive machine. However, if it didn’t break of its own accord, Marcel knew how to make it break, because Marcel regularly needed to light up one of the horrible brown cigarettes that were perpetually glued to his protruding lower lip. And he needed a drink. Marcel had ‘un penchant pour la bouteille’, he was a lover of ‘la picole’; ‘un arsouille’, in fact.

“Actually we would all have a drink. France doesn’t do tea breaks. But every mec needs something to make the monotony bearable. So I began my career as a wine taster.

Tony Laithwaite tasting wine

Tony Laithwaite tasting wine in the early days of his business

“As time went on I began to be more discriminating … stopped drinking straight from the tap and used a glass. This was the grimy wine glass Marcel kept hidden in the tool cupboard. It had lost its foot and the broken stem was embedded in a wooden barrel bung. We all used it. I learned to discriminate, noticing that the others didn’t just go to the nearest tap. They would run the risk of being apprehended by Monsieur Lafaye just to get to one particular wine. But Lafaye had only one eye; so you just had to stay on his left.

“This helped me understand something that has been invaluable to me; tanks of wine may all look the same, barrels may all look the same … but they’re not. Not at all.

“Wine isn’t made by a machine. It comes, via grapes, out of the earth and every little patch of earth is a unique mix of soil and rock, and that makes grapes – and wine – vary accordingly. Even cloned vines vary, and so far no-one has managed to clone a grape grower. Growers all work in different ways, on different days. Result is, every vine produces a slightly different wine to its neighbour. To most of us, the difference is not readily discernible initially but by the time the wine is in barrels or tanks, the differences do become discernible.

“Never just buy what you’re offered; taste the whole cellar first … then choose.”

“To make the commercial quantities required by Big Retail today, many different wines must be blended together. The bigger the volume needed the more wines must be blended; the delicious with – inevitably – the less delicious. So don’t ever buy big blends was what I was given to understand very early on. Cherry-pick that extra-special tank or barrel, like we picked the best tap.

“When I did launch my wine importing business four years later I started with a wine from that same co-operative. But I didn’t launch with their standard blend, I checked with Marcel which tank was currently the favourite.

“‘Never just buy what you’re offered; taste the whole cellar first … then choose,’ has been our exhaustingly pleasant modus operandi ever since.

“To this day whenever I walk into the cool, echoey darkness of any traditional winery, smell that smell of wine and wood, and hear those sounds, the tock-tock-tock of the pump, the clink of bottles, all the clatterings and swooshings, my heart still surges a little.”

  • Tony’s memoirs will be published in full next April to celebrate 50 years
    as a wine merchant.

Four of the best special tanks that beat everything else in the cellar

Marcelin ‘Cuvée 1907’ Chardonnay 2016
Pays d’Oc IGP, France. 12.5% Vol. To 2019.

Laithwaite's Wine

Marcelin Cuvée 1907 Chardonnay 2016

You should have seen the villagers celebrate when their juicy, buttery Chardonnay
scooped Gold ahead of big names. A special cuvée named after a crusader for quality.

El Bombero 2017
Cariñena DO, Spain. 15% Vol. To 2021.

Laithwaite's Wine

El Bombero 2017

Young Carmen is quite something – she marshalls 270 tiny growers and here’s the
cream of the crop … rich, plummy Garnacha made superbly smooth by a full 15%.

Le Prince de Courthézon 2016
Côtes du Rhône, France. 14.5% Vol. To 2019.

Laithwaite's Wine

Le Prince de Courthézon 2016

This red thinks it’s a Châteauneuf! Same grape varieties and made at the only co-op
within Châteauneuf itself. But the vines are just outside the borders … hence the low price.

Pillastro Selezione d’Oro 2016
Puglia IGT, Italy. 14% Vol. To 2021.

Laithwaite's Wine

Pillastro Selezione d’Oro 2016

In sun-drenched southern Italy, growers bring their ripest grapes to famed Angelo
Maci … who selects the healthiest bunches for his chocolatey, fruit-filled gold label.

About Laithwaites Wine

Laithwaite's began in 1969, when Tony Laithwaite took a job washing bottles in Bordeaux... and fell in love with real wine and the people who make it. When he borrowed a van to share these delicious wines with friends and neighbours at home, things went so well that boutique wineries were soon queuing to take part. Today we're the UK's No.1 home-delivery wine merchant, with over 1,500 wines to choose from... including red, white and rosé, plus Champagne and sparkling, beer and cider.