Monday, 17 February 2020

Wine retailer realised he had a grape opportunity

Wine retailer realised he had a grape opportunity

ANYONE could be forgiven for thinking that studying for a degree in geography might not lead to great riches.

In the words of Maureen Lipman in her memorable BT ads, it isn’t even an “ology”.

But when one young geography student took a job washing bottles in a Bordeaux winery, he found the quality of that wine was not only important to the owners but far nicer that anything he had drunk in England.

The vanload of bottles he brought back that summer became the foundation stone of a business that continues to thrive 50 years on.

That student was Tony Laithwaite and he will be telling his story — as also recounted in his memoir Direct — in conversation with Jon Ryan at the town hall at 4pm tomorrow (Saturday). The event is part of this year’s Henley Literary Festival, which runs until Sunday, October 6.

As a young man Tony was captivated by all things French and his book sees the Laithwaite’s Wine founder share the funny, dramatic and fulfilling tale of a passion project that began in a railway arch in Windsor 50 years ago and is now the UK’s number one home delivery wine merchant with more than 1,500 vintages to choose from.

But what had attracted the young Tony to the land of Brigitte Bardot, Jacques Tati and vineyards?

“I was in my late teens at the time and most of what we saw of France was on programmes like Maigret with Rupert Davies,” he says. “It seemed such an exotic place, and I went over to Bordeaux and spent three months living in a vineyard. The family were so nice to me, so I kept going over in subsequent years. It was almost like having a French set of parents as well as my natural English parents.”

Tony knew that the bottles he had sampled in Bordeaux were of a far better quality than the wine that was generally available in England in the Sixties and Seventies. He also knew why.

“At that time the large producers in France and the large suppliers in England worked together and the wine was brought in bulk to England, blended and bottled here.” At first, Tony tried to tell the public what was going on. “I wrote to the papers and made some noise — that was all you could do in those days.”

But the only real reaction he got was from people who would ask him about this better French wine.

So Tony took the plunge, borrowed some money and, together with his fiancée, started selling wines that had been bottled in France by people known to him — his unique selling point

“These were wines from growers I knew personally, with real stories that customers found reassuring — and even a beginner could taste they were better,” he recalls.

“Things went so well that winemakers across Europe began offering me their wines. So my girlfriend and I opened our first premises under a railway arch in Windsor.”

Tony’s is in many ways the classic story of spotting a gap in the market and doing something about it.

“In the Sixties and Seventies the major vineyards were dealing with the major retailers and so the smaller vineyards were not getting a look in as far as the English market was concerned. When we started buying wines for England that had been bottled at the vineyard, we had the smaller vineyards very keen to work with us.” From those humble beginnings the then Bordeaux Direct later became Laithwaite’s Wines. Those few small vineyards have become 450 vineyards spread across the world, but the owners are still known to the family.

Given his love of wine, has Tony ever tried his hand at making home-made wine himself?

“I never did, though one of my sons did do, and now he has a vineyard near Marlow. We also acquired the original vineyard I had visited in Bordeaux. When my ‘French parents’ died they had no children and so I agreed to buy the vineyard.”

In addition to those vineyards, Laithwaite’s also grows grapes in a part of Windsor Great Park. But what was Tony’s goal back in 1969, when he first started out in that Windsor railway arch — did he dream of making millions?

“Not in the slightest. My aim when I started was to get into a position where I could spend some of the time in this country and then some time over in France.”

So where does Tony go now when he wants a break from the business?

“I escape up to our house in the Lake District and play with some of the boats we have. I love mucking around in boats.”

Is that something Tony likes about living near Henley as well?

“It is a really beautiful area. My wife and I have lived in Peppard for 40 years. I think if we moved anywhere it would be into Henley so I could be near the river.”

Tony’s wife Barbara is his fiancée of 50 years ago. The couple, who have three sons, are now enjoying life as grandparents.

Laithwaite’s Wines remains a family owned business — something Tony is very keen on.

But as he looks back on half a century in the business, a period that has seen more and more Britons drinking wine with their meals, what does he make of current trends such as the shift to vegetarianism and veganism?

“I think it is really a question of personal choice rather than of obeying a rule like red wine with red meat, etc. It is not really something which is done on the Continent — in Bordeaux it is primarily red wine and in Germany white. So the colour is more likely to be from the local wine rather than the meat or vegetables you are eating with it. Experiment and find the one that suits you.”

What can ticket-holders expect from his talk at the literary festival?

“Nothing too heavy — most of the people will be my customers and my friends. It will be a light-hearted look at my life, with plenty of time for questions and maybe the odd glass or two.”

• For more information on Henley Literary Festival events, call the box office on (01491) 575948 or visit www.henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk

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