How has the wine trade changed in the 56 years since I joined Christopher’s (London’s oldest wine merchant) in February 1964 to the day I submitted my ‘Goodbye’ column for Decanter magazine in May 2020? It has transformed in pretty much every way I can imagine, except that it still remains a staunch representative of producers and consumers to the overall benefit of both.
It used to be said that if a landed family found itself with four sons, the first inherited the estate, the second joined the army, the third went into the Church, while the fourth joined a gentlemanly merchant profession such as the wine trade. The fact that such young men were generally from the better public schools, if not from ‘Oxbridge’ as well, gave the trade a certain elitism, 100 percent male, that was still present – to judge from my brief interview with Peter Noble, managing director of Christopher’s in his office (known as ‘PM’) at 94 Jermyn Street, Saint James’s in 1964.
‘Where were you at school?’
‘Oh dear, we normally only employ Etonians… But since you will have been a fag at Rugby [a sort of indentured slave, a junior who would do the bidding of the senior prefects), you will understand the position of “trainee”. You can start in the cellars next Monday.’
And in the cellars I remained, learning and observing until February the following year, when I was sent abroad to visit and work for some of Christopher’s’ European suppliers, all of them top names. Here again the strong element of male elitism was present, particularly since most of the companies were still in the hands of descendants of the original founders. But this was not to last, and within 10 years, three of the Quai des Chartrons Bordeaux merchants for whom I worked – Calvet, Cruse and de Luze, all family companies – had all been taken over.
The male dominance took a little longer to subside. Veuve Clicquot and Madame Pommery in Champagne’s 19th century, Madame Bollinger in its 20th, were the only exceptions, but chinks in the armour began surely to appear. Today, Lizzie Rudd runs Berry Brothers & Rudd and Jancis Robinson MW, Jane MacQuitty and Victoria Moore each have weekly columns for the UK’s three leading newspapers – each wielding huge influence.
I worked in Paris from 1970 to 1989, where the social background of the average ‘caviste’ – who would have an empty bottle plonked in front of him to be filled up from a tank – was in the early days not unlike that of a pompiste at the petrol station. This changed along with the variety of wines on offer and the need for someone knowledgeable to talk to customers about them.
What has changed in the wine trade over the past two decades is the importance of communication. Of telling the world what wine is all about. Public Relations companies sprang up (and generally the best of these are today in female hands). Wine trips to hitherto un-visited regions and countries were organized, bottles sent out for tastings, and hardly a weekday passed in London without some trade wine tasting or another.
At the same time, the chain wine stores found themselves losing their public – who now remembers Victoria Wines or Threshers? – and while the supermarkets could still claim 80% of the market until the financial crash of 2008, this was to weaken as their message to the consumer centred around price – value for money – while the message from the independents focused on quality – value for pleasure.
But the heart of the wine trade remains the same. Wine is first and foremost an agricultural product that evolves from the right regions and in the right hands to become a perfect representation of its culture. This is not an elitist comment, for what is in the bottle has a story to tell and the consumer should know the place, the grapes, the climate and the people behind it.
Today’s wine drinkers are living in a golden age where the quality of wine produced across the world has never been higher or more diverse, and where there have never, in the UK (Covid-19 aside), been more places to enjoy wines by the glass or bottle in a spirit of conviviality. Which of course is another of wine’s great benefits to civilization, affording questions on the whys and wherefores of life a ready answer.
The wine trade is a service industry, where merchants are the conduit between the producer and consumer. Wine in the third decade of the 21st century has been an integral part of everyday life for a generation, available to all at every price point, with many fine wines being surprisingly affordable. Hugh Johnson describes a fine wine as ‘a wine worth talking about’ which brings us back to communication. Oscar Wilde was quoted as saying: ‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’ The story of wine has never been in better hands.
Wine writer and consultant Steven Spurrier, joined the wine trade in London in 1964 and later moved to Paris where he bought a wine shop in 1971, and then opened L’Académie du Vin, France’s first private wine school in 1973. Spurrier organized the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, which unexpectedly elevated the status of California wine and promoted the expansion of wine production in the New World.