HISTORY OF THE FIRM
My Dad brought me up to appreciate good wine. He often had local wine merchants and other enthusiasts round to dinner. I have vague memories of bottles like Ch‚teau Beychevelle 1933, d'Yquem '47 (or was it '27? - it's a long time ago). As a choirboy in the village church I sang the Page Boy's part in "Good King Wenceslas" for the last time before my voice broke, fortified with Cockburn's 1908 Port.
Since I was a teenager, I had always wanted to do something in the wine trade. At university in Bristol I had ideas about joining a certain famous local firm (where I had spent one long vacation working on the sherry bottling line), but that didn't work out.
On the day Ted Heath won the general election, I signed on the dole [Occupation? - Student (retired)] and somehow fell into schoolmastering.
After various bouts of teaching and a spell of registering births, deaths and marriages, I joined a German direct-sales company (you know the sort of thing: wine-tastings in somebody's home or office, like other people have Tupperware parties). That was a lot of fun, except for the pushy sales manager on the phone at 9:00am every Monday, demanding to know my turnover for the previous week.
More teaching followed, until in 1984 I decided the time had come to go solo (well, almost - the wife has been a tremendous help and support), or kick myself forever afterwards for not having tried.
They say that to succeed in business you have to be cheaper, better or different, or some combination of the three. We never set out to be cheaper - we leave that to the supermarkets; whether or not we are better, we will leave others to judge; but we are sure as h*** going to be different. We saw no point duplicating what everybody else was already doing - so no French wines, for starters [yes, I know - we recently started dealing in Alsace, but thatís different!]. We decided from the outset to specialise in just two countries where we had particular interests and whose languages I spoke, and in the lesser-known areas and wines of those two countries. Well, I speak fluent German (I used to teach it for a living) and have learnt pretty good American over the years.
So we read some books, researched various areas of Germany whose wines aren't seen very much in the UK, got in the car, knocked on the doors of various "father & son" wineries, talked to the owners, tasted their wines, and ended up with some excellent suppliers, most of whom we are still visiting regularly after over 20 years (though in most cases we now deal with the sons rather than the fathers).
In the US we decided to look at States other than California. The pioneering importer of Pacific Northwest wines, Mark Savage MW (then of Windrush Wines), kindly gave us some useful names and addresses in that area, and we became the second UK importer of wines from Oregon and Washington State. We brought in some small shipments from Virginia. We also researched other states with a lot of help from the US Agricultural Trade Office in London, who put us in touch with the Departments of Agriculture in Michigan, Ohio and Texas. The latter came up trumps, as (I later discovered) one would expect of Texans - they don't do things by halves. I got the real red carpet treatment - the whole nine yards, as they would say. "Leave it to us" they said. A schedule was concocted for me within a couple of days; I was met at the airport by their international marketing people; they fixed local flights and motels for me; the local Dept of Ag rep chauffeured me around to the wineries which had expressed an interest; and they let me share the Texas booth at the International Food & Drink Exhibition in London when our first small shipment of Texas wines arrived in February 1985.
In 1988 we made history and got a mention, not only on the floor of the US House of Representatives, but also as the lead paragraph in the USA section of Oz Clarke's 1989 Wine Guide: one of our favourite wineries was closed down by their bank, which took all their stock in lieu of their unpaid debts. Naturally the bank wanted to (forgive the pun) liquidate their assets, and held a sealed-bid auction. We bought up their entire inventory (approx 6,500 cases, or thirteen 20ft containers).
The US side of our business was semi-dormant for several years, but is now being re-vitalised. Exciting things are happening in lots of unexpected places: Texas now ranks 5th in terms of production after the three West Coast states and New York; Virginia, Maryland and some of the New England states are producing very good wines; in the old Wild West, New Mexico and Colorado are coming on stream in a big way as the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains turns out to be great wine-growing country. In the summer of 2001 we received our first new shipment of wines from Texas, and our first-ever consignment from Colorado. Enjoy.
Y'all have a nice day now, yuh hear? Yee-Hah!