Two months ago, while undergoing chemotherapy, he spoke to OLN at length about his time in the drinks industry.
We have reproduced the interview in full here:
How did you get into the drinks trade?
In December 1972 I joined the Matthew Clark sales force as an area manager, having spent six months working in Cognac. This photo was taken in 1972 outside the office in Canon Street, London. I was with my brother, David, although he did not join Matthew Clark until 1985 (he worked for Xerox then). I’m the one on the right.
What are your earliest memories of the wine trade?
It was much more formal in those days. In the office you always wore a suit and tie and jackets were seldom removed. When a customer placed an order a letter was written thanking them. Of course, technology was very basic. The chief accountant had an early electronic desk calculator that was as big as a modern- day laptop, and the most modern piece of equipment was the telex machine (messages coming in and out via ticker tape). All correspondence was typed by a lovely gaggle of young girls in the typing pool. As a salesman visiting pubs and hotels it was expected that you had a drink with the landlord/owner at every call – there was no breathalyser in those days. In 1970 I was paid £12 per week and got daily luncheon vouchers to the value of 2 shillings and 6 pence – 12.5p in today’s money.
What has been the single biggest change you have seen in your career?
There have been two big changes. In 1970 supermarkets did not sell wine. Once they started in the early 1970s their importance to the world of wine became inexorable and absolute. Now their power is so strong they are arguably having a detrimental effect on the ongoing viability of the UK as a profitable export market for many wineries. Secondly, the rise and rise of New World wines in the drinking repertoire of the British wine consumer. It started in the 1970s with inexpensive Californian wine in carafes, then the Aussie boom took hold in the mid-1980s, with Chile bursting on to the scene in the early 1990s. The rest is well- documented history.
What, if anything, has stayed the same?
The camaraderie of the people involved in the wine business at all levels. The trade is certainly more competitive, even cut- throat at times, but all wine people seem to share a common love for the product and a sense that we are in a trade that most others would walk over broken glass to join. In terms of the structure of the trade – and wine’s route to market – despite the rise of the supermarket giants, the role of the importer/distributor has not materially changed and that is a good thing.
What have been the most significant drinking trends you have seen in your career, and have they left a lasting legacy?
Without doubt, the rise of wine as the staple alcoholic drink of choice for Mr and Mrs (and Ms) Average in the UK. In the early 1970s wine drinking was pretty elitist and rarefied, unless you wanted to drink Blue Nun, Lutomer Riesling or Spanish Chasspré. Wine has become democratised and the UK market has nearly trebled in size in four decades. More consumers regard wine as an integral part of their more cosmopolitan lifestyles. Provided that the government (and the fanatical health lobby) does not kill the golden egg-laying goose, this trend will continue and more people will enjoy more wine from more of the world’s regions as part of their civilised lifestyles.
What one prediction would you make for the next 150 years?
By the year 2163 wine will definitely not still be put into a glass 75cl bottle stoppered with a chunk of dead bark. And a wine from the British Isles will be given 100 points by the great-great-grandson of Robert Parker – and he won’t have the foggiest idea what Twitter was.