The vintage crew

12 May, 2014

Cliff Roberson hasn’t done badly for someone who started out as an assistant’s assistant at Peter Dominic, earning £3 a week.

Fifty-five years later ditching his job as a trainee reporter to work in a wine shop must feel like the best decision he ever made.

He can’t have predicted he was embarking on arguably one of the most diverse careers of anyone in the wine business today. His impact on the trade has been such that he joined Off Licence News’ Lifetime Achievement Award hall of fame at our Drinks Retailing Awards this year, although his passion and creativity mean he is still a major influence.

His early years in the trade read like a rising star’s dream – working at a wine retail business in New York and a three-year stint at Bordeaux Château Lascombes in Margaux.

But it was when he established importer Buckingham Vintners, now Buckingham Schenk, in 1974 that he really began to make his mark, with sales reaching 40 million bottles a year under his direction.

By 1991 he had diversified into retail and wholesale when he founded Roberson Wine, which operates a quirky shop on Kensington High Street and a thriving wholesale arm. In 2012 he stepped back from Buckingham Schenk to concentrate on Roberson Wine full-time and get his teeth into London Cru – the improbable-sounding project to create London’s first urban winery.

Roberson is the first to admit it was a maverick scheme stemming from his drive to push the boundaries. Aged 74, most people in the trade would be retiring to a French gite, not making wine in an old distillery in Earls Court.

“I said to the team ‘we’ve got to do something new’, because I was getting bored with retail. But it’s hard to do something in a mature business. I know the winery isn’t going to be easy, but people in the wine trade are just playing around with the status quo – like organic or biodynamic. This is a novel idea.

“The new stuff [with the winery] is more fun than the day-to-day stuff, but you have to keep the pot on the boil. I like diversity and originality. It’s like with the rock ’n’ rollers, I like the originals.”

Cynical response

He admits London Cru has met with cynicism and been labelled a gimmick, but Roberson was sufficiently confident to have invested £1 million in building the winery with state-of-the art kit.

Work started in February last year and the first vintage is just being released. Roberson has installed Australian winemaker Gavin Monery, who has worked for prestigious names including Cullen Wines and Moss Wood, and is pictured with him above.

Monery’s expertise is being given a thorough workout at London Cru, which uses grapes hand-harvested across Europe – rather than the UK – transported over the Channel in refrigerated trucks and arriving in the capital within 36 hours of picking.

Monery says: “Refrigerating fruit and fermenting it at a later stage isn’t a crazy idea, but driving it from France to London might be. But actually it’s two hours from picking to chilling the grapes.”

“The precedent for wineries such as this has already been set. There’s one in Manhattan and it is much further from a vineyard than we are. There are also a few doing the same thing in Hong Kong.”

Monery and Roberson know they have a lot to prove and are under no illusion that the venture’s success rides on the quality they produce.

Roberson says: “It all starts with the fruit. If the fruit’s bad you’re buggered. We get out there when the harvest is happening to supervise. Everything is hand-sorted in the vineyard and again when it gets here. The great thing for me is we can go anywhere. Normally wineries have vineyards so they’re stuck with what they produce. For us, if France is terrible we go to Spain. There’s no bullshit. If it’s not great, we don’t buy the fruit. It’s a fantastic flexibility that means we can always get the best stuff.”

Roberson says the attention to quality is paying off, with a large chunk of this year’s 1,300 cases having already been sold. “We are going to do an en primeur campaign to pre-sell it. We’ve already sold 25% without even trying. I’m committed to growing production next year, and that’s without selling a drop, which shows how confident – or stupid – we are.”

As well as targeting corporate clients such as Goldman Sachs, Roberson is hoping to secure prestige retail accounts.

“We are making the best wine in London for years. It will be £15 a bottle, including VAT. We are looking to sell it to restaurants and one or two iconic retail accounts that can justify a slightly higher price tag on shelf. We have to sell it for that price to make anything – there is a premium to it. But we will probably come out with a top-tier wine eventually too.”

Despite the price, he’s convinced there will be plenty of interest. He adds: “The way we see it, the market is on our doorstep. We can ship the grapes, but don’t have to ship the bottles.

“People in London have a casual interest in wine, like food, and where it’s from. Normally to visit a winery you have to travel for a day there and back, but all you have to do here is get on a Tube.

“We want to show them the nuts and bolts of winemaking, rather than just leading them to a cellar door tasting room and giving them some samples. It’s educating but by accident, really. The industry talks about educating consumers though really they want to have fun.

“But having people come in and buy a case once for the novelty because it’s from London won’t build a business. We want them to buy a case every year.”

Increasing production

Roberson plans to increase production to 3,000 cases by 2015 and anticipates the business will expand year on year. But he confesses the process has been a sharp learning curve.

“The big thing I’ve learned is that everything takes longer than you think. But you have to have that mad enthusiasm to keep with it.

“Everyone was shitting themselves when the first grapes turned up. We hadn’t done anything like this before, no one in the UK had, so we couldn’t even ask anyone else. But the most important thing is that we didn’t screw up. I’m really happy with the quality we have produced.”

Sourcing grapes also hasn’t been as straightforward as he had hoped. Difficulties in the vineyard meant turning down seven tonnes the operation was expecting from Bordeaux and the Loire, and eventually sourcing four tonnes of Barbera from producer Luca Roagna so production could get underway.

The northern Italian red has joined the rest of the first year’s releases – a Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, all from France.

The business has also come up against some wine legislation wrangles which prevent it from using the term “cru” and mean it will be made under the “European Community wine” label.

But Roberson isn’t deterred. “We’ve decided to use SW6, which is our postcode, as the brand name but we will say ‘made by London Cru’ on the label. We can’t even put the variety, so we’ll just do a red and a white. It’s crazy bureaucracy.”

Positive take

However, he sees the red tape as an advantage. “We have absolute traceability of the grapes from the moment they’re picked, and you are allowed to move grapes around the Common Market. The thing is, no one has tried to do this before here so there’s no precedent. While the bureaucrats just keep pushing the paper around, we will just get on and do it.

“We can go anywhere we want in Europe, we don’t have an appellation, which puts our wines at the lowest possible level in that sense, but gives us the biggest potential.”

It’s a philosophy that goes against all the conventional thinking about what wine consumers will buy into, but Roberson believes the approach will catch drinkers’ imaginations and the venture will begin to turn a profit within five years.

He adds: “I don’t have a vision, I just want to keep moving. I like being in the game and it’s great if something good happens. Money’s like horse shit – you’ve got to spread it around.”

In a way, opening a winery represents a natural progression for Roberson, building on his distributing and retail businesses.

“You get so detached from wine when you’re selling it. You visit some companies and you wouldn’t even know they are involved in wine. All you see is computers and spreadsheets. It’s not real, it’s like it’s plastic or something. But now, wine is part of our DNA.”

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