It all began back in 1969, after student summers working in Bordeaux vineyards, and lugging wine home on the train. I and five winegrowers then bought a Ford van with the idea of me bringing their 'real' wines directly to customers in the UK.
I opened a small ‘cellar shop’ under the railway arches in the royal English town of Windsor, close to the walls of Windsor Castle itself, and, I liked to think, under the gaze of royalty (in the next railway arch they used to clean and polish the Queen’s horse-drawn carriages!).
Called 'Bordeaux Direct', the original business had just five wines on the list (at 13 shillings and 6 pence – or around $1 – a bottle!) and only 150 customers. But slowly we began investigating vineyards further up the Dordogne ... and beyond. In the 1970s we were the first merchants – of any nationality – to prospect and buy wine from the wine regions of southern France ... Bergerac, Duras, Cahors, Madiran, Gaillac, Minervois, Saint-Chinian and so on eastwards. Then came other countries; Rioja, Bulgarian Cabernet, Chile and, of course, California.
We opened for business in the US fourteen years ago, from lakeside offices and a warehouse outside Chicago, and loved the positive feedback from our US customers. Those were exciting times, as we learned how to work with state shipping laws and how to deliver wines as far as we could throughout the country. That’s all experience that helps make us first choice for US wine drinkers.
The by now rather inappropriately named Bordeaux Direct was unique in still insisting on only selling wines bottled by the producers; because they simply had more flavor, extra character, total authenticity and somehow anyone, even a newcomer to wine, could always taste that quality and goodness.
Today, 40 years on, we're called Laithwaites Wine and deliver wine to over 750,000 customers in the United Kingdom, mainland Europe, Australia, the USA and now Hong Kong.
We may be bigger, but we still go 'direct' in the same old way, and so keep costs down. We have a huge network of supplier contacts, some now the grandchildren of those we started with. We still seek out top-quality, small production wines from producers in every corner of the known wine world. We are still traveling, and I enjoy it too much to have any intention of stopping.
For the last twenty years we have had huge success with that now renowned hyper-mobile team of talented winemakers; The 'Flyers'. The name started as a joke, a little bit of late night banter down the wine-bar, but the concept was so successful it has now been imitated all over the world.
The idea was that as well as driving round hundreds of cellars looking for the few good wines, we’d also find those cellars with the greatest – but unrealized (and therefore inexpensive) – potential, nice vineyards, good equipment and lend them a 'star' winemaker from the southern hemisphere, delighted to be given the chance to make two vintages instead of just one a year. 'Flyers' harvest at home in March, in Europe in September. With the 'Flyer' go in our own special tanks, equipment and barrels (from the most expensive cooperage in Gevrey-Chambertin) out come these terrific wines at wonderful bargain prices. Add the air fare and wages; their wines are still great bargains.
Flyers are good at their job because they are incredibly painstaking in their labors. Nobody could take more care. They tour vineyards all summer selecting the ripest, tastiest (smallest) grapes from the best (oldest) vines. Grapes are sorted on arrival; 'cherry-picking' or 'picking the eyes out of the crop'. They scrub, clean, clean again and frequently work right round the clock. We help them by keeping production small; the skills these winemakers would normally apply to a 'crush' of many thousand gallons are applied to only two or three truly handmade cuvées . And it doesn't stop there. We have winemakers working for us all year round who follow the maturation and insist on 'Grand Cru' standards all the way to the bottle.
Now, if you're sitting comfortably, I'd like to tell you about La Clarière, the small estate where I make a very small amount of fine claret … I was taught about wine by the old French couple who gave me lodgings in 1965 when I was a student gap-yearing in Bordeaux. Monsieur et Madame Cassin came to be like second parents to me. They helped me start my wine business and I always stayed with them on my monthly van trips to and from Bordeaux.
Then, early one morning in 1980 an agitated Monsieur Cassin called me and said I must buy his vineyard. It seemed the intended heirs to his little Côtes de Castillon vineyard – two nephews in Saint-Emilion – had said they did not want his pride and joy as it was 'not Saint-Emilion'. There has been bitter rivalry between the Côtes de Castillon vineyards and those of its better-known neighbor ever since the two areas were split apart back in the 14th century – when Bordeaux was under English rule and King John (arch-foe of Robin Hood) drew up council boundaries, with no consideration whatever for wine geography.
So anyway, The Castillonais have always maintained that their 'terroir' is identical to that of their proud (and as they see it, arrogant) neighbors. And indeed it is. I had written my Geography Dissertation on the subject, so knew the geology maps well. Monsieur had decided that I was going to prove once and for all the right of Castillon wine to be considered at least on a par with Saint Emilion. Probably better! All I had to do was make a better wine!
"Ah, yes", I said, "But ..." and never got any further. His mind was made up and he had a plan. Barbara and I were to buy the vineyards 'on easy terms' – he knew we had no money – whilst he would rationalize the many disparate tiny vineyards into a newly replanted, viable estate. He was as good as his word – a remarkably determined man was Monsieur. Which is how, winemaking manual in hand, I found myself facing my first vintage in 1984.
It was a disaster. I did make mistakes but they went unnoticed in the worst harvest I've ever known. The weather was appalling. About 2,000 liters were made. 20,000 had been expected! A useful reminder that nothing should ever be taken for granted in winemaking. The next vintage – 1985 – was excellent and copious. 2,000 cases of claret needed to be sold. With luck, every year 2,000 cases of claret!
It's a 'wine apart' is La Clarière. Has La Clarière achieved Monsieur's aim? Is it as good as a Saint-Emilion? Indisputably, yes! Tasting competition after competition has proven the case.
Perhaps the clearest mark of success is the invasion today of the Côtes de Castillon by top Saint-Emilion producers. Stéphane Derenoncourt – probably the most successful winemaker of his generation – has created his own estate Domaine de l'A right next door to us. The owner of the astonishing (read super-expensive!) Château Pavie, Gérard Perse also has vineyards next to ours. There are dozens of such examples. Monsieur was 'content'. It took a great deal of hard work by us all. And, over the year, a fair amount of money. Contrary to popular opinion, great wine does not just make itself. The full Grand Cru treatment ... from vineyard to bottle! There have been many improvements in viticulture (growing) and vinification (winemaking). And I'm proud to say that within our region La Clarière pioneered most of them.
We introduced small-basket hand-harvesting to ensure undamaged grapes, the sorting table to remove any less-than-perfect fruit, pre-fermentation cold-soaking and whole berry fermentation to capture more fruit flavors, new oak casks every year, crop-thinning or green harvesting for greater concentration. We did this in the face of much mockery. Throwing away fruit was seen as plain mad in this corner (and most corners) of Bordeaux.
The neighbors now all have sorting tables and practice crop-thinning. They have all (well, not quite all!) recognized that Monsieur was right when he said success for Castillon would only come through 'Qualité'. Rather than quantity.
Our winemaker trained at Premier Grand Cru Classé Château Haut-Brion ... whose current vintage sells for £400 a bottle!
Monsieur Cassin had the vision - and we've been helped over the years by inspirational winemaking friends around the world, not forgetting my winemaker; local boy (almost an old man now) and Château Haut-Brion-trained Jean-Marc Sauboua, estate manager Claudy Gomme and our farmers Guy and his son Oliver Delage.
In 1999, we finally managed to acquire a neighbouring vineyard – now that Castillon is recognised as on a par with Saint-Emilion, land is a whole lot tougher to come by than when we started this adventure! After much hard work, in 2005 we judged the addition of wine from the new (yet old) vineyards clearly improved our La Clarière ... which obligingly won Gold at the 2007 Concours des Grands Vins de France!
La Clarière is important too when it comes to dealing with other winemakers. We face the same challenges, and have many of the same dreams. Once La Clarière had started up, I was amazed how many doors opened among wineries everywhere. Good news not just for me but for my customers too.
Laithwaites Wine isn’t standing still! We all have busy schedules here, carrying on the search for new wines, and working with our favorite winemakers to keep customers topped up with their favorites.
We’re also breaking new ground with a small winemaking enterprise we’ve set up in Australia’s McLaren Vale. Called the RedHeads winery, the hugely talented team here produce tiny amounts of ultra-special wines (mainly reds) which have already made a name for themselves in the US (including a 95 point rating from Robert Parker).
In Chile we’re working with one of the most remote wineries in the world, on the edge of the bone dry Atacama desert – results to date include a Chilean Wine of the Year award. In Italy we’re continuing a programme of innovation with a winery that wins more medals at the country’s main wine competition than anyone else. And in France we’ve renovated an old river side wine cellar (called Le Chai au Quai) downstream from Bordeaux where we’re trying out new, completely unheard of styles. Watch this space!