I missed the Swinging Sixties in London. I was too busy running the front of house of New Zealand’s pre-eminent restaurant, The Coachman in Wellington. Life was sweet – marvellous customers, superb juicy Porterhouse steak, the finest crayfish in the world….and anyone who has visited Godzone Country will understand my misty-eyed memories of unlimited quantities of whitebait. Not the rubbish smelt that masquerades in Europe – the real stuff the size of a fork prong.
The only problem was the wine. We drank a lot of French, mainly from Beaujolais, Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne, when we could afford it. But, not the local stuff. In these days 90% of domestic production was fortified hooch, and most of the table wine made from hybrid grapes was simply dreadful. When tourists dined and asked about local wines we would say “OK, try it, but don’t get any on your hands! ”And, I have to tell you that the Australian wines were on the whole fairly average. Except for the Yalumba wines- in particular their excellent value Carte D’Or Riesling and Galway Vintage Red. At midnight after everyone had left my wife and I would cook a couple of steaks and enjoys a few glasses of the Galway – rich, robust Shiraz flavours that leaped around all over the place.
Then in 1972 I moved to London and took over the Cork & Bottle. The wine list was rubbish. Those days were before European Community rules had to be obeyed and UK bottled wines, mainly from the brewers, didn’t have to observe the niceties of appellation controlee laws. Tankers of foul North African stuff was brought into Blighty and labelled with the great names. Bogus Beaujolais; Nuits St Georges which owed more to nights in Tunisia; malicious Meursault and Moroccan powered glutinous Cotes du Rhone. Anyway, I chucked all the wines out and only purchased genuine stuff.
It took a while to sort everything out. I opened “Shampers” which allowed me the economies of scale to ship wines direct from suppliers, therefore guaranteeing a certain degree of authenticity. In 1978 I had a brilliant lunch at the long gone Australian Wine Centre in Soho. The director Stuart Faulds showed me just how much the wines had improved since my New Zealand days. It was a revelation. I listed a couple and they sold in modest quantities.
I don’t just think of wine and food. Cricket is involved and that winter England was touring Australia….So off I went. Stayed with my friend Jeanette in Adelaide and visited wineries in the Barossa Valley and Adelaide. Needless to say with a great feel good feeling after a great visit to Grant Burge and a few others (did I mention that we won the Ashes 5-1?) I shipped some wines. What a financial disaster! Central London wasn’t ready for a couple of hundred dozen Australian reds and whites; I was the first independent wine merchant to ship direct so there had been no publicity. I toured around the radio stations talking about my “New Wines from Australia” and the presenters would have the Monty Python sketch about ‘Chateau Chunder’ waiting on the turntables.
But things changed a few years’ later. I wrote my first book “Enjoying Wine” in 1985 and dedicated a considerable chapter to Australia. Yalumba featured. Rob Hill Smith was one of the first to realise the possibilities of the British market and I was able to buy his wines in only the quantities I needed for current sales…….And it was all a spectacular success for the Cork & Bottle.
Nowadays we have seven Yalumba wines on the list, and the “Y” Shiraz (only £26.50) is – yes I know you worked it out, the same blend as the old “Galway Vintage”.
Isn’t life grand?