Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Barbara

Today, July 26th,  is our Ruby Wedding Anniversary and I am writing this while waiting to get on the overnight ferry to France. So? So Barbara and I find that relatively romantic, being as our wedding night was spent on the overnight sleeper from Perth to London along with a carriage full of French winegrowers who had been at the wedding whisky all day. And the ferry - read last week's episode - has long been central to our lives as people who live partly in England partly in France.

It was in 1971 the girl from Durham came back into my life. For some reason, we got on much better this time. Barbara had an amazing job compiling the TV audience viewing figures for publication but was disenchanted. She'd slave away to tally all the figures exactly, then her boss would tell her to do them again to show what the clients wanted to see. It seems  statistics can be made to show whatever you want. 

She'd come out to see me in Windsor and soon started telling me I was doing lots wrong. So, of course I said well if you're so clever, you come and do it, and would you believe it, she did. Everyone except her Dad said she was mad but she resigned her job and joined me....in my splendid new premises.

Railway Arch 36, Goswell Road, Windsor, is overlooked by the great walls of the Castle and hidden beneath the great viaduct Isambard Kingdom Brunel built to carry a spur of the Great Western Railway for  Queen Victoria. Probably, Isambard didn't imagine the viaduct would also provide very convenient homes for all manner of small enterprises. (There were no custom-built starter premises available).  There were woodworking shops, several engineering works, bodybuilders of the truck variety, garages and much else.

I got 1000 square feet that had been used by a coal man. Bit of a clean, bit of brickwork to make it secure and... luxury, bloody luxury. 

Events had led me there. I had, early on, the strong feeling that I was not directing Bordeaux Direct; my business, but that it was directing me...a feeling that has stayed with me ever since. Things would happen that would firmly indicate a direction. If you are fundamentally lazy, following is easier than fighting.  So ... Let it Be, as they sang. It works, mostly. Doing a tasting in someone's home would lead to orders and invitations to visit other homes. ... and more.

Then one nice chap wanted masses of three-bottle gift packs to give to his customers. That was my biggest ever order, and despite half the packs getting smashed in the post because I didn't know you had to use postal packs it was obvious I had to stick with the idea ... just with more robust cartons. I visited every business for miles around, and lined up so many orders for Christmas I couldnt possibly ship them all in the van. So I booked an 'artic', a 40 foot articulated truck ... about four times bigger than my cellar.  Which I realised was a problem. 

My friend Mervyn had the use of a big shed up near Bray studios which I could use, he said. Fine except the artic, reversing in, demolished half the gateway. So we had to unload in the lay-by next to Windsor racecourse and ferry the boxes to the shed in the van. . The Constabulary were there in minutes. 'Ello 'ello 'ello. What's goin' on 'ere then? Situation soon sorted ... I was well known to the local coppers. I'd been at school with them.

But … it was a big jump in volumes. Exciting stuff, but all that wine in a shed in a field ... Risky ... no alarm or anything.  I had to sleep with the wine, until I could deliver it. Barbara shared the caravan Merv had found me. She helped guard the stuff.

January, we moved the remaining wine and the caravan to the railway arch; perfect for wine storage but not so good for people. The caravan was set up as our office. Barbara arrived for her first morning's work me having left for Bordeaux to find the caravan gone and our papers scattered everywhere. It seemed Mervyn hadnt got around to telling the caravan's owner about its new role. Barbara just camped in the cellar till I got back. It was January. She wasn't overly happy. I returned from France and found a solution. A few arches along an engineering unit had just imported a big new machine in a big wooden crate, about 8ft by 8ft by 8ft. I begged it off them , cut a door and made a desk inside. Voilà; office! Again, Barbara wasnt totally delighted at my ingenuity,  but needs must. I built a better shed later .. .two storeys ... Windows ... heating even! The things you could get away with so much in those pre- Health 'n Safety days!



Not everything though; I painted lovely big signs saying WINE WAREHOUSE, nailed them to Mr Brunels viaduct and then left for Bordeaux. Next day the Windsor and Eton Planning Officer came around, spitting mad, to shut us down for such a flouting of planning law. I was unaware of planning law. I was unaware of a lot. Luckily his assistant had been a mate of mine at school and calmed it all down. I removed the signs when I got back.  Surprising how often disasters happened to Barbara whenever I went off to Bordeaux. Surprising how she's remained with me all these years. 

With the big increase in sales volumes, there was then a cash flow problem. The bank preferred not to give us an overdraft. The growers were already giving us three months credit. Grandmother's money had run out. What to do? 

Maybe ask the customers? There wasn't anybody else to ask. We wrote and asked them to buy what we called 'loan stock'. Lending us £100 got them 20% off £100 of wine per year. Worked a treat.  Sort of like a very early version of crowd-funding. Got us out of difficulties. We have always been very grateful to those early customers who trusted this raw and inexperienced young couple under a railway arch. Not sure I would've. But we did eventually, when the Bank got friendlier, give them their money back. 

My worried father had often urged me to get  a job in wine to learn the business before starting on my own. But I knew I couldn't do that. My time with French growers left me with a lack of respect for established British traders. Right or wrong. I had it.

And also this huge overriding sense of urgency had enveloped and taken over the sleepy Nod Laithwaite.  I had - would you believe it - been a bit of a sprinter in my youth.  The mad fury that sprinters put into just 10 seconds of activity now seemed to become the way I lived...for some years!

My dad still worried that I didn't actually know what I was doing. So he asked the bank that looked after the affairs of the company  he worked for (British Aluminium) if they had someone who could keep an eye on me.

They could have sent someone who might have tried to draw us into the great maw of The City instead they sent Bill Symonds. A laconic and witty Wykemist, Bill took one look at us and said Ye Gods, we should never ever go near The City, because the City would eat us alive. He thought the customer Loan Stock was the way to go.  We only saw Bill once a year ... at year end. But he was invaluable.  We have always needed wise old mentors. Today we are actually older than our current mentor. But we still need the wisdom of a clever outsider who knows the world better than we do.

And we are still always very much against the clock.

There was one very early experience which also decided not the route but the tone we were to take. A great mate from Durham had somehow landed a teaching job at Eton College. 'Durham Dave' and I would often meet up for a beer. One one occasion he invited me for dinner with other teachers at Baldwin's Shore. One of these teachers 'knew about wine', (a phrase I always dread hearing) and decided to put me through it. The questions, endless questions, the 'I know more than you' competitiveness. I hadn't realised that a wine snob is not necessarily someone who only drinks expensive wine but is more often someone who wants to demonstrate his wine superiority.  I forget his name - but remember it was double-barrelled. He was clearly the wine expert of the house and was determined to defend his territory. I hadn't encountered any of this in France. Not with Monsieur, or Serge or any of the lads at the co-op. They knew wine but didn't feel they had to prove it. After that evening I considered giving up ... if it wine was going to be riddled with such snobbery. But then almost everyone else I met wasn't like that. So panic over.  But I decided I would never resort to snobbery to sell wine. I would reach down into my Lancastrian roots and be as down-to-earth plain spoken about wine as it was possible. I must have succeeded; Hugh Johnson, to this day, will persist in calling me 'lad', and Jancis once wrote something about me being the wine merchant happier in wellies than pinstripe suit. And she was right.

I began to write wine lists - freehand at first, and often, being a geographer, in map form and send them to customers, to draw them to our Arch. So there were fewer at home tastings, and I could do big groups at the Arch. The Arch was just boxes of wine. Some served as a table for tastings. You could sit on others. My first decorative idea; the flaming torches, was not a success. Mervyn had got some of the wall braziers that Bray studios had used in their horror films. All the Hammer Horror films...Christopher Lee etc, were made at Bray. The fires made my great vault look really mediaeval .... but the dry cleaning bills for the customers coats were excessive. 

But still they came. Coach parties even. Rotarians, Round Tablers, social clubs, the police, amateur wine makers, the WI, they all came. And many stayed as customers. I had celebrities. Michael Parkinson himself was a regular. And The Castle, from the start, provided me with Deans and Canons and Military Knights who were keen supporters. I used to love doing deliveries to The Castle. It impressed the tourists! 

I had competition, of course. Supermarkets had barely begun and didn't sell wine, but every High Street had its 'Offies'. The independents had been supplanted by the chains like Victoria Wine, Peter Dominic and others. But what they sold was mostly UK bottled and tasted different to what I sold. They also gave out less information about their wines than I did. And that proved crucial ... the key. People who get quite interested in wine - more than just drinking it - would really rather buy it directly from whoever grew the grapes and made the wine. They made this clear to me. I was happy to try to give them a buying experience as close to that as I could possibly manage.  Doing that and being very careful not to sound wine snobbish is I think what draws customers to us. To this day.