So I entered the ancient and glorious wine trade. June '65. I started work at Monsieur's Cave Cooperative which took in the grapes of its members in the villages of Lussac and Puisseguin on the limestone hills – the 'Roc' – to the north east of the well known wine village of Saint Emilion. A beautiful but less well known – back then – wine region next door to the even less well-known Côtes de Castillon where I lived.
What is a wine cooperative exactly? Caves Co-operatives are big, communal cellars set up around France and then many other wine regions of the world in the '20's and '30's during the Great Depression to help winegrowers survive. It takes a lot of money and skill to make your own wine, then completely different talents to sell it. Most small farmers lacked these more sophisticated skills and certainly had no money … and reckoned they couldn't survive alone. Together, many thought, they stood a better chance.
The individual wines from dozens or even hundreds of growers and many different vineyards were then made centrally at less cost. They weren't always necessarily made better. There are good co-ops, middling and bad co-ops. But there are some great ones. The crucial need I have noticed over the years, is for them to elect a clever, dynamic and slightly scary President to keep what is always a fairly stroppy crowd of independent-minded grower-owners from descending into open warfare. French winegrowers can and do co-operate when it is necessary but are not a naturally cooperative breed. They are a very competitive breed.
So there I was in this vast structure; a typical co-op, which Monsieur objected to me calling ugly. I can see his point, now. Because I have worked with so many co-operatives over the years and found so many great wines, made so many friends, that to me, they are now really rather beautiful; or perhaps 'Jolie laide' as the French say. I love them.
They are usually built of reinforced concrete, brutalist style. I will admit that in our catalogues we rarely print photos of co-operatives. Sorry, Monsieur but we don't think the look helps sales. We focus on the wine instead. Inside they resemble old fashioned prisons such as the one in 'Porridge'. The prison cells though, are 'cuves' and contain wine, not blokes in for GBH.
So the doors are small. A person can get through these doors … if they are small and prepared to enter head-first and horizontally. More usually they get in through a trap in the top. They go in – someone has to – to shovel out the sediment which drops out of a wine as it ferments and then ages. My 'minder' at the co-op, Serge, a small, wiry, very kind man did this job and it was the work I immediately wanted to do. You know how pleasant it is to inhale the aromas in a big glass of wine? Well then imagine climbing into a damp, dripping prison cell only just vacated by lovely wine with about a foot of pungent red sediment in the bottom. The aromas are quite literally mind-blowing. Very happy work! If you can get it. Alas, I was stuck on the bottling line instead, and became a robot.
I stood beside the small bottling line, on to which I placed the cleaned, empty bottles. That is all I did hour after hour after hour, day after day … with monsieur Ferrere, Marcel, Monsieur Poli, and two small, dark, young, very pretty sisters who, alas, found me – incapable of stringing two French words together – utterly hilarious and unbelievably stupid. The banter around me was continuous – and witty, I think. I just couldn't understand it … at first. But by God, I wanted to. The little sisters succeeded where old 'Froggie' Croker had failed with me at school; they made me desperate to learn French.
But then there was at least the wine! There were a hundred taps in my immediate vicinity and only a few – those painted red! – dispensed water.
The machine broke fairly frequently, thank God. It was a primitive machine. However, if it didn't break, Marcel knew ways to make it break because Marcel regularly needed one of the ghastly brown cigarettes he rolled. And a drink. They would all have a drink. Except the girls. France doesn't do tea breaks. But a chap needs a reviver. And something to make the monotony bearable. So I went off too, and started my career as a wine taster.
In time, I began to be more discriminating and stopped drinking straight from the tap and used a glass. This was the grimy wine glass Marcel kept hidden in the tool cupboard. It had lost its foot and the broken stem was embedded in a wooden barrel bung. We all used it.
Interestingly, it seemed the others didn't just go to the nearest tap. They would run the serious risk of being apprehended by Monsieur Lafaye just to get to one particular tap.
This, I suppose helped me understand something that has been invaluable to me ever since; tanks may all look the same, barrels may all look the same … but they're not. Not at all.
Wine doesn't come out of a machine. It comes out of the earth and every little patch of earth is a unique mix of soils and rock. These days the vines planted in that earth can be cloned, but so far no-one has managed to clone a grape grower so growers all work in different ways … on different days. And every day is different to the next. Result is, every vine – even cloned vines – produces a slightly different wine to its neighbour. OK, to us the difference is not readily discernible at that stage but by the time the wine is in barrels or tanks, believe me, the differences are discernible. However, to make Big Retail's commercial quantities of wine many different wines must be blended together. The bigger the volume needed the more wines must be blended; the delicious with – inevitably – the less delicious.
So … a tip for any would be wine buyers: don't ever buy big blends. Cherry-pick that extra-special tank or barrel.
When I did launch my wine-selling business four years later I started with a wine from Monsieur's dear Co-operative. Did I launch with their standard blend? No way! I checked with Marcel at which tank the lads were currently helping themselves. "Never buy what you're offered; taste the whole cellar first … then choose"; Laithwaites modus operandi ever since. Not an original thought; a very old tradition. One I had been taught in a way that even I couldn't forget.
The co-op did its own, well-known blend sold throughout France. But also, independent wine merchants would come and taste their way through the cellar, trying tank after tank till they found what they wanted. One particular day I was sweeping the cellar floor when it began to rain … wine! Two storeys above me on the upper catwalks, Bernard the deputy Director and several merchants were sipping, gurgling tasting and spitting over the catwalk railings … on me! I found this quite motivational. It would, I thought, be much better to be up there spitting down, than down here being spat upon.
So when I started Bordeaux Direct with just one wine – the wine of the co-operative – I didn't just take what was on offer, I got the one tank I wanted. I knew it was the best tank. Marcel and everyone working in the cellar knew it was the best tank … because of the secret glass. It had been bottled apart from the rest. I discovered the pile of bottles and said I wanted only those bottles. Monsieur indulged me. Then I went mad and drew and printed my own label. I don’t know why I did this. It was a terrible label. My drawing was a bit rough, and I then went and splodged wine all over it. I got this effect by spitting wine from the catwalks onto a sheet of paper below. Guess where I got that idea. Eventually I came to the conclusion my splodgy red label must have put people off. But thank God it didn't put them off too much. They liked the wine.
I adored that summer of '65 for that life of wine, vineyards and cellars governed by the seasons and the cycles of the moon. And also the long brown legs of the girl who rattled her milk-pail past my window every evening. Living? I was in a novel, a historical novel, and I never wanted to leave.
I made hay (really!); all pitchforks and rakes, with the old French ladies telling me undreamt of facts of life! The boys and girls took me to the summer's 'Bals' at weekend; every village and hamlet had at least one 'Bal' a year. Orchestre, dancing, feasting, flirting, fumbling, boules and bike races.
My 'Stagiere'-work did expand to cleaning tanks, sweeping floors, filling bottles, stacking bottles, labeling, packing, dispatching. Working outdoors too, in vineyards at weekends was mostly spraying copper sulphate and being stained blue in the process. Nothing skilled, here either really, but at least I was in the wine trade!
After three months in Bordeaux, just as I was getting a grasp on the language, I caught the train home (with a cumbersome number of cases of Monsieur's wine for my Dad and his chums) to start three years of University. At lovely Durham.
Over which period, I will gloss. Apart from mentioning that while there I started a sort of business – my first – doing the decorations, the 'sets', for all the many balls and dances with which Durham entertained itself in the days before such things as night clubs arrived.
The Who are playing Glastonbury tonight … I have to stop writing this to see that. I last saw them in Durham's Dunelm House, performing under my pink flamingo set! Or was that Manfred Mann? Memories are vague. But they all came to Durham … all the great bands. Even Chuck Berry. Great years.
Despite this, wine was still my main thing. My geography dissertation (geography was what I was supposed to be doing) on 'The Wines of St Emilion and Surrounding Areas' allowed me a great summer – '67 – of visits around Bordeaux. I got to interview wine farmers of all sorts from the slightly dodgy up to the likes of Troplong Mondot and the young Christian Moueix and Jean-Claude Berrouet, the men behind a little chateau called Pétrus).
At Durham also, I did meet a very fanciable girl. Great legs, mini skirt. (That was how we talked back then). She didn't much like my ways and defended her honour painfully and effectively. We did not become 'an item' 'til years later. Then we married. She was Scottish! And I always meant to marry a French girl!
Barbara and I both left Durham with the lowest degrees possible. Me, because I was thick. She, because she was really dangerous in a laboratory! She still got a great job. But I didn't; not any kind of job. So, in the violent summer of '68, I went back to France, Bordeaux, Monsieur and Madame Cassin, Sainte Colombe, the Co-operative.
I still liked the work … but felt it was not perhaps a fast track, career-wise.
Monsieur kindly gave me Mondays off to do a day-release wine course at Bordeaux University run by the wonderful and legendary Professor Emile Peynaud; the man who did more than anyone to kick Bordeaux out of decades of doldrums into the splendiferous golden age in which its top châteaux have resided ever since. I used to taste wine under the Prof. all morning then go off to join in the student riots in the afternoon. 1969 was not as riotous as 1968 but rioting ('le Manif!') was still the fashion. I had zero political views but was still trying to get off with French girls.
Most important thing the Prof taught us was not to trust our pathetic human palates. I think that's what he said anyway. He played practical jokes to teach us humility (many classmates were heirs to Grand Châteaux and not overloaded with modesty). Like he would give us two wines to taste one after the other, and ask us to tell the class how they compared. He let us all hang ourselves before revealing they were both from the same bottle. I've not totally trusted my palate ever since. Ever since, I've never believed in people with 'wonder palates'. I'm probably wrong in that. But it hasn't harmed my business. Has it actually helped my business? Certainly the 'two' wine test has come in useful more than once with over-confident new staff.
It was a nice year in-and-around Castillon; '68-'69. I left the co-op and spent a summer working for a small merchant in Castillon who had a cellar by the river. It was referred to as 'le chai au quai' to differentiate it from their other cellar 'à la gare', by the railway station. Monsieur Appelghem employed me to bottle a barrel of wine per day. Manually. The old way. Crouched on the floor, filling the 300 bottles from a tap. Corking by hand, capsuling, and labelling all by hand. Very satisfying work. Local wines mostly. But also a wine from Algeria called Mascara, very popular then, in the bars of Castillon. It was 15%, rich and stained your teeth. I liked it too.
But something had to be done, I supposed. Yes, but job interviews in Bordeaux were as unsuccessful as they had been back home. So what the......??