Going beyond France was when we seriously started selling wine. These longer-distance travels did result in much bigger sales.
To Spain, first, because it’s just down the road from Bordeaux. Real success with Rioja and a very inexpensive Jumilla wine called 'Monte Alegré' which became our 'house' red. A full container (800 cases) sailed every week from Bilbao. I think that was the first truly 'everyday' wine on the market that was bottled abroad.
Then - for odd reasons - came Bulgaria.
An old Hatfield College friend called to say he was going to Bulgaria to buy tractors, did I want to come? Pat was very bright; a natural trader (he is now Lord Pat)! We flew Air Bulgaria in a converted bomber which still had its Perspex gun-blisters. The stewardess came round with an iron kettle and tea bags.
Sofia was mostly uniformed soldiers. Alarming. Felt I was watched everywhere.
I sat outside a small office at 5 Lavele St. for two days until granted audience with the man who controlled ALL Bulgarian wine sales: the boss of the State Monopoly, Vinimpex.
I did not seem to impress him.
But his bright young assistant, a Mr Todorov was more encouraging and spoke English. These were the days of barter deals with the Communists, what with them having no real currency. Comrade Todorov told me to meet up with a guy from a famous Cola. Seems his Company had just put in a plant and got paid in wine which they didn't know what to do with. It was very good stuff: Cabernet Sauvignon, rich, dark, soft and better than anything else at the price I'd ever tried. There were more jokes in the Press but 'Balkan Vine Bulgarian Cab' took over from the old 'Monty Alegry'.
We started to ship shedloads. Well, shiploads. For a year or so we could've changed our name from Bordeaux ... to Bulgaria Direct. In fact the Bulgarians really wanted us to.
We got to know the Bulgarians very well. Big deputations would come to our office. The man they always seemed to defer to was the driver. Big chap, bulging arms. When that poor dissident guy Markov got bumped off with the poison tip umbrella, I was pretty sure I knew who done it. Still, we resisted the offer to go 100% Bulgarian.
However I led a customer tour round Bulgaria for the Sunday Times Wine Club. We did meet the Archbishop, and other notables but it was, without doubt, the most alcoholic week of our lives. Not just the volumes of wine, or the endless proposing of toasts to fraternal brothers in wine. The killer was that sweet plum brandy they constantly served up, piping hot. This was what kept the entire country in a subdued state, is my belief. Worked on me!