Wine has always been a huge part of my life. The son of two restaurateurs and wine merchants themselves, my childhood memories are filled with wine scenes and experiences …. my father, my uncle and their Saab turbo returning from the Beaujolais Nouveau run in nineteen eighty-something.
My early career was working with “flying winemaker” John Worontschak … when flying winemakers were a thing. I then spent 12 years working with Jascots Wine Merchants, before founding The Vintner in 2010.
I follow a long line of Gilbeys into the wine industry so you could say, ‘it’s in my blood’ … Here’s a bit about the generations that went before me, how they shaped the UK wine trade over the years and helped inspire me on my own journey into this wonderful world of wine.
The Gilbey Legacy
In 1856, two young men, discharged at the end of the Crimean War, needed jobs: Walter, aged 26 and Alfred 24 (my great-great-grandfather). Their older brother, Henry Parry Gilbey, was a partner in a wholesale wine merchants firm, Southard, Gilbey & Co., and he advised them to set up as retail wine merchants. Less than a year later they leased some cellars on Oxford Street and began to sell wine.
They concentrated on good, inexpensive wines from the Cape, which could be imported at half duty. The wine was so good and so cheap that Gilbey’s had 20,000 customers within months and just two years later, new premises were opened in Dublin, Edinburgh, and Belfast! Family members were drawn in to run the new branches, so it expanded as a family business right from the start. When duty was reduced on French wines in 1861, Gilbeys immediately started importing cheap Bordeaux wines at the expense of their South African ones. The firm’s expansion was so rapid that they were able to take over the Pantheon in Oxford Street, the site of the present Marks & Spencer’s building. A decade later Gilbeys decided to diversify again and began distilling gin in London in 1872. Cheap and easy to produce, it was an instant success and the beginning of a booming spirits trade for Gilbeys. By 1905, Gilbey’s had bought three whisky distilleries in the Glenlivet district of Strathspey, where they produced nearly 300,000 gallons of proof spirit. At the same time, they held large stocks of Irish whiskey in Dublin and had opened plants in Canada and Australia, as well as buying a further property in London to store their drinks.
By 1914 their empire covered 20 acres in Camden Town alone! In the meantime, the wine arm of the business was taking a different direction as they made the transition from buying from suppliers to buying direct from growers themselves, thus cutting out the middle man. Alfred Gilbey toured French and other Continental vineyards, buying and shipping direct and then bottling in England. As a result of these annual excursions, the family ties became even more complicated as three members of the Gilbey family married into Spanish wine firms whose wines too were soon on the Gilbeys list. In their travels, Alfred Gilbey and James Blyth discovered the sparkling wines of the Lower Loire Valley. These were cheap, not unlike champagne, and became highly popular in Britain. In 1875, Gilbeys bought the 470-acre Château Loudenne, in the Gironde, north of Bordeaux, which produced claret. Here they made their own wine and stored purchases from elsewhere. Thus, at the peak of their success, Gilbeys owned wine shops around the world, distilleries, a Château, warehouses, and more!