History

Witten by Christopher  Fielden

For those with memory problems, simple aids are needed when you have to date events in the past. As far as the West of England long-haul trips are concerned, perhaps the best aid is the assortment of clothing accessories that were created to accompany them. As far as the first of these trips is concerned it is the least gaudy of all, a plain navy-blue tie, with printed on it the outline of our supposed sphere of influence and the simple message “Australia 1988”.Aussie Wine.flag

Looking back, it is difficult to realise just how ground-breaking this trip was, not just for the Association, but also for the British wine-trade as a whole. Recently, there has been a programme on the television about the miraculous arrival of Australian wines on the British market. This highlighted the importance of a trip paid down under by The Institute of Masters of Wine, but our trip pre-dated that. Indeed it was the first long-haul voyage of discovery made by any group of the trade.

It is difficult to know to whom credit must go for inspiring this trip, but much must be to our two recently departed giants, Bill Baker, who was the agent for Taltarni and John Avery for Tyrrell’s. It certainly would not have taken plus but for the arrival at the Australian Trade Office of a dynamic new sales manager, Hazel Murphy. It was she who largely put the programme together and based on it a future series of “wine-flights” for the broader trade.

Before we left, the Committee decided that, as the trip was undoubtedly educational, some of the profits that had accrued over the years from our educational programme, could be ploughed back in the form of a subsidy. This proved to be a decision with some foresight, as in the event we had to plough back rather more than we intended.

Our group took on an international flavour when Robin Yapp brought with him one of his suppliers, Paul Filliatreau, from Saumur-Champigny. This was to set a good precedent, for our future trips were to include growers from other parts of Europe.

For me, the most amusing memory of the trip took place whilst we were not even in Australia. Our flights were with QANTAS, via Bangkok. As soon as we boarded at Heathrow, our resident charmer, John Moran, had established that it was the birthday of the stewardess. Quick as a flash, he produced for her a bottle of Lanson Black Label, which he had purchased in duty-free. We drank Business Class wines all the way to Melbourne; the message having been passed on at the crew changeover in Bangkok.

That was not the whole story. As soon as we got on the plane at Sydney for our return flight, John buttonholed one of the stewardesses. “I was in Melbourne yesterday”, he said “and I told a friend how we had drunk Business Class wines all the way coming out here. He bet me fifty Australian dollars that I could not mange the same on the way back.” “I positively dislike people from Melbourne,” she replied, “and I will do anything to see that you wine your bet.” All the way back to London we drank Business Class wines. Indeed we finished them and the real Business Class passengers were reduced to drinking what was on offer in Tourist Class!

We were given little time to acclimatise on our arrival, as we were whisked off to St. Kilda for supper and a tasting of wines from a number of wineries that we were not scheduled to visit.

Our travel agent for this and a number of subsequent long-haul trips was Edwin Doran Sports Travel, a contact through the rugby-playing days of our Treasurer, Bernard Ryan. (On the profits that he has made out of us over the years, Mr. Doran has managed to sell his company to Tui Travel, and now owns Doran Family Vineyards in South Africa!) Their one blip on this trip came to light at breakfast on the following morning. They had not told the hotel that breakfasts were included. This put some short-term pressure on my credit card!

On our first full day we visited Mitchelton and Tahbilk and finished up at Brown Bros. at Milawa, where we has a most instructive visit to their vine nursery before a supper, where I, for one, nodded off. On the following day we went to Rutherglen and spent a wonderful morning tasting dessert wines with Mick Morris. His cellars impressed with their rusticity; beaten-earth floors and wines ageing in anything from casks to concrete sewage drain-pipes!

Other memories of Victoria include an unsuccessful search for a virtual winery at Echuca on the banks of the Murray River and a visit to the Yarra Valley where one winery employed a young man to drive round on a motorbike and act as a bird-scarer.

We then moved on to New South Wales and the Hunter Valley where we visited, amongst others, Rosemount, where we were impressed by their adaptability; being able to change Cabernet Sauvignon vines to Chardonnay ( and vice-versa), in response to demand, by means of head-grafting. We also met the redoubtable Bruce Tyrrell and the even more redoubtable Len Evans.

The trip finished in Sydney, but we were permitted a weekend’s r&r as it happened to be Easter. For some reason a group of us decided to go up to Newcastle. Why we chose a coaling port, I have no idea. Richard Flook rented a car on a false driving-licence and we went. Our last day involved a return in torrential rain and a very liquid late lunch in Woomoomaloo. The pattern for future trips was established!

 

Long Haul To California

Our second long-haul trip was in October 1990 to California. At the time there was much interest in the trade in the wines of northern California, largely inspired by Harry Waugh, who founded the Zinfandel Club, which gave regular tastings of wines from the better producers in the region. The West of England Association also had two pioneer importers of their wines in Avery’s and Reid Wines.

The party was a strong one, including for the first time many who were to become regulars on our travels. Amongst these were Susan Anderson (to become McCraith), Ron Brierley, Geoff Collins, John Durston, Rosalind Garner, Desmond Payne, Raj Soni and the Reynolds. We were all issued the John Moran designed tie, which featured a grizzly bear passant.

From our arrival at San Francisco airport we were taken to Monterey, where our hotel overlooked the Pacific Ocean and we were wakened by the barking of sea-lions. Our first working day was spent South of the Bay, visiting Chalone, Smith & Hook, who at the time were experiencing financial problems, and Jekel, where we had dinner.map of california

 

 

 

 

For me, perhaps the second day was the most interesting as we were to be the first trade group to visit the Gallo facility in Modesto. We all had to sign up to the Official Secrets Act and no journalists were permitted in the party. To say the premises, of the, then, largest wine company in the world were discreet, would be an understatement.  It was only after fifteen minutes driving around that we spotted someone sweeping leaves wearing company overalls, that we realised that we had arrived. We were welcomed by a person with the title ‘Vice-President Corporate Hospitality’, but he was the first to admit that this was something of a misnomer, as the last thing that the company went in for was corporate hospitality.

We were able to drive round the plant and able to admire the warehouse as big as 14 football pitches and one blending vat that could hold the total production of 60% of the wineries of California. (These statistics may not be precise, but they were impressive, as was the plant for bottle production. For once, a bottling-line proved to be the highlight of the visit. This, the fastest wine-bottling line in the world, jammed before our eyes and there was broken glass and wine everywhere. It was rumoured that the manger was taken out and summarily shot! As there was nowhere on the site where group tastings could be held, we were taken to a local hotel, where we sampled some of their range and had lunch.

After that day in the Central Valley, we moved to the Napa Valley, where we spent a crowded first day visiting Beaulieu Vineyard, Trefethen, Shafer, Stag’s Leap, with a dinner to round it off with Bernard Portet at Clos du Val, for whom Reid Wines were the agents.

On day four we stayed in the Napa Valley, where we visited Joe Heitz, followed by an impressive lunch at Mondavi’s (where one of our members Plymouth restaurateur Steve Barratt sought employment as a commis chef. In the afternoon, we continued up the valley to Joseph Phelps, Schramsberg for their marvellous sparkling wines dinner with Clark Swanson, who had recently purchased Avery’s, at his winery in Oakville.

We were again in Napa the following day at Rutherford Hill, followed by lunch with Chuck Carpy at Freemark Abbey. Following a Sunday’s relaxation, we went over the hill to the Sonoma Valley for lunch, Chardonnay and croquet at Sonoma Cutrer, with visits also to Simi and Château Saint Jean. Lunch on the Tuesday was at the Allied Domecq winery Clos du Bois, followed by a visit to Iron Horse and on Wednesday, our final working day we visited Domaine Chandon and finished up with the historic motor museum and a marvellous ‘harvest luncheon’ at Far Niente.

Our thanks were due to John Avery and Bill Baker for arranging such an intensive, and exhausting programme.

 

South Africa

The end of March 1993 saw a party of seventeen of us pay our first visit to the vine yards of South Africa. The party included some ‘foreigners’ including Nicholas Wright, the wine director of Berry Bros. & Rudd and Andrew Darwin, a wine merchant from the Welsh Borders and married to an opera singer. Also in the group, for the first time, was stalwart Norman Gover, from The Little Tipple in Long Ashton.

South AfricaThe programme was arranged by John Mostyn, whose wife, Margaret, came from South Africa. This came to cause some friction as we travelled in two minibuses and John, on one occasion, sought to highjack one of them to pursue his own agenda. Unfortunately, also, for the majority of the trip, we were based in a somewhat basic hotel, some miles out of Stellenbosch, without transport in our free time.

What was interesting about the timing of the visit was that the historical dominance of the KWV, and the total control that it had over the marketing of South African wines, were beginning to come under threat, and after the ending of apartheid, individual estates were beginning to make themselves known. However, nearly all our visits were to large producers.

The programme started with a fine introduction, on a Sunday evening, to the wines and vineyards of South Africa at Vaughn Johnson’s wine shop on the Waterfront in Cape Town. On the Monday we visited Constantia, with lunch at Klein Constantia, followed by a visit to the Rustenburg Estate.Klein

On Tuesday we went to Nederburg, Stellenbosch Farmers Winery for lunch, Over gaauw and the Oude Moulen Brandy Museum. Wednesday saw us at Meerlust, Bergkelder Mountain Cellars, L’Ormarins for lunch and Bellingham Estate. On Thursday we spent the morning and lunch at the KWV and the afternoon with the wines and cheeses of Charles Back at Fairview. On Friday we visited Franschhoek, Boschendal and Simonsvlei.

The Saturday was perhaps the highlight of our trip, as we were guests at the Nederburg Auction. This is one of outstanding social events in the cape calendar, with fashion shows and music to back up the auction itself. We decided that we would like to make a bid for some of the South African vintage ‘port’ that was on offer, to provide some thing different for our annual luncheon. Though we were equipped with a bidder’s paddle, it remained motionless as it became apparent that the wines were to be sold far in excess of our potential budget!

cape south africaMonday was more gentle day at Simonsig, Neethlinghof and Zevenwacht. Tuesday was a local holiday and this was spent on the top of Paarl Mountain  at the Argus Nouveau Wine Festival. Our final working day saw us being royally entertained by Anthony Hamilton-Russell in the Hemel en Aarde Valley.

 

 

 

 

South American 1997

As we look at the possibility of a visit to Brazil and Uruguay next autumn, it is perhaps the moment to look back to our South American trip in 1997. This broke new ground in a number of directions. In just over two weeks, we visited four different countries; we had party of forty people, the largest we have ever assembled, and we, at one stage, even chartered our own plane.

Perhaps it had been an act of inspired foresight that we invited the Uruguayan ambassador to our annual luncheon just two weeks before we were to take off, as we had to call upon his aid to solve a problem that came up just ten days before we were due to leave. Part of our programme in Uruguay, the first country we were to visit, involved our chartering a Fokker Friendship from their airforce to fly us to Rivera in the north of the country. This broke down and they could offer us no alternative. With the help of the ambassador, we borrowed the Presidential Hercules, which had just returned from a flight to Antarctica.

Our second problem was more of a political one and involved Argentine pride. Amongst the wineries we had asked to visit was Weinert, which was represented in Britain by one of our members. Apparently, they were not members of the Argentine Vineyards Association, who were arranging our programme. It was only six days before we were due to leave that we were told that this posed problems…

Because of the size of the party, many were new to us, including a group from the Manchester Guild of Sommeliers. We flew out to Montevideo via Buenos Aires, where we had to change planes. It was only when we were on the bus on the way from the airport to our hotel in Montevideo, that we took a head-count and realised that we were one short. We drove back to the airport, where a check with the immigration officials confirmed that this Mancunian had not arrived in the country. He had been seen at Heathrow. Where was he? In the event it turned out that ha had taken a wrong turning in Ezeiza airport at BA and had missed the plane. He did turn up later the same day.

I think the highlight of our brief stay in Uruguay was the flight in the Hercules. Whilst we had chartered the plane, we were joined by a assortment of locals who wanted a day out. There was free access to the flight-deck and I do not think I have ever been on a more informal flight. At Rivera, we visited the newly-constructed winery of the Carrau family in Cerro Chapeu and then went across the border into Brazil to visit the enormous Almaden winery. This was something of a disappointment. Firstly, because it was a Sunday, there was nobody working and whilst they had an extensive tank farm, the only wines we could taste had been bottle in Sao Paulo a thousand kilometres away and were oxidised.

From Uruguay, we flew via the other airport in Buenos Aires to San Rafael in the province of Mendoza in Argentina. Here there seemed to be some confusion as to where we were staying. In the end, some stayed at a local winery whilst others were found rooms in the local hotel. In Argentina, as in Uruguay, the hospitality, largely in the form of barbecues was outstanding, but somewhat of a disappointment for the vegetarians in the party!

The short flight from Mendoza, to Santiago in Chile, over the Andes, was memorable. We spent the weekend in Chile taking some well-deserved r&r at the resort of  Viña del Mar, where Desmond Payne showed off his skills as a mixologist in the bar of the most fashionable hotel. (He was the leader of a sub-group within the party who called themselves the empanadas and always seemed to find the best bars and restaurants.)

It had been decide that to vary the journey, we should take the train south to Talca and return to Santiago by bus. The train consisted of two carriages, of which we were allocated the front one. The hotel had provided us with a pic-nic for the journey and this was augmented by numerous bottles of wine and an on board refreshment trolley. Once again we had access to the flight-deck, where we were bemused to see that the speedometer did not work. This may have been one of the causes of a certain flexibility in the time-table! John Durston fulfilled a childhood dream by becoming a ticket-inspector for the day. The return drive was much less exciting, though our driver has some problems at a weighbridge, where we were found to be overweight.

On the final evening of the trip, we gave a reception for our hosts at the prestigious Prince of Wales Club. Amongst our other guests was the British ambassador. A fittin finale to a challenging, and enjoyable, tour under the leadership of the ever-urbane John Harvey.