30 Years Hard Labour

Tuesday, 30 September 2014 by Stephen Browett

This month marks my 30th anniversary at Farr Vintners as I joined the company in September 1984.

I had wandered into the world of wine, aged 20, in the Autumn of 1980 when I returned from a year living in France and saw a hand-written sign in a shop window "part-time van driver wanted". I was a student at Ealing College at the time and my attendance at lectures was soon fitted in between deliveries of fine wine to smart addresses in Knightsbridge and Chelsea. By night I worked as an usher in the Young Vic theatre.

I made regular wine deliveries to Barry Phillips at "The White Horse Inn at Chilgrove" which had probably the greatest restaurant wine list in the world at that time. Barry encouraged me enormously to go into the wine trade full-time and has been a mentor to me all my career. I'll bet that nobody else in the world has ever tipped a van driver with a glass of Lafite 1959. Barry had all the great wines of the world at The White Horse. Here are a few examples from his restaurant's wine list in 1980:

  • Montrachet Laguiche 1969 - £19.50
  • Haut Brion Blanc 1970 - £10.95
  • Palmer 1961 - £35.00
  • La Tache 1964 (magnum) £38.50
  • Romanée Conti 1969 (magnum) £62.50
  • Yquem 1921 £75.00
  • Quinta do Noval 1931 £32.00

Barry remains a great friend and has accompanied the Farr Vintners team on numerous en primeur tasting trips to Bordeaux, and has even become a supporter of Crystal Palace FC.

Barry Phillips

Once I had completed my studies with an undistinguished degree, I followed Barry's advice and took the van driving job full-time. I spent my days delivering to customers in Central London and collecting stock from warehouses in East and South London, all of which are now long gone - St Olaf Bonding Co. in Bermondsey, Porter and Laker in Kennington and the last remaining bonded stores by the river in Docklands (in the days when the East End was more Long Good Friday than Shoreditch House trendy). Collections were sometimes made further afield and I remember driving up to Liverpool to fill the van with 20 cases of Mouton Rothschild 1968 from Higson's brewery and visits to damp cellars in the Home Counties to box up Vintage Ports from the early years of the 20th Century. It wasn't unusual to have a van-load of wine then that today would be priceless.

My employer between 1980 and 1984 was "La Reserve" which had 2 shops - one in Walton Street, near Harrods and the other in Kendal Street near Marble Arch. La Reserve was owned by Remington Norman MW and very much specialised in French wines - especially Bordeaux. In those days you could walk into the shops and buy a famous name claret (albeit from an off vintage) for not much more than a fiver - Ducru Beaucaillou 1968, Grand Puy Lacoste 1969 and Lynch Bages 1972 were regularly in stock.  La Mouline 1978 and Hermitage La Chapelle 1978 were a hard sell at £20 a bottle. We also had a vast array of old Bordeaux and in 1984 had at least a couple of dozen different 1934's on the shelves for 50th birthday presents and many non-Chateau bottlings from the 1950's and 1960's. I remember an English-bottled classed growth 1964 that included "bottled in world cup final week" on the label and a Welsh-bottled Leoville Barton 1955 at a Christmas party one year. The boss was a great wine collector himself and he had a cellar full of classics in a railway arch on Dalston Road that I  frequently visited in my van. I once delivered 25 cases of Hermitage La Chapelle 1961 and similar quantities of Cheval Blanc 1947 and La Mission Haut Brion 1966. It was at La Reserve, that I learned all about Bordeaux wine and we used to regularly drink wines from vintages like 1957, 1958 and 1964. A particular early favourite was Haut Brion 1957 which cost less than £20 a bottle and we used to love the 1962s which, at 20 years of age, were drinking perfectly (better than the still tannic 1961s) yet were very modestly priced. Mouton Rothschild 1962, a wine that you never see any more, was a stunner.

Haut Brion 1957

I graduated from van driver to shop assistant in 1982 and was let loose on customers at the Kendal Street store, which was mainly staffed by 'resting' actors including Jonathan Stephens who was to become a key member of the Farr Vintners team from 1989 until his retirement nearly a quarter of a century later. I started attending tastings and at one of these I met Lindsay Hamilton who, with 2 partners, Liam McCann and Jim Farr, ran Farr Vintners - a small wine company that they had set up in 1978 while Lindsay and Liam were working in the Wine Department at Harrods. Farr Vintners initially imported wine from California. You have to remember that the late 1970s was a pretty terrible time for the Bordeaux wine trade with a string of poor vintages and the New World was much more interesting to budding young wine merchants. Fortunately for those of us who make our living selling Bordeaux wine for a living, that all changed when Bordeaux finally had a great vintage (for the first time in over 2 decades) in 1982 and claret came back into fashion. Fortunately for me, Lindsay took a week off to work as a sommelier for Barry at The White Horse Inn during Goodwood Week in the summer of 1984 and it was then that he offered me a job with the task of getting Farr Vintners into Bordeaux. It was perfect timing as, in the Autumn of 1984, the 1982s were bottled and released onto the market, championed by a young American critic called Bob Parker. I think that we were possibly the Wine Advocate's first British subscriber. 1982 Bordeaux really took off and I remember many trips to Brussels and Paris where we picked up wines like 1982 Petrus, Trotanoy and Certan de May at bargain prices. Pichon Lalande 1982 could still be had for not much more than £10 a bottle. It was very much a case of being in the right place at the right time and I was soon made a director of Farr Vintners.

Mouton Rothschild 1962

In those early days, we worked out of a small front room in a terraced house in Twickenham with a couple of telephones (no mobiles, fax machines or computers in those days) before moving to Pimlico in the late 1980s. It wasn't until 1997 that I bought my own house and moved out from living above the office. Liam left the company soon after I joined, then Jim a few years later with Lindsay leaving in 2008. A fantastic team has been built up over the years at Farr Vintners (both in London and Hong Kong) and our success and world-wide reputation have made me very proud. Sometimes it seems like those 30 years have flown by. The 1982 clarets that got us started have never let us down and are still drinking beautifully - but I do miss my van.

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