Neville Abraham is still campaigning for a fairer deal. A slightly shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
There aren’t many people who can claim to have been managerially involved in the wine and hospitality business for 50 solid years, and none who can claim they spent eight years before that in the civil service overseeing, inter alia, the merger of Britain’s two national airlines BEA and BOAC, followed by a stint as a management consultant and lecturer at the London Business School.
A fit, lean 85-year-old, Neville Abraham has run the restaurant groups Wheelers, Mario and Franco, Maxim’s, Café Fish and Bertorelli’s. He has only just retired as chairman of Liberty Wines. Liberty’s first order, in 1997, was for four cases of wine from the River Café. It is now one of the UK’s leading wine importers with a turnover of more than £110 million and a staff of almost 200.
I asked Liberty’s founder, Master of Wine David Gleave, what were the best things Abraham had done for the company since his appointment to the board in 2003. A notable one of the six mentioned was, ‘he taught us that cash is king – “banks will give you a lovely umbrella when the sky is clear blue, but at the first sign of a cloud they’ll ask for it back”, he used to say when talking about overdrafts. Having cash in the bank enabled us to look after our customers and suppliers during the lockdown in 2020, something which provided the base for us to recover quickly and even to thrive as things opened up.’
The business-school lectureship was necessary in the early 1970s to fund Abraham while he was starting up his first wine business, Les Amis du Vin shop just up the road from what is now the fashionable Chiltern Firehouse in London’s Marylebone. ‘I would spend two days a month teaching and 28 days unpaid in the shop’, Abraham says now. At least it meant he could use the business school for wine tastings for customers, then a novelty.
It was not the only distinctive feature of his business. ‘As a wine lover I had become increasingly pissed off because British wine merchants seemed to wallow in bordeaux after bordeaux but didn’t get off their backsides and go and look for stuff. I thought I’d do something completely different, and rioja seemed the obvious alternative.’ Abraham played a major part in introducing British wine drinkers to Spain’s top wine region, then terra incognita to the average British wine merchant. He even organised a festival that included 50 different riojas, which he admits now was ‘a daft thing to do’.
Abraham is dismissive of the many people who have set up their own wine companies in recent years, often out of a spare room or a garage. ‘How some of these wine merchants will stay in business, I don’t know. They are Not Proper Businesses’, he says, the disapproving capitals clearly audible. ‘The wine trade is full of people who love wine and are very knowledgeable about it, but there is not always good management in place.’
Early in his multifarious wine career, the most important lesson he learnt was to master the rate of growth. Initially Les Amis du Vin grew too fast, so he was spread too thinly. ‘I had to hire more people so I hired Master of Wine Clive Coates to buy for the business. He had an exceptional palate but we bought far too much so he left after 18 months.’
By about this time, Les Amis had grown into a warehouse in Acton and merged with Geoffrey Roberts, the debonair gourmet who was the UK’s pioneer importer of fine California wine in the early 1980s. I remember Roberts complaining bitterly about being reduced to seeking lunch at a Spudulike rather than in some smart place in Chelsea or Mayfair but Abraham insists that the marriage made sense. ‘We solved each other’s problems’, he says.
Abraham accompanied Roberts on one of his buying trips to California when he felt the good folk of Napa Valley needed to be taught a thing or two about the realities of the British wine market. ‘The price increases stopped’, he reports now with some satisfaction, adding, ‘most wine producers, wherever they are, know nothing about the marketplace.’
Abraham was an unusually savvy wine merchant and one perhaps too astute commercially to be limited to wine. In 1980, as an offshoot of the wine business, he opened Le Café des Amis du Vin in an old banana warehouse next to the Royal Opera House in London. In 1984, he sold his entire business to the restaurant and hotel group Kennedy Brookes for what was then a record sum well in excess of £2 million. Within three years – this was the 1980s, after all – he and business partner Laurence Isaacson had bought out Café Fish and Bertorelli’s. Their group, Groupe Chez Gérard, went public in 1994 and, by 2000, it had grown to 22 restaurants. It was sold in 2003. Meanwhile, they co-founded the Covent Garden Festival – classical music is one of Abraham’s great loves.
‘Apart from running the company, I did all the wine-buying – some £3 million a year for over 10 years – and learned a bit more about any particular wine’s place in a restaurant’s wine list, as opposed to on the shelf in a shop or supermarket or, later, online’, he says now.
His restaurant experience must have been particularly valuable to Liberty, whose business was focused on customers in hospitality, although he helped them dramatically improve what they could offer to wine retailers during lockdowns when restaurants were closed. ‘Service has become ever more important – things like overnight delivery. In many ways we’re not a wine company but a logistics company now.’
He is sanguine about the realities of how the restaurant business used to be. ‘There was undoubted corruption. Backhanders for sommeliers and chefs, that sort of thing. I couldn’t understand how Le Café des Amis was full yet making a loss. People were obviously helping themselves. I would stand outside at 2.30 am searching the staff as they left.’
But he is clearly thrilled by many 21st-century developments. ‘I used to say sommeliers were redundant, but nowadays I realise they do a great job of introducing people to good mid-range wines. And in the UK we’ve had this great influx of really knowledgeable people such as Ronan Sayburn and Gerard Basset and many others from France. They are so much better than the old-school wine waiters! And I love that service is much less hierarchical than it was. Hospitality used to be a lousy industry to work in – antisocial hours, rotten pay and customers treating you like servants. But the pandemic has changed that – pay’s gone up.’
We met over lunch at The Coal Office in King’s Cross to discuss how things have changed during his career. He still marvels at the improvement in the quality of basic products in the UK over his lifetime: cheese, bread, coffee and wine of course – ‘everything is getting better all the time!’
But he ended with a gripe. Heavily involved with the British Hospitality Association in his time, Abraham is used to fighting industry battles. The current one involves the proposed changes to duty on alcoholic drinks. It sounds sensible to tie it to alcoholic strength, but the practicalities of implementing so many narrow duty bands will be a nightmare. The alcoholic strength of any given wine can change dramatically from year to year, and cannot, or at least should not, be manipulated by a producer to fit a certain duty band. Nature decides. Calculations by Gleave and team suggest that the new duties will result in an average increase of 18p per bottle at a wholesale level, as well as increased bureaucracy.
Remembering his days in the civil service (about which he wrote a coruscating book in 1974, Big Business and Government: The new disorder), he observed pointedly, ‘if the government were to design the perfect tax collection office, it could well be a wine shop. They get all the tax upfront there.’
Some favourite producers in Liberty’s 375-strong portfolio
Bachelder of Ontario
Capezzana of Carmignano
Clonakilla of Canberra
Dom Daniel-Etienne Defaix of Chablis
Jane Eyre of Burgundy and Australia
Fairview of South Africa
Fontodi of Chianti Classico
Grosset of Clare Valley
Charles Heidsieck of Champagne
Henschke of Eden Valley
Isole e Olena of Chianti Classico
Justino’s of Madeira
Kanaan of Ningxia, China
Legado of Portugal
Littorai of Sonoma
Lupier of Navarra
Rafael Palacios of Valdeorras, Galicia
S C Pannell of McLaren Vale
Famille Perrin of the southern Rhône
Pieropan of Soave
Heidi Schröck of Austria
Shaw + Smith of Adelaide Hills
Tolpuddle of Tasmania
G D Vajra of Barolo
Valdespino of Jerez
Zorah of Armenia
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