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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
19 Nov 2016

A very much shorter version of this article (less than half as long) is published in the Financial Times

David Gleave, head of Liberty Wines, is possibly the most popular and one of the most successful men in the UK wine trade but for him it is Roy Richards who is 'a model wine merchant, with unrivalled knowledge of his specialist subjects and great integrity. There are few, if any, competitors or colleagues for whom I have more respect.' 

Richards has just retired from working out four years at Berry Bros & Rudd, the 300-year-old St James's wine merchant to whom his company Richards Walford became the single biggest supplier. Berry's finally acquired them since neither Richards nor his business partner Mark Walford had successors interested in this hugely powerful but rarely publicised company.

Looking back at his 34 years in the wine trade, Richards' pride is in 'having in this country to a degree changed public taste – especially in burgundy. And having brought in wines that people didn't know existed from producers such as Gauby and Roc d'Anglade in the south of France, often having financed them, or at least having given them seed capital as I did with Eben Sadie of South Africa. I never used to tell Walford – I just did it.' (Walford now runs Le Soula, the Roussillon estate they developed together.)

I asked Eben to tell me what happened and this is how he replied: 'It is almost impossible to say anything in few words about Roy Richards, for he has and forever will be one of my biggest mentors in wine. He is simply the last of a breed and one I was very fortunate to have met. Although we have not spent much time together of late, it is always amazing for he is but very little human and very much wine.

'To my mind he has to be one of the top three tasters I have ever met and very much one to trust. I met Roy in London at the age of 27 and he made a huge impression from the outset. When I went solo in 2001 with our own domaine I knew the only hope we had at making it in the wine world was to get the first wine we ever produced in front of Roy. Subsequently in the latter part of 2001 he visited South Africa and I managed to get two hours or so of his time. He came out to the little winery that at that stage was nothing more than a shed and we drew a representative sample out of the 18 casks at the time and placed it in an decanter. I took it home and sat there and after we poured him the wine and what felt like eternity (I went outside twice to just about throw up because of stress), he said that the wine was of very fine character and fibre and had the makings of greatness.

'At that time we were cash-strapped as things can be and on the spot he took out of his old leather briefcase a small piece of paper and wrote a contract for half the production. He said that I needed to forward it to his office and that the following week he would pay upfront for half of the production at the bottled price. He mentioned that we should send it to his office as he would be travelling and, sure enough, the next week all of the cash was in the bank and we had the capital to bottle the wines and get them to the world. That is the type of person he is. Without that I shiver to think what would have happened. He helped us to jump over a massive hurdle and that will stay with us forever. He did not need to do it. But he did. And he did it as well for many others! I can only hope to see him again soon.'

Richards' generosity is legendary – both as a host and businessman. 'I've always felt that you work with people rather than against them', he told me on a rare recent visit to London from his home in négociant Roland Remoissenet's mother's handsome old house in Beaune. 'We never wished to screw our producers and wanted them to make the best wine they possibly could. So we'd pay up front and help with their cash flow so they could afford to buy new barrels or a new bit of kit.' He admits to providing seed capital even for a few people in Burgundy, 'but I'd rather not name them'.

I observed that he must now be in position to have worked with two generations at many domaines. 'Three', he smiled ruefully, 'Coche, Lafarge and Rollin, for instance.' Say 'Roy' in French wine circles and everyone knows exactly who you mean. He has long been a favourite for instance with Paul-Vincent Avril at Clos des Papes, arguably the most admired Châteauneuf property, which Roy has represented for decades.

It was at the other likely candidate for this honour, Château Rayas, that Roy bumped into Robert Parker, then at the peak of his power. Emmanuel Reynaud of Rayas was inclined to keep the great American wine guru waiting but Roy suggested inviting him to taste with the two of them. This resulted in Reynaud presenting Parker with a sample of wine from a barrel he described as 'our finest Syrah'. Richards muttered in French to Reynaud that he was playing a dangerous game in that it was well known that there is no Syrah at Rayas. 'But he only likes Syrah', growled Reynaud.

Like virtually everyone who meets Parker, Richards was charmed by him and explicitly states, 'I have no animus against him, but I do regret the Parker phenomenon. It has made Bordeaux more and more predictable and the wines increasingly similar. It has taken away the diversity in Bordeaux that we still have in Burgundy.

'But the place where he's done the most damage is California. The older vintages, from about 1967 to the early 1980s are wonderful, but then, thanks to how Parker was perceived, they all started making wine by formula by picking two weeks late – and all because of one man's palate.' On a recent visit to the Bay Area Richards encountered Cathy Corison for the first time and was duly impressed by the wines – 'even Kronos she picks two weeks before anyone else.

'Parker also enabled wine merchants to be extremely lazy, they didn't have to taste any more. As a result the calibre of people in the wine trade suffered – but the worst of it's over now.'

Richards Walford was formed in 1982, often called the vintage that made Parker, after Richards had put in four happy years as a chef-restaurateur at the Lake Isle in Rutland. 'We were so very lucky', he says now about the wine import business he founded with the bon viveur Mark Walford. 'We were in the right place at the right time. Back in those days you could go and pick up agencies easily because very few people were buying domaine-bottled burgundies. The UK wine trade was lazy - just buying from négociants they knew. Now it's difficult to buy burgundy in any quantity at all. It would be virtually impossible to start the same sort of business today.'

They started off supplying restaurants 'because Mark liked going to Gavroche, Tante Claire and all those places, but I rapidly found that collecting money from restaurants was awful, and fortunately it just happened that some of the more enlightened merchants started looking for more interesting burgundies'. Their biggest customer by far at first was Bibendum, 'such a wonderful business to start with but then it lost its way. They helped us enormously at first, and were the only ones to take us up on grower champagnes. But we were ahead of our time with them. People still wanted grande marque champagne in the 1980s even though, frankly, their non-vintage blends were terrible, and there was always someone importing them from Holland or somewhere and undercutting the market.'

Co-founder of Bibendum Simon Farr describes Roy as 'a stubbornly independent contrarian, sceptical of the herd, and mostly unimpressed by the lack of in-depth research and lazy thinking that informs too much buying. Both infuriating and wonderful to know, he has unearthed and championed more real gems than most of his generation.'

It was Farr who sold me a case of a then-unknown Pomerol, Le Pin 1983, for £150 in 1984 when it was weighing rather heavily on Roy and Mark's balance sheet. The story of how they came to represent what has become a global superstar with prices to rival Petrus is pure Richards Walford. Mark was at a posh restaurant in the Loire, as is his wont, and spotted a rather fine bottle on the table of a Flemish couple so introduced himself. The upshot was that wine merchant and co-owner of Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol Gérard Thienpont invited Mark and Roy to his particularly fine house in Belgium to negotiate the UK agency for VCC. 'We did the deal, with the 1981 vintage to begin with – and still buy it at an agreed low margin. We were really taken by the house and paintings. He was plying us with drink and we were having a lot of fun. Then he said', Roy put on a very creditable Flemish accent, '"Gentlemen, I have another Pomerol. Would you like to taste it?" This was in 1983, and it was the 1981, the first properly made vintage of Le Pin. It was sex on legs. Very special. It had burgundian qualities. I think because they had no space they'd run the warm juice off into the barrels which made it wonderfully rich. We both said, this is bloody good.'

Thienpont told them it came from a small vineyard called Le Pin of which they'd never heard. They were taken aback to be quoted the same price as the famous VCC for it. Cue more Flemish accent from Roy: '"Gentlemen, you come in here like lions and leave like sheep. Do you want to buy it or don't you?"' They replied simultaneously, Roy saying yes and Mark saying no. For several years, Roy rued his impetuousness. Mark ended up selling 25 cases of it to the Duke of Marlborough as shooting claret. But of course they went on to have to fight off demand for this cult wine and could presumably have sold it many times over at many times the price they paid.

Richards' unusual talent is that he is not only a brilliant taster, but he is, as Simon Berry acknowledges, 'a formidably bright, very savvy businessman'. Roy puts it down to his Armenian carpet-dealer grandfather, just as he credits the Kenyan Asian florist father of one of his most admired friends and colleagues, Zubair Mohamed of Raeburn Fine Wines in Edinburgh, who has built up enviable connections with some of the finest clubs in London.

Nowadays Roy, with his second wife Julie, is involved in what he calls 'all sorts of little projects'. They include helping David Berry Green with his newly independent fine Italian wine business, helping Liberty Wines with their French portfolio, writing the odd obituary for The World of Fine Wine, and a deal in Burgundy involving 'one major estate that is coming close to fruition but I'm not allowed to talk about it'. This must be painful for him as he does like a gossip. Within the first few minutes of our recent encounter his wine-trade chat had ranged over incest, madness and illness. He is not short of an opinion.

He may be involved in this big Burgundy property deal but he regrets Burgundy's recent influx of foreign capital. He agrees with me that there has been a dramatic influx from America but cites the massive capital injection from Asia and Russia too as having transformed Burgundy from what he called 'a joyful place' to a marketplace transformed 'because all they wanted was a handful of labels. You couldn't turn up with a new discovery and say "taste this". They just want DRC or Roumier or Rousseau. That's taken a lot of the pleasure out of it all.' (Although by the end, Burgundy still accounted for 45% of all Richards Walford's sales, and Roy has always been the éminence grise (blanche on top nowadays) of London's famous burgundy tastings every January, supplying virtually all of the merchants organising them; 88% of their sales were to the trade.)

'The other big problem in Burgundy is the capital value of vineyards, which has rocketed. I don't think vineyard land in Burgundy has gone down since the second world war, but you do wonder how much further it can go… It's all very sad because with the new deals you either get vanity projects or people who need to get cash out of their country for some reason or another. There's no profitability in any meaningful sense. My great fear is that the peasant community – by which I mean those who own and farm their own domaines - will be a thing of the past in another generation. If proud, independent Gauls become tenant farmers for rich foreigners, that will have undone everything the French revolution stood for, which is kind of sad. It's different in Bordeaux, which has always been owned by foreigners.'

Richards Walford themselves know this well. In the early 1980s a French négociant who had sold them a great whack of 1982s went bust so they had to go back to the market to replace them. After detailed research they decided to set up their own négociant business in Bordeaux. Roy realised that they needed a point of difference from other merchants by buying closer to the source on the same terms as the Bordeaux négociants. It was not easy but they had it in place in time for the 1984 campaign: a name, an address, an accountant, and a growing list of valuable allocations from top châteaux.

They did business differently from other négociants, according to Richards. 'The others had an inimical relationship with the château owners, but one of Mark's great skills was his networking ability. He was very good at getting into châteaux, making friends, inviting them to go shooting for instance, convincing them he was on their side. We felt we could actually advise them on what was going on in our market, because at that stage most of them never followed up the secondary market, which is extraordinary. But although I had a few friends in Bordeaux such as Olivier Bernard, Didier Cuvelier and the Thienponts, it became increasingly obvious that there was no proper margin in it and often an awful lot of potential loss because everyone knew the cost price of everything - apart from Le Pin.'

It's clear that Richards is much happier with the way business is done in Burgundy. 'In Burgundy on the other hand no one knows what price you're paying – and the wine is scarce. Burgundians have to look their customers in the face when they announce their prices – unlike the Bordelais.'

One wonders what the UK wine trade will be like without Richards if he is right when he shakes his head and says, 'So many people in the wine trade have no business sense at all.'

SOME RICHARDS WALFORD GEMS

This is just a selection of the producers with whom Richards Walford had a particularly close relationship.

Champagne
Fleury, Le Mesnil

Bordeaux
Le Pin, Vieux Château Certan

Burgundy
Jean-Claude Bachelet, Ghislaine Barthod, Jean-Marc Boillot, Louis Boillot, Alain Coche, Marc Colin, Philippe Colin, Follin-Arbelet, Grivot, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (China only), the late Henri Jayer, Antoine Jobard, Lafarge, Lamarche, Domaine Leflaive (China only), Comte Liger-Belair, Maume, Méo-Camuzet, Prudhon, Louis Remy, Rémi Rollin, Emmanuel Rouget, Tollot-Beaut

Beaujolais
Jean-Marc Burgaud

Rhône
Thierry Allemand, Gilles Barge, Jean-Louis Chave, Clos des Papes, Marius Gentaz, St-Préfert, Noel Verset

Provence
Tempier

Languedoc-Roussillon
Gauby, Mas Champart, Mas Jullien, Rectorie (Parcé Frères), Roc d'Anglade, Le Soula

Jura
Stéphane Tissot

Alsace
Rolly-Gassmann

Loire
François Cotat, Huet, Eric Morgat, Eric Nicolas

Portugal
Quinta do Passadouro

Spain
Amezola de la Mora, Rioja

Italy
Lisini, Luisin, Marcarini, Monte Bernardi

Austria
Bründlmayer, Emmerich Knoll, Nikolaihof, F X Pichler, Uwe Schiefer

Germany
Willi Schaefer

South Africa
Sadie Family

California
Joseph Swan

Australia
Crittenden Estate

New Zealand
Neudorf