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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
7 Jul 2007

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

Within a generation, being a wine merchant has graduated from rather lowly status as a bolthole for the nice but dim to wallowing in international cachet. It is hardly surprising then that nowadays such family wine businesses as survive can so often call upon the next generation to run them.

Although there are examples of successful uncle-to-nephew transitions such as at Sherry-Lehmann in New York and Berry Bros in London, there can be more obvious tensions between fathers and sons, especially when those sons are in their twenties, the most likely decade for them to join a dynastic commercial enterprise. In fact, reading through notes made when talking to a few pairs of fathers and sons in the wine business recently, I see one recurring phrase: "terrible rows".

Richard Tanner, now 68, eventually took over Tanners of Shrewsbury, the pre-eminent wine merchant of the Welsh Marches, from his 88 year-old father Clive but only after "terrible rows". He thinks the experience helped with the handover to his own son James, although neither of them was able to answer my question about exactly when Richard the senior Tanner retired. "That depends on who you're talking to," said James carefully.

It seems as though the wine business is a particularly difficult one to detach oneself from. Richard Tanner still has an office in the firm's Shrewsbury headquarters (which are surely ripe for a preservation order) and on his random but frequent visits there he deals with the many requests for free wine and so on from local charities. "It's a tight-knit community," is how Richard puts it, "You have to be very careful."

In Colchester, Richard Wheeler (whose own father shared his office for years and "kept chipping in") is in a similar situation with his 40 year-old son Johnny as managing director and himself as chairman. Although he travels much more now, especially to New Zealand where the family business Lay & Wheeler has cunningly invested in a vineyard, Richard Wheeler says he goes in to the office every day he is at home and is an avid emailer. He admits these transitions aren't easy. "Different generations have different ideas. The younger generation tends to want to go too fast. Family businesses look idyllic to outsiders but it's still difficult working together." He admits that his son's move into bonded warehousing, precipitated by looming liquidation of the Burton-on-Trent bond they were using, may have proved a mistake. The old Vinotheque is now run by London City Bond.

Up in Hull 'John Charles' Townend is the fourth generation to run The House of Townend and is thus called to distinguish him from his father John Townend, the controversial Conservative Member of Parliament who retired in 2001. Here too we encounter the managing director/chairman generation gap. "We argue all time," says John Charles, "but I suppose any md and chairman have arguments. But he's an accountant by training so as long as the business is doing ok he's happy. He even let me close down our Beverley Road off-licence where my great grandfather started the business. I've had to change the business probably more than anyone else ever has, and it's taken me 10 to 15 years to get it as I want it. Businesses only survive if they change."

Hearing these tales of adaptation to new trends and developments in the surviving family wine businesses is to chart the recent history of British drinking habits. Tanners once depended on beer, Townend on off-licences. Today supplying wine to restaurants and the like is the mainstay of both these companies. Instead of depending on middlemen, both source many wines directly from their producers nowadays, with Townend having set up an agency company Cachet Wines.

Like the Townends, both Tanners and Wheelers own multi-faceted family drinks businesses with more than a century of history and, presumably, already a genetic disposition to hold the ship together. Mere first and second generation wine merchants Robin and Jason Yapp are less discreet about the difficulties of passing on a very personal business from father to son. Robin Yapp founded Yapp Bros, specialising in the then-neglected regions of Loire and Rhône, in 1969 while he continued to work fulltime as a dentist. The business is now run by Jason and Tom Ashworth, his step-son who get on like a house on fire. But Jason is another reporter of "terrible rows" and says of his father that things reached such a stage in the handover that he had to forbid him to change even an apostrophe in the all-important wine list. Robin claims Jason is "illiterate".

It would seem that punctuation is a more controversial issue than taste. No-one that I spoke to raised any difficulties about differing inter-generational tastes in wine. Fathers seem well capable of inculcating their own tastes in the next generation. "Don and I have very similar palates" says Jeff Zacharia, 46, of Scarsdale retailer and auctioneer Zachys in New York. "We both like old-style wines. My brother in law Andrew who heads the buying team is different. He focuses on Italian and I buy the bordeaux."

Zachys is interesting because, in contrast to the British examples cited, Jeff's father Don, 75, raised him to expect to find something more lucrative than the wine trade and it was only once Jeff had graduated 24 years ago that Don felt confident of a rosy future for both of them in wine retailing. "I was 22, and said I'd give it a try, but I immediately fell in love with it," says Jeff.

Henry Butler has now bought out his father Geoffrey's share of The Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton but has been working in this highly personal store ever since his father started it in 1979. He was nine at the time. They worked together for many years, keeping it harmonious by having Henry selling and Geoffrey buying. "I often think I should have gone out and got a proper job, but I love it - except when people treat me as though my dad is still the boss."

One problem for the young inheritors of these family wine retailers is finding suitable commercial training. Their suppliers have traditionally been wary of letting a significant future customer into their trade secrets, although James Tanner eventually managed to work in various wineries and with David Gleave and Nicolas Belfrage at what was Winecellars in Wandsworth before doing an MBA in London.

Over a bottle of delicious von Hövel, Oberemmler Hutte Riesling Spätlese 1999 Mosel in James's carefully tended garden Richard Tanner discussed the firm's current wine list with his son. "I see that Pécharmant I bought all those years ago is still on the list. I'm always proud when I see things like that."

Some recommended dynastic wines

Butler's Wine Cellar of Brighton - hearty red:

CARM Classico 2004 Douro 14% £8.99

Lay & Wheeler of Colchester - mature burgundian red:

Fromm, Clayvin Vineyard Pinot Noir 2004 Marlborough, New Zealand 14% £22

Tanners of Shrewsbury - mineral, zesty white:

Ch Rives-Blaques, Dédicace Chenin Blanc 2004 Limoux 13% £8.70

House of Townend of Hull - aromatic Australian classic:

Paulett Riesling 2006 Clare Valley 12.5% £9.99

Yapp Brothers of Mere, Wiltshire - herby, racy white:

Dom de Torraccia 2005 Vin de Corse Porto Vecchio 12.5% £8.95

Zachys of Scarsdale, NY - full-throttle Spanish red

Finca Sandoval 2004 Manchuela 14.5% $33.99