Tony Laithwaite is not just the only person to feature on The Sunday Times Rich List solely by dint of selling wine, he is also one of the convivial British wine trade's most shadowy, and creative, members.
Starting out in 1969 driving a van full of bordeaux back to England as a Durham geography graduate, he traded on this attractively naïf image for years. Meanwhile he and his hard-headed wife Barbara were steadily building Direct Wines into the world's largest mail order wine company. The Sunday Times Wine Club was an early Laithwaite creation, helped by an appeal to Harry Evans' romantic consumerism, and today virtually every print ad for wine in the British press is supplied, not from the original railway arch in Windsor but from one vast state-of-the-fulfilment-art warehouse in Theale outside Reading. Turnover is £250 million a year (almost a third that of Britain's dominant off licence chain Threshers with its 2,000 outlets) and margins are generous.
But Laithwaite has done more than make prodigious amounts of money in a field not often associated with serious financial success. It was Tony Laithwaite who virtually invented the flying winemaker by systematically recruiting young, technically proficient Australian 'cellar rats' during their quiet springtime period back home to work the autumn harvest in northern hemisphere wineries, typically European co-operatives which had access to inexpensive grapes but had little idea of how to turn them into modern, saleable wine. The result of this widely copied phenomenon has been a dramatic increase in the overall standard of basic wine (and a worrying tendency towards standardisation).
And now comes Tony Laithwaite's latest big idea, also involving Australian winemaking talent but this time sweeping up excess grapes and expertise rather than spare time. Each year Australian academe spews forth a new vintage of highly competent winemakers eager to win their spurs. But a handful of large companies still dominate Australian wine production. Most of the really interesting winemaking jobs are already taken. There is a serious shortage of opportunities for ambitious winemakers, but no shortage of small lots of interesting grapes on which they would like to practise their skills. All they lack is the equipment needed to transform grapes into wine: vats, tanks, presses, miles of hoses, and the all-important barrels.
Enter Tony Laithwaite who acquired an old bar Red Heads in McLaren Vale just south of Adelaide, site of Australia's largest oenology faculty, kitted it out with winemaking equipment and now leases it out to young and not so young winemaking bloods keen to make wine with their own personal imprint as a complement to their day jobs dragging hoses round a large corporate winery.
In the early months of the year the atmosphere at Red Heads is heady with the scent of grapeskins, carbon dioxide, alcohol and loud music. The average age is low - as witness the pinball machine and fridge full of beer - but one of the guys, Steve Piombo, is a 70 year-old grape grower. He sells most of his grapes to big companies but uses Red Heads to vinify the extra-concentrated fruit of the top four rows of his Shiraz vineyard where the irrigation pumps cannot reach.
It may be tough combining a day job (Red Heads has also attracted the odd doctor or lawyer with a yen to make their own wine) with winemaking all night but the Red Heads winemakers are presumably driven, not only by who-knows-which stimulants but also the knowledge that there is a ready market for small batches of extremely concentrated reds made from the many old vines still to be found around Adelaide.
Importer Dan Philips of The Grateful Palate in Oxnard, California, for example, has profitably specialised in introducing America's top wine critic Robert Parker to various Australian blockbusters. High Parker points and rave reviews have ensured their commercial success in the US, even if the wines are often barely known in Australia itself.
Already a couple of 2003 Red Head Shirazes, Vittiolo and Pikkara, have been sold to The Australian Wine Connection, also based in California, in Carlsbad, which outfit also plans to distribute my favourite of them, Piombo Shiraz 2003, to restaurants in France rather than allow Americans to taste it.
Tony Laithwaite however has cunningly retained first option on all the wines made at Red Heads and the first few hundred cases of five Red Heads special lots are now available in the UK from www.laithwaites.co.uk at prices of between £15.99 and £19.99 a bottle. (Laithwaites is never cheap.) The wines are also available at the cellar door in McLaren Vale and in some restaurants in Australia.
The wines are all pretty potent – averaging 15 per cent in the dry 2003 vintage – but they are not the formulaic potions that are so often sold as South Australian reds. Each is very different and has obviously been made with care and passion. There are in general just a couple of hundred cases, sometimes fewer, available for the entire UK market but they are certainly worthy of interest to those with a real curiosity about the world of wine and cultural shifts within it.
Viottolo Sangiovese 2002 McLaren Vale 17 Drink now-07
Much deeper and more concentrated than the 2003, but the concentration also brings with it the penalty of extremely pronounced acidity. There is Sangiovese character here but you have to look for it.
£15.99 but only 50 cases for the UK.
Viottolo Sangiovese 2003 McLaren Vale 17.5 Drink now-06
Looks paler and more orange than one would expect of an Australian 2003. Dusty, sweet nose. Dry, firm spine but excellent balance of sweetness and acidity. Recognisably Sangiovese but a much fuller, warmer version than most Italian versions. Ready to drink now – perhaps a little prematurely developed but an excellent drink. Just a little tannin lurking under an impressive charge of ripe fruit. This wine is made by Justin Lane, manager of Red Heads studio with formative experience in Italy. Unusually for an Australian red, it was kept on the skins for three weeks after fermentation, but then Sangiovese is not naturally high in pigment.
£15.99 but only 60 cases available for the UK.
Gemtree Vineyards, Bloodstone Tempranillo 2003 McLaren Vale 15.5 Drink 2005-08
Firm, deep crimson. Prunes and cocoa powder on the nose. Very severely dry with quite marked acidity. I find this wine slightly out of balance and with much less obviousl Tempranillo character than the Sangiovese. A severe wine that suggests the grapes might have been happier with a bit more water and flesh.
Piombo Shiraz 2003 McLaren Vale 18 Drink 2005-09
Very deep crimson right out to the rim. Intriguing, terroir-filled nose. No shortage of character, or glycerine smoothness, here. The finish is dry, presumably partly a reflection of the vintage, but there is a massive spread of salty, rich glossy fruit across the palate. No aggressive heat on the finish despite the 15 per cent alcohol. A seriously big wine but one that seems comfortable and well balanced. To be sipped rather than glugged and with food. The painstaking produce, I see from the back label, of the delightfully-named Modestino and Giuseppina Piombo and family. Very glamorous, attention-grabbing wine from a 70 year-old Shiraz specialist.
Pikkara Shiraz 2003 McLaren Vale 17 Drink 2005-08
Very dark crimson. Lighter, more fragrant nose than the Piombo. Sappy fruit with some real race but a bit spindlier and tarter than the Piombo. Good concentration but not the most exuberant McLaren Vale Shiraz – as though something has been held back. The wine was apparently heavily oxygenated.
Viottolo Shiraz 2003 McLaren Vale 17.5 Drink 2006-10
Dark, glossy purplish crimson. Interesting nutty qualities on the nose. Broad and savoury – a confident, ambitious wine that is less dramatic than the Piombo but more please-all than the Pikkara. I'm a little concerned about the rather obvious acidity and tannin but perhaps these will mellow with time. Apparently the must, from four specific blocks of grower Jock Harvey, was cooled with dry ice and the barrels are particularly fine-grained American oak.