Reid – a most unusual wine merchant

Old bottles - some relics from Reid Wines

A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. I asked the subject of this profile to provide a photograph of himself but he preferred to be represented by these evocative bottles. Left to right: Inglenook F3 Cabernet Sauvignon 1958 Napa Valley, Vieux Château Certan 1950 Pomerol, Roederer NV Champagne, Ch Rayas 1978 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Blandys Campanario 1846 Madeira and Ch La Lagune 1959.

If you told me you wanted a single bottle of a rare old wine, I would recommend you contact Reid Wines. If you had a cellar or personal wine collection you wanted to sell, I would recommend you contact the same two-person wine merchant located in a chicken farm south of Bristol.

You would probably then go on the internet and search in vain for You might wonder whether perhaps they produced a printed wine list you could check out. Again, you would be disappointed. 

I asked a wine-minded London restaurateur how he bought from Reid. ‘With difficulty’, he laughed, and forwarded me three idiosyncratic spreadsheets headed variously Champagne, Mixed and Trade Offer that he received from Reid in 2018, starting with one bottle of 1816 Spanish Moscatel at £375 and an 1840 Terrantez madeira at £2,200. At the other end of the scale 35 halves of 2000 Hugel Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive were £12.50 apiece.

Reid Wines is clearly no ordinary wine merchant but is hugely admired within the wine trade. I have recommended Reid’s owner David Boobbyer to several friends who wanted to liquidate their wine collections and all were delighted by the service they received. Professor of philosophy John Harris decided to translate his precious collection of claret into bricks and mortar for his son, and described Boobbyer in an email as ‘charming, reliable and, having spent some hours examining each bottle (which made me panic a bit since we had damaged some of the cases when we opened them) and talking to me about these and other wines, we agreed on the offer price he had made on the unseen consignment’.

The enviable cellar of my FT predecessor Edmund Penning-Rowsell was sold to Boobbyer by his son, another Edmund and another professor, who told me, ‘There was no fuss, no argument about the price that David set, and a very generously reduced commission on the most prestigious wines.’

Boobbyer’s first job straight out of Oxford Poly (now Brookes) was at Gidleigh Park country house hotel in Devon where the owner Paul Henderson had a massive cellar and a consuming interest in wine. Boobbyer similarly fell under the spell and has fond memories of fine wine weekends there led by luminaries such as the late Harry Waugh and Michael Broadbent.

He moved from there up the road to Averys of Bristol where his role included supervising the fabled wine collection of the late John Avery, so one could say he has been surrounded by great wine all his working life. In 1986 he landed the perfect job for someone who loves fine wine, working for the much-missed Bill Baker, co-founder of Reid Wines and a larger-than-life character in every respect, especially as a trencherman.

Not surprisingly Baker chose to interview Boobbyer over dinner, and Boobbyer can remember every drop they drank: Cuvée Christine 1976 Alsace white, an Ampeau Meursault 1978, a Ch Grand-Puy-Lacoste 1959 (his birth year) that he still drools over and a top-quality calvados.

Baker (beloved by many an epicure – and not just in the UK) was proud of his disdain for technology but used to produce a beautifully written, unusually honest wine list when he felt like it. About a wine described as 1920 Nasty White Bordeaux at £14.50 apiece he wrote, ‘Joy, Oh joy only six bottles left’.  

When Boobbyer took over Reid Wines after Baker’s sudden death in 2008, he abandoned the idea of a printed list. ‘There was no point in trying to emulate him’, he told me during a long phone conversation, while pointing out that Baker would pepper his list with barbs aimed at his various bêtes noires, ‘myself included if I happened to have bought something he thought was disgusting’.  

Baker cultivated wine sales to restaurants (only the good ones) and particularly treasured his annual sales tour of Scotland’s finest establishments. Boobbyer was assigned the Scottish border as far south as Birmingham, but excluding Yang Sing in Manchester because Bill particularly liked the Chinese food at this useful lunch stop to and from Scotland.

Boobbyer didn’t need to be taught to treasure old wine. ‘I just love the historical angle, the stories.’ But what Baker instilled in him was the importance of tasting what you sell. ‘He’d say, “just try it, and if it’s good, flog it”. We were famous for our 11-bottle cases.’ (Fine wine usually comes in cases of a dozen bottles.) ‘The problem with Bill was that he’d drink most of that twelfth bottle. I’d get the last glass if I was quick.’

Virtually all of Reid Wines’ stock, kept nearby in the ‘showers and urinals section’ of an old Ministry of Defence bunker, comes via word of mouth. ‘There’s a huge trust element’, according to Boobbyer, ‘because you could be handling bottles worth thousands’. The most expensive bottle he ever sold was a nineteenth-century sweet white bordeaux from the famous Ch d’Yquem. In Bill’s time they were lucky enough to acquire a few well-kept bottles of Romanée-Conti 1959. ‘We drank one and it was all it's cracked up to be: brilliant and so fresh. On that occasion I poured before Bill got the decanter!!’

The most common reasons people sell their wine collections are the usual: death, doctor (putting the owner on the wagon), divorce and financial hardship. Boobbyer has found divorce by far the most painful, if acrimony and alimony are involved.

‘We don’t cherry-pick. It’s easier for everyone if we buy the whole cellar, and we have people who’ll take what we don’t want.’ Unusually, investment-grade wine is what thrills Boobbyer least. ‘Twenty cases of Mouton ‘82 is not our game. We’ll pass that on to Farr Vintners, for instance. My pleasure is in finding the small stuff, the underdog: things like old Australian Chardonnay, Baron de L 1985 [a Pouilly-Fumé that would normally have been drunk 30 years ago] or old champagne. The best wine I remember in Bill’s time was some oak-aged Roederer non-vintage from the 1950s that we bought in a clearance sale. Gosh it was stonking.’ (The bottle is shown above.)

I wondered whether they ever ran out of stock. ‘Never, though we do hold quite big stocks’, he laughed, admitting that he was once asked whether he actually sold the wine he bought. ‘It’s fun. You get some duds but you also get some surprises.’ Does he ever have to turn down a cellar? ‘The labels don’t matter but if the wine has obviously been kept badly, then yes. If it’s a hot cellar, I’ll walk away – there’s no point. You’re only as good as the last bottle you sold.’ Boobbyer claims he can smell whether a wine has been kept badly. ‘You get that smell of a hot wooden case. There’ll be discolouration on the label and oiliness on the glass. It’s like antiques. You get a sixth sense.’

The big change he has witnessed is that cellars are no longer automatically handed down to the next generation. ‘People are much more discerning now that Ch Latour ’61 for instance, a wine they perhaps bought for £1.50, is worth £2,500. Thanks to people are much more aware of prices than they used to be, and so is probate. Although many people assume, quite wrongly, that a wine is worth what Harrods are selling a perfectly-stored bottle of it for.’

He prides himself on telling people where their wine ends up and told me the story of a couple who made a special trip to Harrods to see the wine they’d sold him in a glass case there. And then there was the California wine merchant who wanted to know every detail of an aristocratic household that supplied a particular consignment. ‘There were two cases of Petrus ’82. The butler was lazy. He just threw away the wooden cases, put the bottles on a shelf and never moved them, so the labels at the front were much more soiled than the ones at the back. My customer wanted to know all about the gardener and the housekeeper too.’

His favourite drink at home is seriously old non-vintage champagne – ‘Wine Society champagne with age is fantastic’ – but the bottle that brought him possibly the most pleasure of all was a Mouton 1928 made in the year that the much-loved Burgundy winemaker, and mayor of Volnay, Michel Lafarge was born. Lafarge had never tasted a great bordeaux of his birth year but he had the chance at a lunch in Burgundy in late 2019 after a stupendous vertical tasting of 20 of his own Clos des Chênes organised for the Lafarge family and various friends by one of Reid’s best customers, Hong Kong collector Richard Orders. ‘It was just before Michel Lafarge died. He was so humble about his own burgundies but the bordeaux was superb and brought tears to his eyes. It was the best feeling.’

Orders, originally an old friend of Bill Baker, contributed these insights.

‘As you well know, David is discretion personified, but although he is the quietest person in the room at any wine gathering, rarely volunteering an opinion, when asked, he invariably makes the most perceptive observations.

‘While he has thankfully now discarded the handwritten invoices and offers, the odd handwritten label still makes an appearance (the latest being a half of Las Cases ‘61!). I have every confidence buying such “personalised” labels from him, but not from many, if any, others!

‘He is marvellous at finding rare and unusual bottles when needed for special occasions. I turned to him to find something drinkable for a dear friend's special birthday. He was born in 1951, as difficult a year as you could have. He came up with Ch Laville Haut-Brion 1951 which drank magnificently (and continues to do so). Goodness knows where he found that!’

Reid Wines; +44 (0)1761 452645