A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
If you were to poll the British wine trade as to its most popular member, chances are it would be a 60-year-old Canadian with an apparently indefatigable sense of humour, a fine appetite for both good food and good gossip, and an eye permanently on his phone to judge from the speed with which he answers emails, even though for almost half the year he is in foreign vine-growing parts.
Others may be admired for various specific qualities but David Gleave, founder of Liberty Wines, is a successful all-rounder who does not throw his weight around, is unfailingly polite and knows when to keep his mouth shut. This year his company celebrates its twentieth anniversary. In 1997 it had four employees. Today it has more than 140 and turned over nearly £54 million last financial year.
Some of their peers notch up higher turnover but, with a few exceptions, Liberty does not play the high-volume, tiny-reward game of supplying supermarkets. All of their 330 producers in 21 countries produce seriously interesting wine. Furthermore, years before other companies, Gleave saw the growth potential of restaurants and bars, and the mushrooming of small, independent wine retailers. Liberty have assiduously courted all of them, particularly London's swarm of young, often foreign, sommeliers. The crowd at Liberty's twentieth anniversary tasting in the Oxo Tower was much younger, less British, less conventional than the typical customers of the traditional wine trade. My fellow wine writer Stephen Brook shrugged, as we tried to elbow our way in to the tasting tables, 'It's a party!'
I first came across David Gleave in the mid 1980s when he worked in our local deli in north London as he was studying for his Master of Wine exams. He never meant to end up in the UK. The plan was to drop out of his university course in Vancouver for a year of travelling around Europe, but he became diverted by the contents of the cellar when working in a gay bar in Dublin in the early 1980s.
David's mentor in the London wine trade was Nicolas Belfrage MW, the American who patiently explained Italian wine to us all in the 1980s. This has left Gleave as one of the UK's greatest experts on Italian wine and, inter alia, one of the best friends of the team at London's River Café, including the now world-famous chef Jamie Oliver.
By the mid 1990s he was deputy managing director to one of the leading lights of the old-school Italian wine trade in Britain, Remo Nardone, emperor of Enotria Winecellars and apparently plugged in to every trattoria and pizzeria in the land. This was not a natural fit for the forward-looking Gleave, whose choice of name for his own new company was not incidental.
The recent twentieth-anniversary tasting arranged producers' tables chronologically according to the year they joined the Liberty portfolio. Of the 14 originals, 11 were Italian (including Aldo Conterno, Isole e Olena, Fontodi, Fèlsina Berardenga and Costanti), one Australian, one New Zealand and one French, whose reputation has waxed along with Liberty's (Domaine Richaud of Cairanne, thanks to an introduction from Tim Johnston of Juveniles wine bar in Paris). See my tasting notes on 41 of the Italian wines shown at this tasting.
Gleave's other great area of enthusiasm and expertise has become Australia – and with it a predilection for screwcaps. Over the years he has been directly involved in winemaking not just in Italy but in both Australia and New Zealand (where screwcaps are de rigueur). One of his earliest backers was Michael Hill Smith MW of Shaw + Smith, one of Australia's most prominent independent wine producers.
Here's how Michael HS explains why he invested in this relatively unknown quantity: 'When I attended my first MW lecture in London in 1986, serendipitously I sat next to a young David Gleave. I liked him immediately – smart and knowledgeable with an irreverent sense of humour and sense of fun. We have been great mates ever since. He sold our first vintage of Shaw+Smith in the UK in 1990 when he was at Winecellars, and we followed him to Enotria and eventually Liberty.
'So why did I decide to invest in the Liberty start up? The answer is simple – David is very good at his job. He has a fine palate and understanding of fine wine. The trade love him. He works hard. And last but not least – David truly loves restaurants and seems to be always able to get a table at the most sought-after places!'
Jeffrey Grosset of the Clare Valley is Australia's king of Riesling and exports to more than 20 distributors around the world, including Liberty. What impresses him particularly about Gleave is that 'he's a visionary (a bigger picture guy), innovative, even tempered (as far as I know!), hard working and has great wine knowledge'.
It's true that Gleave has always understood what's happening in the wider wine world (presumably helped by his friendship with John Ratcliffe, the ex Oddbins executive who now seems to be involved in a shadowy way in just about every significant merger and acquisition in the wine business, and has been a minor shareholder in Liberty since 2011).
It was typical of Gleave that he prefaced the twentieth-anniversary tasting with a presentation on the (less than buoyant) state of the UK wine trade. Wine sales have fallen in both the on and the off trade, with Prosecco a rare bright light. Those of us over 60 are still doing our bit, but young people are drinking notably less – not least because a phone rather than a bar is all they need to socialise.
Presumably because of Gleave's eye on the future, the important Portuguese family-owned company Sogrape, built on Mateus rosé but now with a portfolio of interesting brands, took a 25% stake in Liberty earlier this year.
Mark Shannon of A Mano, an outfit that basically put ambitious Puglian wines on the map internationally, told me how he came to sign up with Gleave way back in 1999. 'We met up in a pub and he just seemed to know what was going on everywhere in the wine business. He is seriously smart – and he's a very good people person. He hires very good people and lets them do their own thing. They stay.'
One employee who was called away by motherhood is Francesca De Paolis, daughter of a prominent fine-wine advisor. For her, 'David's incredible knowledge and passion about every single wine in the portfolio is so deep and true that it inspires every member of staff to learn more every day.' But she acknowledges the key role played by Luciann Flynn, David's wife, mother of three of his four sons, and communications director of Liberty.
'She is the one who pulls it all together. Firm, yet warm, supportive and encouraging, she is the maternal figure at Liberty.' Luciann was also personally responsible for the witty, custom-built premises in Clapham that replaced Liberty's old dungeon-like base in New Covent Garden Market. The fact that anyone stayed working for them there is perhaps sufficient testament to their qualities as employers.
Luciann is a runner, David now a devoted cyclist whose exertions presumably justify the time he spends at various well-laden tables. His trips around Italy with handpicked groups of his 2,500 customers are legendary – particularly those to Piemonte in the truffle season. The picture above shows 'DG'cycling in Italy earlier this summer with a small group of customers, their friends and a couple of Liberty's sales people. Part of the trip was organised by Vini Fantini, one of whose sponsors is Farnese Vini, a Liberty producer, hence the luminous kit. They usually have a team in the Giro but missed it this year.
Luciann frets that he is far too generous to his customers, but he must be doing something right.
SOME FINE ITALIANS AT LIBERTY
To celebrate their twentieth anniversary, Liberty invited nearly 120 producers to show two wines apiece, one classic and one potential future classic. I restricted myself to the Italians, the core of the company's portfolio. Although I concentrated on those wines not already tasted for this website, the crowd was too great to do them all justice. These were my top scorers, with Liberty's recommended retail price per bottle. Stockists can be found on wine-searcher.com. Click on the wine name to see the tasting note or see here for all my notes from the anniversary event.