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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
14 Jan 2014

Today is the funeral of Richard Tanner, who died on New Year's Day at the age of 75, a victim of Parkinson's disease. He did not look like a fashion-conscious pioneer but he was. He transformed the family business from beer distributor to one of Britain's best wine merchants. When in 1981 I wrote the first edition of the Which? Wine Guide, once published annually by Britain's Consumers Association, I gave just three wine merchants my top award: Clive Coates MW's Malmaison Wine Club (a heavily stocked treasure trove owned by British Transport Hotels); Florence Pike's wonderfully personal Gérard Harris (an adjunct to The Bell at Aston Clinton, then in its prime); and Tanners of Shrewsbury.

After singing the praises of Tanners' selection, prices and service, I wrote, 'There are also special offers [not that usual then] from time to time, such as the 1978 Rhône selection that resulted from Mr Tanner's visit there. A most instructive and enjoyable wine list.' Wine enthusiasts were very much less numerous in those days, but many of those in the densely populated south of England hardly knew who Richard Tanner was. His commercial empire was, and is, based in the Midlands and on the border of England and Wales.

Keenly and presciently aware when he was hauled back to join the family firm in 1959 after active service with the Gurkhas in Malaya that wine was the drink of the future, he quarrelled so violently with his father about the future of the company that he was briefly sacked. The handover to his son James, who has continued Richard's excellent work and has been joint managing director since 1994, was handled with much more care. See Fathers and sons, and bottles.

Richard was a director of the traditional wine merchants' buying group Merchant Vintners, an association formed to respond to the onslaught of the supermarkets on the UK wine market. Stilt-walking, earring-wearing Simon Loftus of Adnams was another member who went on to write some superb books. He devoted an entire chapter to Richard in his first book, Anatomy of the Wine Trade - Abe's Sardines and Other Stories. Like all Simon's oeuvre, it is beautifully written.

'His talent, a quite exceptional one, is to ignore non-essentials but to deal decisively with the things that matter. At a tasting you can see him scowl or wrinkle his nose at the dull wines, and then suddenly perk up like a pointer when he comes across something good.'

As well as being an enthusiastic and perceptive wine merchant, introducing a house claret as early as 1973, Richard Tanner was one of the first traditional merchants to set up an efficient mail-order business, based on his own personal discoveries, notably domaine-bottled burgundies and finds in the Rhône, Loire, southern France and Spain. He travelled to wine regions much more extensively than most of his peers, although Simon Loftus was a fellow believer in the virtue of personal knowledge of wine suppliers that was even more unusual in the British wine trade then than it is now.

Simon and Richard once toured California wine country together, inspiring this passage in Simon's book: 'His driving is that of a man who enjoys a rough gallop, and he tends to fall asleep when navigating and in love when he's not. As we progressed down the Napa Valley one Californian blonde after another stole his heart, until he met Janet Trefethen and switched his allegiance to brunettes.'

Richard Tanner was no smooth lothario. To his core he was what my grandmother would have called approvingly 'a real countryman'. As Simon wrote, 'For years I believed he hardly went into the office, but spent all of his time hunting'. He was a notable Master of Foxhounds in southern Shropshire. 'On trips to the wine-growers he does little to dispel this illusion, turning up in a tweed suit and heavy brogues on the sunniest of spring days and insisting on sending telex messages to his huntsman from the remotest areas of viticultural France. At Paul Jaboulet Ainé, Richard's conversation with Louis Jaboulet revolves around Jip, a black labrador that he bought for Louis which initially proved too cowardly to hunt wild boar.'

I last saw Richard a few years ago when I went to take a look at Tanners' considerable empire in the Welsh marches. As James, Richard and I drove back to Shrewsbury from one of their substantial warehouses we had to stop the car in sensational countryside for quite some time so that father and son could get out their binoculars and marvel at the local birdlife. He was whimsical, wonderfully polite but never short of a sometimes surprising opinion.

Simon kindly shared his own thoughts on life without Richard Tanner: 'We were such different characters but somehow hit it off. We went on a great many wine trips together, relishing every minute, and teasing each other for our various foibles. Richard was always greeted as a real friend, loved by all for what they rightly perceived as his personification of the best English virtues and an enchanting bundle of English eccentricities. He was of course a much shrewder businessman and judge of wine than he liked to appear, but those professional aptitudes were combined with things even more important - a strong instinct for what was decent and right, a wonderful sense of fun, an eagerness to learn and experience new things (despite his very traditional surface) - and an astonishing knowledge of the countryside and its wildlife. That combination of tradition and eagerness was one of the many things I loved about Richard, and one of the reasons that I now find myself mourning him as if part of my own life had vanished - as indeed it has.'

Richard's funeral is today, organised by James, who survives him along with his sister Lucy and Richard's third wife. In a way Richard Tanner built Tanners to be what might be called the Berry Bros of the Midlands, except that in recent times it has enjoyed its status as one of Britain's most admirable wine merchants for rather longer than the recently revived St James's establishment.