2018’s Drinks Business Awards: profiling the recipients

Lifetime Achievement Award

Tony Laithwaite

Our recipient dreamt of becoming a farmer as a child, and has since become an avid boat enthusiast whose collection includes a pre-war cabin cruiser moored in Henley.

Born in Lancashire in 1945, our recipient first got into the wine trade while studying for a degree in geography at Durham, where he met his future wife and business partner, Barbara.

Inspired by his love of the French actress Brigitte Bardot, he embarked on his first fateful trip to France in 1965, aged just 19, with the intention of working on an archaeological dig in Sainte-Colombe in the Côtes de Castillon. Sweltering and bored, he left the dig to work for the local wine co-op run by Jean Cassin, who would later become a mentor.

In 1969 our recipient got a job as a bottle washer at a Bordeaux winery. Inspired by his colleagues’ passion and the quality of the wines being made, he decided to set up his own business in order to bring quality French wines back to the UK.

The same year a number of producers in Sainte-Colombe clubbed together to buy him a Ford van to drive the wines home in, and a year later he opened his first retail space under a railway arch in Windsor, which he paid £5 a week rent for.

His game-changing moment came when he wrote an open letter to The Sunday Times following an exposé by the paper on fraudulent wine, telling its readers that they could trust the AOC wines he was bringing into the UK.

The letter led to the formation of The Sunday Times Wine Club, headed up by Hugh Johnson, who became a favourite travel companion of our recipient, who enjoyed wine trips with him to Australia, New Zealand, Bulgaria and Romania.

In 1980 he planted his first three-hectare vineyard in Sainte-Colombe, and was one of the first to enter the English sparkling wine game in the ‘90s with a vineyard on a south-facing slope in Theale near Reading.

In 2011, the Duke of Edinburgh allowed him to lease five hectares of land in Windsor Great Park for the production of English sparkling wine.

He’s such a fan of home-grown fizz that this year he teamed up with Pantone to create a bespoke off-white shade of paint called ‘English sparkling wine’, which has gone on sale at B&Q.

Starting out with just five wines and 150 customers, our recipient has grown his company into a multi-million pound business boasting over 1,500 wines and 750,000 customers.

Employing over 1,000 people, the Berkshire based business with franchises in Hong Kong and India is wholly owned by our recipient, and turned over £340 million in 2016. Specialising in wines from Australia, France, Spain and Italy, the company prioritises personalised service above all things.

After a heart attack in 1988, our recipient was advised to sell his business and retire. Thirty years on he has no intention of doing so, and is keen to explore new wine frontiers in China in between penning his memoirs.

When it comes to his three sons, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. His eldest, Henry, makes English sparkling wine under the Harrow & Hope brand; his youngest, Tom, works for the family company; and his middle son, Will, runs a brewery. All three are shareholders in the business.

With a net worth of £162 million, our recipient’s proudest achievement isn’t the money that he’s made but the customer loyalty he’s earned over his half a century in the wine business.

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