Wine is bottled history, flavours of a summer long gone. A few nights ago I opened a bottle of Botobolar Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 from Mudgee Australia. Admittedly, the cork had dried up, and disintegrated when I tried to pull it from the neck. I ended up pushing it into the bottle, then sieving the garnet nectar through my kitchen sieve into a jug. The wine was blood red, turning to amber at the edges, the nose lively, cedary with smoky black fruit aromas. In the mouth, rich prune and red cherry with layers of vanilla, oak and a touch of eucalyptus. It was vibrant, alive and every sip was a joy!
The producer of that wine was Gil Wahlquist, a Swedish journalist who moved to Australia with his wife in the 1970s. An environmentalist, wine lover and committed organic pioneer who believed in a sustainable, non-chemical approach to viticulture and winemaking. You could tell Gil was committed, he had a sign up at the entrance to his farm ‘Trespassers will be Composted’! You have to take your hat off to such folk, who in those early years followed their hearts, and often against the odds (and usually much ridicule from their neighbours) produce astoundingly good wines with real integrity.
It was nine years before the grapes for that 1994 Cabernet were grown that the seed of an idea for Vintage Roots was planted. Three friends Peter, Lance and myself were in our mid twenties and had known each other from University and travelling days. In 1983 we set off for France in a friend’s customised bus, with five other ‘fruity’ adventurers. We earned money and had a huge amount of fun picking grapes (vendage) in Bourgueil in the Loire valley, followed by a couple of pretty miserable weeks picking apples. On board the bus we had my reggae sound system called ‘Surgery’, we played several gigs in the Tours and Poitiers areas as well as getting on a few local radio shows. Our bus, all painted up yellow and red with wood smoke puffing out the chimney on top and thumping dub reggae pumping out its windows, became quite a sight for the bemused French locals. It was during this trip that we enjoyed some great hospitality from some friends of Pete’s parents (his mother is French). Pierre and Francoise lived in the suburbs of Tours where we were able to park our bus up for some weeks, and enjoy the occasional good meal and possibly more importantly have use of their hot shower! They were quite alternative types and already into ‘organic living’, belonging to an organic cooperative – they even knew about some organic vineyards, which proved to be very useful later on.
Our reggae version of ‘Summer Holiday’ ended in the run up to xmas 1983, with one of our first and unsuccessful ventures into business. We saw money in the trees near one of our forest park ups outside the city, in the form of mistletoe – lots of huge bunches, there for the taking. We proceeded to harvest a LOT of it, practically filling the whole bus in the hope we could sell it around the markets in London in the run up to Christmas and make a killing. Sadly Customs at Dover got us to take it all off so they could send on the sniffer dogs to look for contraband (no kisses for them!). I’d like to think it was the fact that we lost lots of white berries rather than our poor selling techniques that we ended up giving most of it away. Well hopefully we may have helped a few relationships blossom during the winter of 1983/1984!
It was 1985 after plans to open up a wholefood restaurant in Reading failed that Peter called on that list of organic vineyards that Pierre and Francoise had given him. With Lance and I as willing business partners with £2000 each to put into the pot, we travelled to France again with a bag full of reggae tapes and a tent, this time in my old Citroen to research and visit the organic wine producers. We were inspired by what we saw, who we met and what we tasted, Vintage Roots was on its way, the name derived from a version of one of those reggae compilation tapes called ‘Roots in my Boots’.
So on 4th November 1986 Vintage Roots was officially born, we were not wine experts or businessmen, but had a yearning to create something for ourselves, and put our energy into something we really believed in. We started on Maggie Thatcher’s ‘Enterprise Allowance Scheme’ which gave budding entrepreneurs £40 a week (equivalent to state benefit at the time) for a year to start a business.
Our first wine list was a single sheet of A4 with twelve wines. We hired a van and drove for three days round France to collect our first seventy cases. With newly printed business cards and an empty order book, we set up office in the front room of our terraced house in East Reading and got on the phone! First orders were for family and friends, week 1 – one case sold, week 2 – three cases, week 3 – no cases….. We delivered orders in our own vehicles, taking the opportunity to cold call on any likely outlets that we saw.
In those early days the whole concept of ‘organic’ was little understood, ‘is it made from carrots?’ and ‘has it got any alcohol in?’ were by far the two most commonly asked questions. We set out with almost evangelical zeal to convert the UK wine drinking public onto the benefits of drinking organic wine. It wasn’t easy and progress was slow. We stored a gradually increasing stock of wine in a network of (trusted) friends houses and cellars across Reading which helped keep our overheads low, and our thanks must go to those articulated lorry drivers that struggled round the backstreets on our behalf. Profit was near non-exisitent for at least the first 4-5 years and Peter left the business in 1991. From the mid 1990s onwards sales started to flourish as the organic movement gathered pace and various major public health scares hit the headlines.
Fast forward to today (BACK IN 2011)
(When we have Heinz organic baked beans and Tetley organic tea!), I am immensely proud of our business which now employs fourteen people and turns over £4million+ annually. We list over 350 organic wines, beers and spirits, many of which are well respected award winners, and service a diverse spectrum of customers across the whole UK, as well as export to seven countries. We’re known as the organic wine people, I’m glad we stuck to our guns. Of course the real respect must go to folk like Gil Walquist, I wonder how many trespassers he actually had?!
Fast forward to today (September 2016!)
What’s happened and where did the time go? It’s fantastic news that the benefits of an organic lifestyle seem to be reaching an ever widening audience, with growth in ‘organic’ sales, over the the last four years consecutively. We’ve grown to a turnover of over £5 million + and now list over 400 organic wines and drinks. The independent shop and restaurant trade has grown quickly, which helps us, as this is our core business too, working with many amazing small enterprises throughout the country. We don’t deal with the larger supermarkets and we don’t sell to Amazon. Small, sustainable and ethical is where we want to be and how we run our business still.
The rise of natural wines, orange wines, biodynamic wines and No Sulphur Added (NS) wines (which can all cross over), is adding vibrancy and real interest to the wine market, and in particular for a whole new generation of wine drinkers. We embrace them all, when the wine tastes great too!