Tony Laithwaite has long been a champion of New Zealand wine.
A man who has trumpeted the cause of many small producers the world over, Tony has developed an empire of wine sales, like no other.
It all began back in 1968, when as a young under graduate with a passion for the image of a French harvest, Tony headed to Bordeaux to clean bottles in a small winery. He fell in love with more than the image of a vintage, as the wines themselves began to weave their magic around him. Before long he was bringing cases of Bordeaux back to England in his van to sell to unknown customers. Utilising the phone book he rang potential clients, inviting them to a tasting and quickly established a system of sending letters out to clients who may be interested in purchasing wine. Before long his van wasn't big enough to cater for the demand and he established Bordeaux Direct and opened his first wine warehouse, "under a railway arch, in Windsor."
Bordeaux Direct was the beginnings of an empire, now known as Laithwaite Wines, which sells to more than one million customers, owns wine bars and shops throughout the world, has a turnover in excess of £350m, and employs more than 1000 people. They are the biggest wine merchants in the world, excluding supermarket retailers.
Yet having been in business for more than 50 years, and having been involved with New Zealand wines since 1986 (when he invited a young Ernie Hunter to show his wines at The Sunday Times Wine Club's Vintage Festival) Tony has never had a presence here. That all changed last year when Laithwaite's New Zealand was launched.
Why has it taken him so long, especially given he has such a strong affinity with this country?
"I didn't think you needed us," he quipped while in New Zealand recently. "I still feel, 'should I be bringing in foreign wines to New Zealand? Do they need foreign wines, because they already make their own amazing wines? But then Terry Dunleavy said to me, that we need to try these foreign wines just to remind ourselves how good our own wines are. So maybe that's a service I am rendering."
Laithwaite's have been in Australia for the past nine years, and even though the new on-line presence here is only a matter of months old, Tony and CEO for Asia and Pacific, Rachel Robinson, believe there are some significant differences between the two countries.
"We have been impressed at the range of what is already in New Zealand," Rachel said. "We also found when compared with Australia, New Zealanders are far more open to different wines from different countries. In Australia it can be difficult to find a lot of international wines, so that was a surprise for us when we investigated New Zealand."
The way Laithwaite's works is by providing a one on one service, via the phone – much Tony says in the way that the old High St wine shops used to work.
"We have about 150 of us globally on the phones and have managed to keep the original, traditional idea of offering advice to wine lovers. These people (on the phones) are not salesmen, they are not hard sellers. Basically they know what their customers like and the have a data base they can tap into when a particular wine becomes available."
So if a client in the UK particularly likes Central Otago Pinot Noir, when a shipment arrives, a salesperson will call the client, letting them know about it and checking to see if they are interested. Given many people have a fear of making the wrong choice when it comes to wine Tony said the assistance of a knowledgeable person makes the purchasing task so much easier.
"A lot of the guys we have used to work on the High Street. They are used to looking after individual customers. In a way we are providing a traditional service the way wine merchants used to work."
Taking away that risk factor is why the business model has been so successful Rachel said.
"Because we explain the wines, people know what to expect. Whereas when you go to a supermarket, you tend to be faced with a wall of wine. I think people tend to go to the stuff they know, because they haven't a clue what else to choose. Whereas I think we can talk to people and advice them. We can say; 'you may not have tried this before, but it tastes a bit like such and such which you have told us you like.'"
In New Zealand's case, the Laithwaite's Wine Group will have a wine list that covers approximately 250 wines. Those wines have been selected from a vast 6500 tasted by Fiona Warren Tibbits and her team. Of those 250 wines, 70 percent are reds, Rachel said.
"We have found New Zealanders love the reds. We didn't think the Aussie reds would go down as well as they have, but we have been pleasantly surprised. Then we have a range of other wines, from France and Italy, all over the world. It is quite vast."
For more information on Laithwaite's New Zealand, visit www.laithwaiteswine.co.nz