Away from the pressure of demanding shareholders, the boss of UK retail giant Marks & Spencer chooses to unwind by feeding his ‘addiction’ to top-end wines, writes BEVERLEY BLANNING MW

aT’S NO SURPRISE to learn that Marks & Spencer’s chief executive is a busy man. It’s slightly more of a surprise to learn that he is so busy that he has no idea how much wine is in his cellar. Perhaps the truth is that Stuart Rose has so much good wine he doesn’t need to think about it too much, or too often. His best guess is that the figure is ‘north of 1,500 cases, maybe more’. For those of you without a calculator to hand, that’s a bottle a day for the next 50 years. (He doesn’t approve of buying wine to sell. ‘Trading wine is killing off the opportunity for the real wine lover,’ he says. How much wine is stuck in places with people sitting on it?’)

Rose describes his love of wine as ‘an indulgence’ though concedes also that ‘it’s a bit like a disease’. ‘I don’t gamble and I don’t do cards or the races, but if you were to ring me up now and tell me I had to have three cases of the latest vintage of Bonneau de Martray, I’d say “okay” – and I need more wine like I need a hole in the head.’

One presumes the more common vices were heavily proscribed at his Quaker boarding school in Yorkshire. Yet it was here that his curiosity for wine began. ‘My parents didn’t drink wine on a regular basis – it was a bit expensive. To this day, I don’t know what got me into wine, but when my friends were smoking fags behind the cycle sheds, I used to nip across the road to the grocer’s and persuade the bloke to sell me a bottle of wine. I was about 16 or 17. From then on, I was always trying different bottles.’

‘I remember drinking some of the cheaper clarets, but the first serious wine memory I’ve got is a wine I’m still fond of and still buy, Château la Lagune. I’m just drinking the last of the 1997s. They’re fabulous, but need drinking now. I remember the 1966, the 1968… the 1970 was a lovely wine. I’ve still got some in magnums.’

Once hooked on wine, Rose read library books and became sufficiently knowledgeable to win a newspaper wine competition in the mid-1970s. The prize was a week-long trip to visit wineries in Yugoslavia. At this time he was embarking on a retail career at M&S. An added bonus of winning the competition was that his boss asked him and a colleague to go and find out about wine on behalf of M&S. ‘I didn’t need much encouragement to do that,’ he says, ‘and my hobby became my job for a couple of years. We used to travel around Europe all week and knock on the door of anything from Mouton Rothschild downwards. Three months later, we opened the first M&S wine department.’ Sales took off, partly because there wasn’t much in the way of competition: ‘25 years ago, there was a lot of rubbish about.’

lessons learned

It wasn’t all plain sailing though. He describes the first commercial wine purchase he ever made: ‘It was a Catalan white. I went over there and the bloke took me out for lunch. We had paella overlooking the sea in Barcelona and I ordered 500 cases. The wine came in November and when we sat down in the tasting room at Baker Street, my boss looked at me and we both agreed it was vinegar. It was a good lesson.’

Rose has been ‘squirrelling wine away’ since the late 1970s. Of his current drinking, he is enjoying Krug 1982 (‘drinking really nicely’), Dom Pérignon 1990 (‘a treat’), Raveneau Chablis from 1995 and 1996, Château Rayas 1989 (‘a lovely wine – I’ve got 36 bottles left and I’m counting’) and Château Rieussec 1983 (‘fabulous’). Passions at the moment include Haut-Brion blanc, to which he claims to be ‘absolutely addicted’. Does he drink fine wine all the time, I wonder? Yes and no. He does drink everyday wines, (M&S Chablis seems to be a loyal favourite), but he is honest enough to admit that ‘with the amount of wine I’ve got, I’d be stupid not to’.

His cellar is exclusively European. ‘I’m not a New World man. Whenever I’ve been given a really good New World wine, I’ve enjoyed it, although I will say, at the risk of being shouted down by the experts, that they do tend to taste the same from the minute you open the bottle to the minute you finish the bottle. I find it a bit predictable, compared with a bottle of, say, Côtes du Rhône, claret or Burgundy.

‘I buy a lot of claret. I’m very fond of Rhône wines and buy quite a lot from Tuscany, although to be honest, I find they always promise a lot and I’m sometimes disappointed. I also like good Burgundy. I always take my allocation for DRC, but interestingly enough – and I know it sounds a terrible thing to say – I sometimes find them a bit disappointing. Partly it’s because they’re so delicate. Maybe I’ve just gone off that style for a while; maybe I’ll come back to them.’

Rose must have had daily access to the finest wines in the world for some time now, but he keeps telling me how lucky he is. ‘It’s been fabulous to be involved in wine. I’ve made a lot of friends and it’s wonderful how generous people are if they like you and find out you like good wine. I remember watching a football match in Germany, on my birthday. Germany were playing Argentina. The host opened a Wehlener Sonnenuhr from JJ Prum. It was a 1949, my birth year. I can still taste that wine.’

Written by Beverley Blanning