30 Years of Decanter
- Thursday 1 September 2005
Founding editor Colin Parnell recalls the birth of Decanter: ‘There wasn’t a magazine for wine lovers, and we thought it was a great idea. But the banks wouldn’t lend us any money, and all the advice we received from friends in the trade was that it was a very risky venture. Few gave it more than a few months’ life expectancy, and I almost gave up at one stage. But we struck a deal with Luis Gordon, whose family firm held the UK agency for Domecq sherry, in Gordon’s Wine Bar in Charing Cross, whereby he funded the first three issues. We then came up with the name “Decanter”, which few people liked at the time. We almost chose “Magnum” instead. The first issue (56 pages, priced 40p, pictured left) was glued together in a tiny room in south London, before being posted out from nearby letterboxes. The cover photo was shot in my living room – I used a decanter which I’d bought for £3 as part of a pair in a Brixton junk shop.’
It is hard to imagine that when Colin and Tony started Decanter back in 1975 on a shoestring they could have foreseen the impact it would have across the wine world. The magazine is now read in over 90 countries, from Bordeaux to Brazil, Australia to Latvia, Taiwan to Dubai. Decanter has always been international, with 50% of readers outside the UK. (Last year we launched our first foreign language edition, in Hungary.)
From the start, the magazine struck a chord with wine lovers, whether passionate consumers or members of the trade. Its philosophy has remained constant – to seek out the world’s most interesting wines, wherever they are from, and have the most entertaining, respected wine authorities write on them.
1975: Decanter is born, in a rented flat in Baker Street. Founding editor Colin Parnell, the opera-loving former editor of Wine and Spirit, and deputy editor Tony Lord,
an ebullient, plain-talking Australian, make an unlikely team.
1976: Our first office, a small premises at Waterloo Station, with a leaky, corrugated iron roof. ‘It was a definition of dereliction,’ says Parnell
1977: Parnell and Lord drive round London hand-delivering copies to various wine merchants.
Michael Broadbent writes his first column, on vintage port. He promises to avoid ‘striving, poetically, to earn an immortal niche in pseud’s corner’.
1978: Our first panel tasting – of red wines under £1.50 – was the first blind tasting of its kind in the media. Within five years, all the major UK newspapers are doing the same. Among the early tasters are Clive Coates MW, Serena Sutcliffe MW, David Peppercorn MW and Michael Broadbent.
1979: Helpful advice on how to pronounce up-and-coming Spanish wine region Rioja (Ree-och-er).
1980: Decanter features a nude model on the front cover (left), prompting streams of complaints decrying it as ‘vulgar’, ‘offensive’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘pornographic’, with several readers keeping the magazine hidden from friends and family for fear of ridicule, or threatening – and in some cases exercising – cancellation of their subscription. Others are more sanguine: ‘What a thrill to see, in such living colour, the rare vintage you chose to illustrate,’ writes one.
1982: A tasting of ‘bag in the box’ wines. Wynvale Dry Australian White (£11.80 for four litres) comes out on top, followed by Blue Danube (£8.25 for 3l) second. H‘Is this the end for corks?’ asks the first of many similar subsequent features.
1983: Decanter’s Liebfraumilch tasting is pilloried as low-brow by the trade
1984: Château Musar’s Serge Hochar is named Decanter’s first Man of the Year, in recognition of his winemaking across war-torn Lebanon, where he trekked 110km across battlegrounds to travel from vineyard to winery. The item is featured on BBC’s main evening news.
1985: Decanter columnists make predictions for the year 2000. ‘California will have acknowledged Washington and/or Oregon as its peer,’ writes Hugh Johnson, while Robert Mondavi feels California is ‘moving away from over-oaked, jammy, alcoholic wines to elegance, balance and finesse.’ Michael Broadbent is worried that big business will ‘stifle competition, neutralise taste and restrict consumer choice.’ ‘It cannot be healthy for a handful of multinationals to dominate wine,’ he writes.
1986: Decanter holds its first ever masterclass, given by Bernard Hine of Hine Cognac.
HRobert Parker writes an article for Decanter on ‘What to look for in claret’. ‘The most important component I look for in young Bordeaux is fruit,’ he says
1988: Author Roald Dahl writes to Decanter, complaining about the use of flowery wine descriptions. He accuses Robert Parker of being chiefly responsible for ‘this tommy-rot’.
1989: Decanter is bought by United Newspapers, then publisher of the Daily Express, but continues to operate independently from premises in Battersea. HThe first Sunday Times/Decanter Wine Show is held, in Kensington, with masterclasses from Peter Sichel of Château Palmer and Miguel Torres.
1992: Hugh Johnson pens his first Decanter column. ‘My wife and I have similar tastes in many things, but in few are we so totally in harmony as in our taste for Chablis.’
Tony Lord leaves Decanter and returns to Australia.
1993: Steven Spurrier joins Decanter, and soon calls for supermarkets to develop ‘FOT’ ratings for their wines: fruit, oak and terroir, each marked out of five, to show the public what to expect. ‘Unlike oak, wine can never have too much terroir, and too little will mean the wine is fruit-driven, oak-driven, or both.’
1995: Decanter is bought by CINVen, then Europe’s second largest venture capital group. The last Sunday Times/Decanter Wine Show.
1996: Colin Parnell steps down and Sarah Kemp takes over as publishing director.
The first (and last) Decanter beer tasting is held, with Freeminer’s Speculation Ale garnering five stars: ‘Sweet vanilla aromas. Complex flavours with caramel.’
1997: Decanter hosts its first Fine Wine Encounter, with masterclasses from Brian Croser and Len Evans on Chardonnays around the world, Jean-Michel Cazes on Pichon-Longueville, Ernst Loosen on the Mosel, and Michel Chapoutier on the Rhône.
1998: Decanter is bought by IPCMedia, the UK’s largest magazine publisher.
2000: The launch of decanter.com at the height of the dotcom boom. With the tagline, ‘The Route to all Good Wine’, a fast-moving news agenda and the Decanter Fine Wine Tracker, as well as detailed learning sections, it quickly establishes itself as a must-have source of wine information.
2002: Tony Lord dies in Australia. ‘He was one of the great characters of the wine business,’ says Sarah Kemp. ‘Without Tony’s energy and enthusiasm there would have
been no Decanter.’
IPCMedia is bought by Time Warner.
2004: Launch of the Decanter World Wine Awards. More than 4,500 wines are judged by some of the world’s finest palates to find the best of each region. A year on, the number of wines entered rises by 20%.
decanter.com’s most viewed news story ever, as Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson MW lock horns over Château Pavie 2003, drawing the battle lines of taste down the mid-atlantic ridge. Robinson says the wine is ‘ridiculous’, Parker ‘sublime’.
Sarah Kemp, publishing director, on the challenges faced over the years:
Introducing readers to their heroes and heroines – the wine producers – was a logical next step. The Decanter Fine Wine Encounters have been a huge success and we now welcome over 4,000 people a year. With names like Lafite, Mouton, Antinori, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Vega Sicilia present, the encounters, masterclasses and dinners are always sold out.
But just as the world has changed, so has Decanter. At the height of the crazy dot-com boom in 2000 we launched decanter.com. Today, unlike many websites, we are still here, supplying – and breaking – daily, unmissable wine news. Four months after an April Fools’ news story on a possible sixth first growth in Bordeaux, we’re still getting emails from Scandinavia, Alabama and India asking if the announcement has been made.
Another major step was launching the Decanter World Wine Awards in 2004. Keeping with our philosophy of having only respected experts comment on wine, we put together the greatest panel of wine tasters ever assembled. The industry endorsed the inaugural awards by sending in a resounding 20% more wines this year. The results will be announced next month, while the remaining wine will be auctioned off at Christie’s in aid of our chosen charity, WaterAid. Last year we raised over £25,000.
As for the next 30 years, if Michael Broadbent lives as long as his mother, he owes us another 300 columns, and if an ancient bottle is found on Mars, I expect decanter.com to report on it first. I hope the next generation of the great wine families will be pouring their wines for your children at our events and that the word ‘Decanter’ is seen anywhere where people want to learn, read, taste or enjoy good wine.