Wheeler Dealer - Interview with Lay & Wheeler

It’s 150 years old and stronger than ever. Andrew jefford meets Richard and Johnny Wheeler of Lay & Wheeler wine merchants and finds out what has made the company so successful

As the staff of Lay & Wheeler in Colchester stand around the company’s 150th birthday cake and prepare to blow out the candles, let’s spare a thought for absent friends: the nine independent Colchester wine merchants not celebrating any sort of an anniversary this year. Because they don’t exist any more.

For Richard Wheeler, two key events stand out during the 50 years he has spent in the family company: a refusal and an acceptance. First, the refusal: ‘In 1960, there were 10 independent wine firms in Colchester. Gradually, the national brewers came in and bought all of them. I remember a director from Trumans came to my office and said he wanted to acquire the company. I said it wasn’t for sale. “We haven’t even discussed terms,” he replied. “There aren’t any,” I said. “We’re not for sale.” “Well,” he said, “I have to tell you that you haven’t got a hope in hell of having this business working at the end of the century.” I thanked him for his advice, and showed him the door. That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It got me fired up – to prove him wrong.’

The acceptance took place four years later. Richard had bumped into Pamela Vandyke Price, wine correspondent at The Times, who had mentioned that she felt she ought to head to Bordeaux to taste the outstanding 1961 vintage, now in bottle. He offered to get the samples together for her in Colchester. ‘My father was a bit surprised because of the cost of samples and so on, which you had to pay for in those days, but we put up all the first growths and quite a number of the seconds, and she agreed to come down. That was the first time we had a serious Bordeaux tasting. When she wrote it up, it occupied most of the back page of The Times. You only ever read about London wine merchants then, and here was a provincial wine merchant prominently displayed on the back of The Times with fantastic wine. Then the phone started ringing…’

John Lay would have smiled into his copious beard at such news (his is the ample profile which constitutes the company’s logo). He founded the business in 1854 by acquiring the long-established Salmon & Son, and became both an enterprising Colchester businessman and highly active local politician and charitable worker. He never married, so after his death in 1894, the business passed to the business partner he had acquired in 1883: his niece’s husband, George Wheeler. Richard Wheeler is George’s great-grandson, and a canny man – though he calls it luck.

‘I suppose you could say there was a third bit of luck, too. It came in 1972, with the Bordeaux crash. Because I was going to Bordeaux quite a lot and talking to Peter Sichel and his father Allan, I got the clear message that it was going to happen. I think I knew about 18 months or two years ahead, and we completely lowered our stock.

The crash came, and then the very breweries that had been hammering us in Colchester came round with plenty of first growths and second growths to sell – 1970 primarily, but also 1966, quite a lot of 1962 and a bit of 1961; vintage port too. They’d been told by their accountants to get rid of their stock.’ The prices? ‘It would make you cry nowadays even to think of it.’

But Wheeler also remembers the graft. Wine was his passion – but if it hadn’t been for decades of beer wholesaling, he doubts Lay & Wheeler would have survived. ‘We were the Guinness bottlers for the region, and we used to mature it in the same way that we look after wine. It came to us in cask, and we had to bottle it and keep it at a certain temperature – 52°F or something. We used to do exactly what we were told, whereas most of the other bottlers didn’t bother. So we had this reputation for fantastic Guinness. It’s like most things in life – if you pay attention to detail, you can get the product exactly right. It was hard work, though. The number of times I’ve come into the office to get on with managing the business, only to find out someone hadn’t turned up on the Guinness bottling line. So I’d spend all day on the line myself, then spend all evening catching up with what I hadn’t done during the day. The family laugh at me for the hours I put in during that time, but I still maintain there wasn’t an option. The beer side helped pay the bills.’

Long-term, though, he was aiming to be a great wine merchant; nothing else. ‘From the 1950s, I always said that the standard of living was going to rise in Britain, and wine consumption was going to rise with it. That was the principle on which we developed the business.’ The company continued to build its presence nationally from that breakthrough back page of The Times in 1964, investing heavily in developing a great wine list (under John Thorogood) from 1980 onwards; opening its Wine Centre in 1986; and pioneering lavish customer tastings with food.

‘I can’t really fault your vision,’ says Richard’s softly spoken and diplomatic son Johnny, ‘but perhaps you might have come out of beer a little earlier. The late 1980s.’

‘Except,’ replies Richard, ‘that it was an important sale when it happened [to a Boddington subsidiary in 1995]. And it wouldn’t have been if we’d done it earlier.’

‘It’s difficult to change family businesses,’ admits Johnny. ‘There’s lots of emotion tied up in it.’

‘So many of the staff were wine people, and they couldn’t think what we were doing messing about with beer.’ Richard pauses. ‘Well of course what we were doing was paying the bills.’ Then comes a peal of the most distinctive laughter in the wine trade – a sort of herring-gull cackle that can be heard 250 yards away.

No more beer; but now they have wine bars and a bonded warehouse in Burton-upon-Trent – a deliciously ironic location. The all-powerful brewers thought they would take over the wine trade in 1960; instead, they made error after error, leaving brewing altogether in the 1990s. The recalcitrant wine-trade flea from Colchester now dances on their graves – by filling one of the British brewing capital’s largest grain stores with wine.

Johnny Wheeler wanted to create Lay & Wheeler wine bars before his father did. ‘Each generation wants to do something the previous generation hasn’t done,’ admits Richard. ‘I was very nervous about wine bars. I realised later that I had made quite a serious misjudgment. I should have let him have his head earlier.’ Lay & Wheeler will soon have two London City wine bars under its own name, in Cornhill and Leadenhall Market. The company is also a vineyard owner in New Zealand. ‘We’d been Georg Fromm’s agent from when he started in 1992’ says Richard. ‘In 1998, John Thorogood took a phone call from Georg. He said he wanted to buy the Clayvin vineyard, but he could only raise the money for half of it himself. So he wanted each of his seven agents around the world to take one-seventh of the other half. We told him to forget the other six; we would take the half ourselves. He nearly fell off his chair.’

The purchase has proved a good investment, doubling in value in five years. It’s also turned into a private passion for the Wheeler family (the now-retired Richard is chief summer bird-scarer) – as well as a springboard which has made the company the UK’s leading New Zealand wine

specialist and an ideal training ground for the company’s MWs (it now has three, with a potential fourth writing his thesis).

Johnny Wheeler has been in charge since 1997; all the shares are owned by seven members of the Wheeler family; total turnover for the various businesses is around £20 million a year. As anyone who has been a customer of Lay & Wheeler will know (the list includes Hugh Johnson, Delia Smith Michael Schumacher) the company is supremely professional, communicative and reliable. Needless to say, the whole motley bunch of us hopes it will be there for another 150 years.

Andrew Jefford is the Glenfiddich wine writer of the year, 2003.