Entrepreneur Giles Clarke has made millions through his sales of Majestic Wine Warehouses and Pet City, which he then spends on his favourite wines. ADAM LECHMERE shares a bottle with him.
Lunching with Giles Clarke in Cecconi’s in Mayfair reminded me of that scene in Get Shorty (the film in which small-time hoodlum John Travolta gets involved in movies) where Rene Russo is describing how the stars never order what’s on the menu, and Danny DeVito sits down and wants ‘egg white omelette, no yolk’.
Giles Clarke isn’t a film star, of course, but you can tell he’s at home here. After a quick inspection he flips the menu shut, gives the waiter detailed instructions about the celeriac in his chosen dish (leave it out), then turns to the wines.
‘I don’t think we’ll have Sassicaia – that would be a bit excessive at this time of day,’ he says, and orders a bottle of Turriga 1999, a deliciously juicy Sardinian wine from the wallet-emptying southern end of the wine list.
Giles Clarke is not a household name, but if you drink wine, own a cat, watch cricket, or educate your children, at some stage you will have come into one of his many spheres of influence.
He’s the kind of businessman that is described as ‘popular in the City’. He knows how to make money, in other words. In 1981 he bought an ailing Battersea wine warehouse called Majestic Wines for £100,000, and sold it nine years later for £15 million. He then started Pet City and sold that in 1997 for exactly 10 times what he got for Majestic. His latest venture is clay pigeon manufacturer CCI, bought for an undisclosed sum with two other investors. He was voted Businessman of the Year in 1987, and today is reckoned one of Europe’s top 500 entrepreneurs.
He’s also chairman of Somerset County Cricket Club, and was in charge of negotiating TV rights for English Test cricket, which went to Sky at the end of last year. Oh, and he’s also on the UK’s Learning and Skills Council, a quango with a £9-billion budget, charged with recommending changes in our education system. This is something Giles Clarke feels very strongly about. When he was at Pet City, he was taking on school leavers who couldn’t read and write, and he wants the recommendations of the Council to ‘help people recover what the school system didn’t do for them’.
So when does he get time to drink wine? ‘Well, I spend about a hundred a year on wine [100 thousand, that is]. That’s to invest, not to drink.’ He studies the market with an investor’s eye. He’s just bought ‘lots of Montrose 2000s – they’re very cheap at the moment, and 2003 first growths, not Mouton, masses of Cos d’Estournel and St-Estèphes.’
That’s the grandchildren’s trust funds sorted then, but what about drinking the stuff? What does he like?
Now we’re talking. He adores Grand-Puy-Lacoste and has an arsenal of imperials (eight-bottle bottles) of the 1989. ‘They’re known as torpedoes in our house.’ Why Grand-Puy-Lacoste? ‘It’s such a great party wine. We drank three of them at the Millennium, and lots at my 50th birthday party.’
So far so excessive, but I’m interested in the Clarkes at home in Somerset of an evening. What’s on the table for a kitchen supper?
Clarke looks slightly sheepish. I wonder if the term ‘kitchen supper’ is a bit alien, though it can’t be. He strikes me as having his feet on the ground, despite his millions. Out with it then – what’s your quaffing wine?
‘You’ve got to understand we have firm views about bad wine. At Majestic we drank the range, of course. But now my wife won’t drink red unless it’s very, very good. We’ll often drink Burgundy from different merchants (Lea & Sandeman and Claret-e are favourites), Savigny-lès-Beaune, and maybe Corbières. My wife loves Meursault, and of course we buy Australian. And on a summer’s evening we’ll drink Bernkastel.’
There’s also a big Zinfandel collection – Clarke knows the Zin king himself, Joel Peterson of Ravenswood.
We get onto the subject of Christmas, and Clarke takes off like a thoroughbred that feels the turf of Aintree under its hooves after a week in the paddock. ‘On Christmas Day we only drink Krug. I love Pol Roger, but Krug is just obligatoire,’ he says, not entirely seriously. ‘Fortunately I can afford it. After that it’s first or second growth claret.’
He knows Bordeaux backwards, and speaks fluent French, and I’m keen to know what he would do about the French crisis in purely business terms.
‘There’s a lot of money to be made out of exploiting the current problems of the French,’ he says, and adds that the problem is very basic. ‘When you are destroying millions of litres of your product, you have to ask why it is being made in the first place.’
The solution is not easy though, and it won’t go away, he says. What about the next big thing in wine terms? Where would he advise a gung-ho entrepreneur to start?
‘Why not compete against Majestic? All big companies are vulnerable. The bigger the customer base, the more there are who don’t like big companies.’
So there you have it: a tip straight from the stable. But remember there’s more to it than buying a warehouse and filling it with wine.
Clarke leaves me with his recipe for success. ‘I’ve been very lucky with three things: timing, people, and competition.’ It’s that simple. Look out Majestic.