Famous both as one of England’s greatest batsmen and for once sporting a handlebar moustache, Graham Gooch was introduced to wine on his cricketing tours, as ADAM LECHMERE discovers.
Graham Gooch uses the word ‘socialise’ a lot. During the course of an hour’s chat at the Essex County Cricket Club ground we kept coming back to the subject of post-match entertaining – usually to lament its passing.
‘When I was a young lad starting out in county cricket, around 1973, it was absolutely the done thing to socialise with the opposition in the bar at the ground or in the local pub. That doesn’t happen so much now.’
Gooch is a legendary figure of English cricket, one of only seven players to play in 100 test matches, holder of one of the highest English scores ever – 333 at Lords against India in the 1990 test series, increased to 456 in the second innings. He has over 100 centuries and 200 first-class wickets under his belt, was rated one of the world’s greatest batsmen throughout the 1990s, and is the erstwhile owner of one of cricket’s finest moustaches – a full handlebar affair that, given time, would have satisfied the most important criterion for proper facial hair: that it can be seen from behind.
Now relatively clean-shaven, he’s philosophical about what he calls ‘tracksuit culture’. ‘You turn up in a tracksuit and leave in a tracksuit and go straight home. Ten or 15 years ago you’d change and go down to the local pub and talk about the game a lot more than you do now. It’s sad that it’s gone.’
It was the social side of cricket that got Gooch into wine, almost by default. ‘The trips overseas – to South Africa, New Zealand, Australia – all led us to mix with the wine community. A lot of good winemakers are interested in cricket and a lot of cricketers are into wine. So the two combine.’
The young lad from Essex took his first tour when he was 21, to South Africa. When they weren’t playing they would be sampling the wines of Stellenbosch. Then came tours to Australia.
‘That was when you had rest days in test matches. You would play Thursday, Friday, Saturday and have Sunday off. The Hill-Smith estate (now Shaw & Smith) used to entertain both teams and their wives. We’d play tennis against the Australians and have a big lunch, with all the wines.’
The Henschkes were similarly hospitable, and that early introduction has given Gooch a life-long love of New World wines. And as befits someone who spent his formative drinking years with such luminaries as Stephen Henschke, his taste runs to the more delicate, European-influenced New World style.
He gets his wine from Lay & Wheeler – naturally, as its Colchester HQ is just down the road from the club where Gooch started and where he still coaches and plays. He spends ‘about £2,000– 3,000 a year, upping it to around £5,000 when he’s buying first growths en primeur,’ says MD Johnny Wheeler.
The first growths, Gooch says, are for investment, although he ‘may change his mind’.
‘At the moment it’s there. If it doesn’t sell, I might keep it and drink it.’
For the moment, though he loves his red Burgundy, and has turned into a Sauternes fan after a visit to Château Suduiraut, he’s in New World mode, a state of mind fostered chiefly one imagines by the quality of the cricket nuts who invite him to their estates.
‘A couple of years ago I went to Adelaide to do some Test commentary on Australia versus the West Indies. After the match I went to see Rolf Binder at Veritas and then we went on to have lunch with Stephen Henschke. He drove me round to see the grapes – that was fantastic.’
It’s always touching when stars are star-struck: Gooch loves hanging out with wine celebs. But at the same time – as you’d expect from one of 20th-century cricket’s biggest hitters – his feet are firmly planted. On the subject of his palate he says, ‘I don’t consider myself to be a connoisseur. I just know what I like and what I don’t like.’
When you’re a former cricket international you do a lot of travelling. Gooch has endowed a cricket scholarship in his own name and he’s constantly abroad for speaking engagements and charity matches. Wherever he goes he’s checking out the restaurants and the wines, and visiting the vineyards.
Recently he’s been in Portugal as a guest of David Baverstock at Esporão in Alentejo (‘We brought back a couple of bottles of the Monte Velho’), and Stellenbosch (‘We had a little tour to Cape Town, and went to Vergelegen… the most beautiful place’).
He keeps a bit of wine at home, in a converted scullery ‘in racks with flags of the countries: Spain and Italy, Australia and New Zealand, then South Africa, Argentina and Chile, and French wines apart from Burgundy’, and the rest he cellars at Lay and Wheeler.
What about taking a more active role, like many top sportsmen including his fellow cricketers Ian Botham and Bob Willis (who make a wine called BMW with Aussie winemaker Geoff Merrill)?
‘I could buy land in South Africa. Property is so cheap there, it’s unreal. But it’s a bit far to go. What I would like to do is more travelling. We’ve been down to Bordeaux – we stayed just outside Margaux – but there’s so much more to see. I just like trying new things.’