The former Dixons boss explains to ROSI HANSON that he has a very simple approach to wine: if it’s nice, drink it; if it’s not, sell it
Mark Souhami says he has always been a shopkeeper. Others say he has had a distinguished business career. He joined Dixons, the UK retail electrical giant that owns household names such as Currys and PC World, as group marketing director in 1970.
Over the next 30 years, he held many senior posts, finishing as deputy chairman from 1992–2003, when, in theory, he retired. I discovered, when I was invited for lunch with him
at London’s Le Gavroche, a restaurant he has been coming to since it opened, that he has since been lured back into business.
He is currently chairman of Codic, a property development company formerly owned by Dixons. I also learned that when, in 1987, he and his wife bought a house in Somerset, one of the first things he did was build a wine store.
‘Back in the dim and distant past, first as a soldier then as a student, I divided wine into two classifications: white and red. The latter turned one’s teeth black, and the former cleaned them again.’ Doing National Service in the Army, beer and whisky were the favourites, except on mess nights, when wine might be drunk.
Souhami says he became ‘mildly interested’ in wine when his father gave him
membership of The Wine Society as a 21st birthday present. That mild interest turned
into a passion – once he could afford it. ‘When I was first married, we were
too impoverished to buy more than the odd bottle, until I met a chap called Tommy Layton who had a premises under the railway arches at Kings Cross.
He had just purchased some surplus stock from British Rail and I bought a couple of cases of 1945 Moët at five shillings (25p) a bottle. This had the effect of livening up our Sundays for a while, but I was still too hard up to buy anything much’. Many years later, he and his wife were entertained at the Moët & Chandon château in Champagne – ‘a wonderful, wonderful experience’.
As the business career took off, Souhami could splash out a bit. ‘When I joined Dixons I had to decide what to do with my existing pension fund, as in those days they were not transferable. The fund came to the princely sum of £2,500, so I put £2,000 into an insurance bond and used the remaining £500 to go halves with a friend on a hogshead (24 cases) of Mouton Rothschild 1970.
Twenty years later, I got £2,700 for the bond, on which I had to pay tax, while the Mouton was selling for £1,750 a case!’ Having created his wine store in the country, he sold four cases of the Mouton and spent the proceeds on stocking the cellar. He has a down-to-earth approach: ‘If it doesn’t taste any good, don’t buy it. If I buy three cases of something and don’t like the first case, I flog it. And I cannot stand when people start talking about a hint of raspberries, a taste of primroses, plimsolls, and all that sort of thing.’
Although a few Italian, Spanish, Australian and New Zealand bottles find their way onto his table, Souhami tends to stick to the French classics; Château Ducru-Beaucaillou is a current favourite. Buying claret en primeur has always been his game. ‘In the early 1980s, en primeur prices started shooting up.
The differentiation between the first growths and the super seconds was so
great, I gave up buying first growths.’ Luckily, there are still plenty of wines to
his taste. ‘Léoville-Las Cases 1982 has turned out to be a smashing wine. Gruaud-Larose is a château that has stood me in good stead. I’ve still got some 1982, 1985, 1986, 1989 and quite a few of the 1990s. Even 1997, which is not particularly good, is still a tasty wine.’
In Burgundy, he has been buying Domaine Leflaive’s wines every vintage since 1995. His love of Port means that Croft, Dow’s, Warre’s, Fonseca, and Graham’s are all well represented – no more 1955s, but plenty from 1960, 1963 and 1966 are there. There is also some Madeira – an 1827 Bual and 1832 Malmsey, which are ‘delicious; fresh; amazing’. He discovered sweet wines late in life. ‘I started with Beaumes de Venise, then Château Climens.
But after tasting Château d’Yquem, I thought that, up until then, I had been drinking orangeade.’ He now has 200–300 bottles of it. Souhami has two strong beliefs: ‘If you drink really great wines, you don’t get a hangover. But you can no longer drink inferior wines!’ With such a well-stocked cellar, is he still buying en primeur? ‘Yes! It’s stupidity – oh, and optimism. I always believe the next wine might be even better.’
Written by Rosi Hanson