The spread-betting pioneer, political activist, bon viveur and keen host explains to ANASTASIA EDWARDS his three-tier wine-serving strategy
For Stuart Wheeler, politics and wine have often been paired. In 1979, in order to raise the money to buy Champagne for his wedding, the founder of spread betting company IG Index bet £5,000 – ‘an extremely large sum for me, especially in those days’ – at odds of 1:3 (so, a profit of only £1,700) that the Conservatives would win.
These days, the former barrister does not need to take such risks to keep his guests well wined and dined. In 2003, after 29 years, Wheeler sold IG Index for tens of millions of pounds, using part of the proceeds to renovate his Grade I-listed Jacobean castle in Kent, Chilham Castle. When I arrive at his Mayfair penthouse, he warns me that he knows nothing at all about wine.
‘I can’t stand wine snobbery,’ he says, and tells me about a blind tasting arranged by a friend in which he got all six wines wrong. Have I got my wires crossed? He does drink wine…? ‘Oh yes, every day!’ He loves his reds so much, in fact, that he often drinks a couple of glasses at lunch, and can drink ‘five or six’ at dinner, as he ‘never’ gets drunk.
One thing is clear: Wheeler’s passion for wine is bound up with his passion for entertaining people. He insists that there always be plenty of wine at his table – ‘I don’t want people looking up and down the table for a bottle’ – and that it be pleasing to his guests.
These two criteria are met by a third, unsurprising in a business brain of his calibre: budget. Like most successful businessmen, he also knows how to delegate, and in many of the decisions about the wine served at Chilham he defers to his chef Carleton Smith, a sort of vinous alter ego.
Wheeler’s wine strategy sees all wines split into three categories. Category one wines cost up to £10 a bottle; category two are between £10 and £15; and category three above £15. Family events are almost always ‘ones’.
One of Wheeler’s three daughters, supermodel Jacquetta Wheeler, is about to have a house party at Chilham to celebrate her birthday. Wheeler will provide Pol Roger Cuvée Réserve NV plus unlimited bottles of category ones. When political friends are being entertained, however, it is invariably a ‘three’ weekend.
Exactly which wines are selected is not so categorical. Smith is always on the lookout for attractive deals with which to stock the cellar – ‘I am not afraid to go to [Waitrose online offshoot] Ocado,’ he explains. The current ‘category one’ house red is the cooperative-produced Cave de Fleurie, Fleurie Millésime 2007, while the white is Alois Lageder’s Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige 2007, both supplied to Chilham by Bibendum.
A recent ‘two’ wine has been Moreau-Naudet Chablis 2005. ‘Three’ wines, often clarets, have recently included Domaine Michel Juillot, Corton- Perrières 1997 and Château Feytit-Clinet 1999, but often come as presents from friends and supporters of his political efforts.
By way of example, three cases of Château Pavie-Macquin 1998 arrived unannounced at Chilhamone recent morning in appreciation of Wheeler’s suit against the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, in which he sought, unsuccessfully, a judicial review of ‘their refusal to hold a referendum on whether the Lisbon Treaty should be ratified’.
Although he tells me he was ‘too shy’ to pursue his love of politics into a career
as an MP, that 1979 bet wasn’t his last involvement with the Conservatives. His £5m donation in 2001 was the largest ever to a UK political party.
When we meet, he has just returned from their party conference, where he says he was viewed as a ‘loose canon’, in part because of his view that climate change has always occurred naturally, using as an example ‘that the North of Europe once had a climate warm enough to grow wine’.
When not at Chilham or in London, Wheeler is often in Tangier, Morocco, where his wife, the photographer and writer Tessa Codrington, inherited a house (she has evoked Tangier beautifully in her recent book, Spirits of Tangier). Here, Wheeleris very happy drinking Tandem, a Moroccan red wine produced as a joint-venture between Crozes-Hermitage producer Alain Graillot and Bordelais winemaker Jacques Poulain.
While Wheeler claims he is ‘too old to start another business’, gambling is not completely out of his system. He periodically plays internet poker for low stakes – and is keeping statistics of how he performs both after a glass or two of wine and without any. He promises to share the results with interested Decanter readers once he’s analysed the data.
Written by Anastasia Edwards