There are not many people who can claim to have been involved in the wine and hospitality industry for 50 years and no one can claim to have spent eight years prior in public service overseeing, among other things, the merger of two British national airlines BEA and BOAC, followed by a stint as a management consultant and lecturer at the London Business School.
Neville Abraham can. Now 85 years old in great shape, he has managed the restaurant groups Wheelers, Mario and Franco, Maxim’s, Café Fish and Bertorelli’s. He has just retired as president of Liberty Wines. Liberty’s first order, in 1997, was for four cases of wine from the River Café. It is now one of the UK’s leading wine importers with a current turnover of over £110 million and almost 200 employees.
Liberty Wines founder, Master of Wine David Gleave, cites one of Abraham’s many contributions since being appointed to the board in 2003. “He taught us that cash is king. “The banks will give you a nice umbrella when the sky is clear blue, but at the first sign of a cloud they will ask you for it again,” he said of overdrafts. Having money in the bank has allowed us to look after our customers and suppliers during lockdown in 2020,” he adds, “which has provided us with the foundation to quickly recover and even thrive as things go. opened”.
I met Abraham over lunch at the Coal Office in King’s Cross, London. He still marvels at how the quality of products has improved over his lifetime: cheese, bread, coffee and wine of course — “everything gets better all the time!
The business school lecturer’s job was needed in the early 1970s to fund him as he started his first wine business, Les Amis du Vin, just up the road from Marylebone Fire Station , which is now Chiltern’s fashionable fire station. “I used to spend two days a month teaching and 28 unpaid days in the studio,” he says now. At least that meant he could use the trade school for wine tastings for customers, then a novelty.
This was not the only distinguishing feature of his business. “As a wine lover, I was getting more and more pissed off because British wine merchants seemed to be wallowing in Bordeaux after Bordeaux but not getting their butts up and going for stuff. I thought I would do something completely different, and Rioja seemed the obvious alternative.
Abraham played a major role in introducing British wine drinkers to Spain’s top wine region and then terra incognita for the average wine merchant here. He even organized a festival that included 50 different riojas, which he admits is “silly”.
Abraham looks down on the many people who have started their own wine businesses in recent years, often out of a spare bedroom or garage. “How some of these wine merchants are going to stay in business, I don’t know. These are not real businesses,” he says. “The wine business is full of people who love wine and know it very well, but there is not always good management.”
Early in his viticultural career, the most important lesson he learned was to master the rate of expansion. At first, Les Amis du Vin grew too quickly. “I had to hire more people so I hired Master of Wine Clive Coates to buy for the company. He had an exceptional palate but we bought way too much. He left after 18 months.
Around this time, Les Amis had become a warehouse in Acton, West London, and in the early 1980s merged with Geoffrey Roberts, the British pioneer of importing fine wines from California. I remember him complaining about having to get his lunch from a nearby Spudulike, rather than somewhere smarter in Chelsea or Mayfair, but Abraham insists the wedding made sense. “We solved each other’s problems.”
Abraham accompanied Roberts on one of his buying trips to California when he felt the good people of Napa Valley needed to learn a thing or two about the realities of the British wine market. “The price increases have stopped,” he says. “Most wine producers, wherever they are, don’t know anything about the market.”
Abraham was perhaps too wise a businessman to limit himself to wine. In 1980, as an extension of this wine activity, he opened Le Café des Amis du Vin in a former banana warehouse next to the Royal Opera House in London. In 1984 he sold the entire business to the Kennedy Brookes catering and hotel group for well over £2 million. Within three years, he and his business partner Laurence Isaacson had bought Café Fish and Bertorelli’s (it was the 1980s, after all). Their group, Groupe Chez Gérard, went public in 1994 and by 2000 had 22 restaurants. It was sold in 2003. In the meantime they co-founded the Covent Garden Festival.
“As well as running the business, I did all of the wine buying – around £3m a year for over 10 years – and learned a bit more about a particular wine’s place in a restaurant’s wine list, as opposed to a store shelf or a supermarket or, later, online,” he says.
His restaurant experience must have been particularly valuable to Liberty, whose business was centered on hotel customers. And during lockdowns where restaurants were closed, he helped Liberty improve what it could offer wine merchants. “Service has become increasingly important. Things like next day delivery. In many ways, we are no longer a wine company, but a logistics company now.
He is optimistic about the realities of the restoration of yesteryear. “There was undeniable corruption. Setbacks for sommeliers and chefs, that sort of thing. I couldn’t understand how Le Café des Amis was full but lost. People were obviously helping themselves.
But he is clearly thrilled by many of the developments. “I used to say sommeliers were redundant, but now I realize they do a great job of introducing people to good mid-range wines. And in the UK we had this great influx of very capable people such as Ronan Sayburn and Gerard Basset and many others from France. They are so much better than the old school sommeliers!
“And I like that the service is a lot less hierarchical than it used to be. Hospitality used to be a lousy industry to work in: unsocial hours, rotten wages and customers treating you like servants. But the pandemic has changed The deal has gone up.
Our lunch ended with a rattle. Abraham is used to fighting industrial battles, having been involved with the British Hospitality Association. The current one deals with the proposed changes to liquor duties. It seems sensible to tie it to power, but the practicalities of implementing so many narrow service bands would be a nightmare. The strength of a given wine can change from year to year and cannot, or at least should not, be manipulated by a producer to fit within a range of duties. Nature decides. Calculations by Liberty’s Gleave and its team suggest the new duties would result in an average increase of 18p per wholesale bottle.
Remembering his days in public office (about which he wrote a compelling book in 1974, Big business and government), says Abraham: “If the government were to design the perfect tax collection office, it might just be a wine shop. They get all taxes upfront there.
Jancis recommends. . .
Some favorite producers from Liberty’s portfolio
• Ontario Baccalaureate
• Capezzana from Carmignano
• Clonakilla from Canberra
• Dom Daniel-Etienne Defaix of Chablis
• Jane Eyre from Burgundy and Australia
• Fairview of South Africa
• Fontodi of Chianti Classico
• Grosset of Clare Valley
• Charles Heidsieck of Champagne
• Eden Valley Henschke
• Isole and Olena from Chianti Classico
• Madeira Justino’s
• Kanaan from Ningxia, China
• Legado of Portugal
• Sonoma Coastline
• Lupier of Navarre
• Rafael Palacios de Valdeorras, Galicia
• SC Pannell of McLaren Vale
• Perrin family from southern Rhône
• Pieropan of Soave
• Heidi Schröck from Austria
• Shaw + Smith of Adelaide Hills
• Tasmanian Tolpuddle
• GD Vajra from Barolo
• Valdespino of Jerez
• Zorah from Armenia
Tasting notes on the Violet Pages of JancisRobinson.com
International dealers on Wine-searcher.com.
Follow Jancis on Twitter @JancisRobinson
To follow @FTMag on Twitter to hear our latest stories first