PROFILE – Who the hell does he think he is?  

The author in Chinon - February 2011

Being born (in 1961) to virtual teetotal parents in the gastronomic desert that is Leicester, suggests that I was never a natural candidate to pursue a career in the international wine trade. However as a child I loved food and so I left school at 16 with the aim of becoming a chef, and it was through this fairly precarious route that I made the discovery that was to forever change my life; the cathartic moment coming with a bottle of 1969 Gaston Huet Vouvray. That was in the summer of 1981.

The next six years saw me on a tour of vinous self discovery, putting myself through the progression of Wine and Spirit Education Trust courses up to Diploma standard. I entered the wine business fully in 1986, working for a local wholesaler (who are no longer in business) selling wine to the on-trade before moving onto a position with Grants of St James’s in 1989. The decision to attempt the Master of Wine examination came three years later, and as a student of 1993 we were the first to be challenged with preparing a dissertation. This presented itself as an additional hurdle to the already formidable prospect of sitting both the Practical (tasting) and Theory parts of the exam.

For the first few years after the dissertation was introduced, candidates were presented with five titles and asked to prepare their paper on one of them. My chosen subject was to be ‘The importance of temperature in red wine making’. The options were given to us in January and the finished paper needed to be submitted by the following October. This meant that if I was to see a red wine vintage in action (for this was to form the basis of the dissertation) then I needed to head to the Southern Hemisphere. The logical place to go at the time was Australia, but I’d been there only a year before and didn’t relish the thought of a return trip. New Zealand ’s red wine industry was still in a fledgling state and I didn’t believe there was much to be gleaned from a visit to South America. This left me with one option: South Africa.

Remember this was 1993, Mandela was still on his ‘long walk to freedom’ and free elections were still over a year away. At the time, I’d say I knew two things about the Cape wine industry: nothing and bugger all. In my ten years of wine drinking I had barely been exposed to anything South African. This was not so much due to the political situation, but just a reflection of whatever had slipped across my palate had been less than inspiring. However, that first trip to the Cape in March 1993 was one that would shape the next 15 years of my life.

I fell in love with South Africa. Who wouldn’t? It’s the most beautiful wine growing region on earth. But the industry was in a mess: years of political, financial and even physical isolation had taken its toll, but opportunity was rife and I was determined to play a small part in the country’s repatriation into the international wine drinking community.

Back home, the dissertation completed and submitted, I concentrated on the examination itself, sitting and receiving a conditional pass at the first attempt in May 1994. I was seven-eighths a Master of Wine, but I would need to return and re-sit the marketing paper the following year. 

In January 1995, I resigned from my position with GSJ and went to work a three month stage with The Bergkelder in Stellenbosch. During this time I was introduced to Tim Rands, owner of the largest independent wine wholesaler in South Africa. After returning in May to re-sit that final paper, I met with Tim at Vinexpo in Bordeaux to discuss me joining Vinimark and together we worked out a six month contract.

I was accepted into The Institute of Masters of Wine on the 17th July 1995 and within two weeks of this monumental event I was living and working in the Cape. My role within Vinimark was to develop international markets, representing the interests of both Robertson Winery, the second largest wine facility in the Cape, and a new and completely unknown wine farm in Franschhoek called Boekenhoutskloof which was owned partly by Tim. Within six months of my arrival I met Rebekah, a fellow Brit, at a Champagne tasting in Cape Town and we were married at Boekenhoutskloof in October 1998.

My original six month contract became a seven year tenure, but by the end of 2001 I was beginning to think my time in the Cape was up and I was ready to move back home. After all, I believed that I had achieved my true ‘Mission from God’ in convincing South African winemakers that Chenin Blanc is, in fact, the world’s greatest grape variety; a vinous resource as precious to the Cape as gold and diamonds are to the rest of the country.

I’d known Roy Richards of Richards Walford since the early 1990s and there had been a long standing invitation to join the company when the time was right. That moment was realized in June 2002 and I remained with the company until October 2011.

Today, I live, for the six months a year I am not traveling, with Rebekah in an 18th Century alehouse (complete with cellar) in rural Leicestershire’s Vale of Belvoir.

So how does this potted history make me a self declared specialist in the wines of the Loire ? Well, it’s true to say that if you were to put me on the proverbial desert island with only one wine to drink for the rest of my life it would be with a bottle of Vouvray; a ‘Le Mont’ Demi-Sec from Domaine Huet. It would need to be the exceptional 1988 vintage, on the basis that supplies of the 1961, 1962 and 1971 might already be exhausted. Although, thankfully, this could then be followed, in about twenty year’s time, by the 2002, 2005 and 2008…. 

Despite my relationship with the South African wine industry, I am a devout Francophile and the Loire has, ever since I tasted that 1969 Huet Vouvray been my true passion. 

Richard Kelley MW