I am reverting to diary format in this week’s blog as it has been a lively seven days.
Friday 20th May. I travelled up to Sheffield to attend the second annual Brigantes Breakfast. The first was held in Manchester last year. The idea is to hold a series of Livery events in the North of England to give Liverymen based in the North or with Northern connections the chance to meet on their home soil. I attended the Manchester event as I grew up near Manchester. I decided to attend this year’s event, not only as a current Master in support of our own northern based members but also I can claim Sheffield connections as I lived there in the early part of my career as a Procter & Gamble Salesman.
The event was held in the magnificent Cutlers’ Hall in Sheffield. The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire was established by a parliamentary Act of Incorporation in 1624 and for almost four hundred years has sought to maintain the standards and quality of Sheffield manufactured cutlery and steel products and to promote the name of Sheffield. As manufacturing in the region has changed over the centuries, so the Company reflects this by highlighting the innovation in the region as well as upholding Sheffield’s proud heritage.
The Hall is larger than any of the City of London Livery Halls and can seat 500 for dinner. There were over 300 on this occasion. The current Hall is the third and was built in 1832. It contains a fabulous collection of silver and other treasures as well as an extensive array of cutlery.
The breakfast (i.e. lunch) was served with all the traditions starting with a procession of the dignitaries present which, as one of 19 Masters present, I joined. We were escorted by a Carpet Guard of the Honourable Artillery Company. Music was provided by the British Imperial Military Band, culminating in a Post Horn Gallop with one bandsman in the Royal Box and the other in the theatre seats. Food and wine were copious, and the speeches excellent, packed with Yorkshire humour. It was a fine occasion.
Tuesday 24th May. My wife and I attended the Buckingham Palace Garden Party. It is customary for current Masters to be invited to one of these every May. We began by joining a group of other Masters and their consorts at the Goring for a splendid lunch. Our party included the Master Weaver, Plaisterers, Framework Knitter and World Trader.
We had been before in 2004 on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Society of Arts of which I am a Life Fellow, so knew what to expect. Around 8,000 guests attended but nevertheless it is still a special occasion. The National Anthem announced the arrival of Her Majesty the Queen and Members of the Royal Family. As well as the Duke of Edinburgh the crowd were delighted to see that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stepped out for their first garden party of the year. I’m told that Kate was wearing the cream Alexander McQueen outfit that she famously wore at Prince George’s christening.
A small number of individual presentations are pre-arranged and then Gentlemen at Arms form lanes for The Queen and Members of the Royal Family to move through the guests. We had joined another group of Masters and their partners and by chance found ourselves in the front row of the line near the entrance to the Royal tent so as The Queen, Prince Philip and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, all of whom had followed separate lanes, converged on the entrance to the tent we were well placed to see them quite closely. The Queen at 90 years of age and her husband at nearly 95 looked remarkably well while the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, of course, made a very handsome couple.
Wednesday 25th May. I was invited to attend Pewter Live, an exhibition held by the Pewterers Company in their Hall to show both entries by students in a competition promoting excellent design in pewter and also have the chance to purchase items of pewter from commercials designers. All the designs were good with striking creativity and fine quality. It is nice to see one of the older Companies still working hard to maintain excellence in its original craft. I bought a small but pretty item which will add to our Christmas decorations.
Thursday 26th May. I hosted a wine-tasting dinner held jointly with the Cofradia del Vino Chileno of which I am also a member. When I knew that I was likely to be Master I decided to approach Lord Naseby, the President of the Cofradia del Vino Chileno, and propose a joint event, following the style of the Cofradia dinners but in one of the Great Halls of the City of London. Michael invited me to have tea in the House of Lords to discuss the idea.
The Cofradia dinners feature wines from a particular importer with a representative presenting the wines. Two different wines are offered with each of the first two courses so that the wines can be compared. Johnny Bingham presented some excellent Casa Silva wines including a Carménère that has been rated as the best in class.
We held the dinner naturally enough in Vintners’ Hall, the spiritual home of the wine industry in this country and were graced by the presence of Simon Leschallas, the Master Vintner. Simon has a distinguished career in the drinks industry spending over thirty years in the firm of Metzendorff & Co which represents Bollinger here. He then set up his own firm St Aubyn Leschallas Wines and is also Brand Ambassador for Charles Heidsieck Champagne and Consultant to the Royal and Ancient Championship Champagne Tent at St Andrews, which sounds to me like one place that is heaven on earth.
I first came to appreciate Chilean wine on my first trip to Chile in 1980 and was very impressed, particularly with the reds but at that time there was not much being exported. Two years later I met and married my wife while living there and brought her back to live with me in England in 1983. There was then only one brand imported into the UK, Concha y Toro.
We decided to try and import some Chilean wine ourselves. In the mid-1980s on a trip back to Chile my wife persuaded a well-established and locally famous brand Viña Undurraga to appoint her as its representative in the UK. She set up a business called Fine Wines from Chile and started to import the wines at first in small quantities as a single container filled with wine would have been a prohibitively costly investment. We started by selling them to friends and neighbours who were all impressed with the quality. We enjoyed some success sampling the wines at fairs and using such contacts as we did have to widen the distribution. But it was still a very small business and probably not registering very much on the market share charts.
Then the Wine Importers Association decided to turn their attention to Chile. Australian wines had become particularly well established, Bulgarian wines were popular at the cheap end and Californian wines had also made their mark. The switched-on Commercial attaché at the Chilean Embassy also decided to get behind Chilean wines. He saw how open the British market is to wines from other parts of the world. He formed a Committee to consider how best to proceed and invited the two importers of record to join it together with other major shippers, distributors and retailers. So my wife found herself sitting down with buyers from Tesco and Grants of St James’s. At that point we decided that this was in danger of overwhelming us and gracefully withdrew from the market. The great thing about a wine business is that when you decide to close the business you can drink the inventory.
But the Committee was the start of great things for Chilean wine in this country and consumption has grown from that very low figure to fully 8% of the market today, or the equivalent of one bottle in every case imported. Hardly any self-respecting wine list from pub to upmarket restaurant will not have at least two Chilean entries, one red and one white and many will have several more.
The evening was also graced by His Excellency Rolando Drago, the Chilean Ambassador, who told us of the close relationship between the two nations. He has kindly offered to host a reception in the autumn for the group that is coming with us to Chile in November when we will have the chance to visit several wineries. This was a great curtain raiser.