Bye, Bill

Less than a week after returning from a trip to SA, UK wine merchant Bill Baker (53) has died in his sleep. I met him almost exactly a year ago in Cape Town and we had breakfast together at the Arabella Sheraton, now renamed the Westin Grand. I made these notes at the time, an edited version of which appeared as a profile in WINE magazine. Bill was one of those larger than life characters who make the Mondo Vino so much fun and I will miss him.
bill Bye, Bill
US über-palate Robert Parker calls XXXXXL Bristol wine merchant Bill Baker “a small and jealous person who should consider selling refrigerators.” Rick Stein’s BBC Food cooking program was bombarded with hate mail for Bill after he suggested Rick add some wheels and a motor to Chalky when the dog died.

While Rick’s website piously claims that Chalky was “loved by everyone”, Bill remembers the rough-haired Jack Russell as “a horrid little dog and vicious too. He was still snarling and going for the ankles at sixteen.”

“Who is that dreadful fat man?” demanded Rick’s viewers, to which the short answer is a wine merchant from Bristol and consultant to Terrance Conran’s international stable of restaurants with one of the sharpest palates in the business. Bill put together the first wine list for Bibendum and the Conran stable has grown like Topsy and now consists of 23 restaurants in London, three in Copenhagen and one in New York.

This Conran connection saves Bill from being regarded as “a country hick wine merchant” and he’s shown (translation: gets to taste) “all the important imports” into the UK – the largest market for imported wine in the world.

A larger than life Falstaffian character with an infectious laugh (like an owl hooting), Bill was the star instructor at the Tasting Academy. Most of the time his opinion agreed with perceived SA wisdom with the embarrassing exception of a Chenin Blanc awarded five stars by the magazine two days before. Bill left it out of the medals, commenting “the acidity is all over the place. It won’t keep.” But then his benchmark was the Loire. Which perhaps explains why Chenin is such a hard sell in Blighty, with different criteria clearly in play.

The Baker passion for food and wine was kindled at Peterhouse, Cambridge, while he was studying history of art. “The dean of my college, a priest, had done someone a favour and had been given ‘a special bottle’ of wine – which turned out to be a Château Latour ’61. He invited a couple of us to taste it after dinner and I was blown away. I couldn’t believe that something could be that powerful and that complex.”

A career as wine merchant at Reid Wines in the West Country followed, a fortunate choice as UK wine consumption was on the brink of a hedonistic explosion, rather like that bottle of Latour thirty years ago. “There’s been a huge change of lifestyle in the UK and dining out in restaurants has replaced drinking in pubs. Many pubs are turning into gastro-pubs and people are going out more and spending more money. There has been a huge rise in awareness around good food and wine.”

“Twenty years ago the food was crap but now you can find good food at every price level and the natural bev for food is wine. The rise and rise of rosé is a good example. Drinking rosé is seen as being sophisticated and the Bridget Jones Diary thing had a huge effect on Chardonnay sales.”

While 85% of the UK wine retail market is covered by supermarkets and bottle store chains, Bill notes that independent merchants offering something special are on the rise. Indeed he notes “the only way to survive is to offer things the supermarkets don’t have.”

Bill was surprised to hear that SA sales to the UK had fallen sharply (down 18%) the previous year. “Out in the countryside, people are very well disposed towards SA. In fact they’d much rather order a bottle of SA wine than French because they hate the French so much. At the entry level, prices of SA wines are slightly too high – the favourable Rand/Pound exchange rate often doesn’t get translated into value in the bottle. You need the quality of Jacob’s Creek at a similar price point to get people started buying SA on the quality ladder. But in the £5-£11 category which we concentrate on, quality of SA wine is extremely good and we have several SA wines on our list.”

Which includes examples from Thelema, Vergelegen, Warwick and Neil Ellis in the mid price range to the cult Columella Shiraz of Eben Sadie at £32.50 at the top. The list also contains some surprises. “At the entry level we have some really good value Pinotage from Porterville – we usually buy either their Shiraz or Pinotage, depending on quality, and sometime we buy both. Every restaurant wine list should include at least one SA Pinotage, but while there are some really good ones, there are also some shockers.”

“Syrah is your most exciting varietal and I think it finds very good flavour expression here. The grapes have lovely spice and are better than many a Crozes Hermitage from France. Wine from Vergelegen and Sadie Family Vineyards are world class.”

On the subject of competition to SA in the all important UK market, Bill supplies some insights: “Australia hasn’t shot its bolt. They’ve had a couple of serious blows with the current drought a major problem. They can’t make wine as they’ve got no water, but don’t write them off. The real excitement is going to come from South America. They’re still struggling under a flood of bad wine but some excitement and value is starting to emerge.”

Americans like Robert Parker and Wine Spectator magazine have totally messed up Bordeaux for Bill, “although the French are starting to fight back.” In an attempt to garner high Parker scores, many Bordeaux producers changed style to more fruit expression and higher alcohols. The popularity of these wines in the US pushed prices off the scale “a fate which is currently happening to top-end Champagne and Madeira” bemoans Bill. “But wine is so global now, it’s possible to find something interesting to drink at all price points. The trick is to be satisfied with the level of wine you can afford. It may not be Latour but there are plenty of second labels of French first growths around which can give huge pleasure at the £14-16 price point.”

Bill’s bibulous future is more of the same: tasting and trading, “until I finish paying school fees for the children.” Then he’ll sell the business and retire to Italy with the unfashionable south having some appeal. “Tuscany is totally out of the question” he booms “far too many Brits.”