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The Interview: Bill Baker

Published:  23 July, 2008

Where did you start in the wine trade?
Avery's, after I came down from Cambridge. It was a long time ago - the days before the Australian wine industry had bounced back from the depths of liqueur Muscat and jug wines. Monty Python weren't too far off the mark in their assessment of wine from Down Under: Chateau Blue Too has won many prizes, not least for its flavour and its lingering afterburn.' All the local restaurateurs used to buy from Averys because it was the big name in the West Country. There were no reps, so when you turned up, they were pathetically grateful just to see somebody.

It's bit different now.

Well, even when I was at Robertsons, in 1979, things had changed. I had managed 21 cold calls in a day in Torquay, and I thought I deserved a reward. So I looked in the Good Food Guide and there was this Gidleigh Park with a bottle mark against it. It was a bloody cold March evening and I just turned up on the door and there was Henderson in jeans and a pink shirt warming his arse in front of the fire. He didn't have the old formal suits in those days. I said, Mr Henderson?' And he responded, very fiercely, What do you want?' It's Bill Baker from Robertsons wines.' Do you have an appointment?' So I said, Actually, I was wondering if I could stay the night.' Then very keenly he replied, Oh, Mr Baker, do let me go and get your case.'

Restaurateurs are even more inundated nowadays.

Well, today there are so many not-very-good wine merchants who somehow seem to survive. It staggers me when we do tastings at Conran. Out of 80, about eight will be any good. Now where is all the rest being sold to? I can't believe some of that stuff is actually bought by people who've tasted it, still less consumed it with any pleasure.

Maybe people aren't confident in their own palate?

That's true, because they're pushed by the wine merchant or, worse still, by some bloody American wine critic. Parker doesn't like me very much. I wrote a piece in a monthly broadsheet magazine that was run by Tom Jaine who had a restaurant in Devon called The Carved Angel. Jaine asked me if I could write something controversial'. And Parker's book on Bordeaux had just come out, called The Definitive Guide. Well, that got my bloody back up for a start - there is no such thing as a definitive guide to wine, and it was far less than a definitive guide anyway. I really tore into the way he tasted and the absurd scoring system, and I never expected him to get a copy of my article but someone must have sent it to him. So he wrote me this incredibly vitriolic letter to the effect that I was a small and jealous man who would be better off selling freezers. It was classic stuff. Parker can't stand criticism, but nobody is above criticism.

He's a fan of Pahlmeyer at least, which is one of yours.

Pahlmeyer is a Parker wine. The Merlot is a lovely wine but it's a blockbuster, and that's the style of wine he likes. It's not an old-fart, English-wine-merchant style, and I certainly count myself as an old-fart English wine merchant because I still wear a suit occasionally and I do tend to like classic Bordeaux, which has austerity and finesse rather than blockbuster fruit and alcohol.

So why do you supply Pahlmeyer?

Pahlmeyer isn't really one of ours. We bring a little in, but we don't really do agencies. We're no good at them. Wineries demand an awful lot. You sell two container-loads, they want you to sell three; you sell three, and they want you to sell five. They're never happy. It's rather irksome, plus you have to spend ages trogging round accounts with them when the winemakers come over. They've turned up in London to do lunch and dinner for seven days on one big jolly. If you're running a small business, it rather interrupts things.

How long will you carry on with your own small business?

I'll be in the trade for at least another 10 years because the children are 10 and 13, so I have school fees and then university to put them through. And then I think I will have to make a decision about just how disgustingly politically correct this country has become, because it drives me bloody wild. I hate living here, with idiots telling you what to do all the time. I will be off, probably to Italy. I fancy being a woodcutter there. I'm a log obsessive: I love cutting trees and the smell of them, and stacking them. And best of all, I can bring that axe down and imagine it's Tony's head.

Reid Wines 1992, The Mill, Marsh Lane, Hallatrow, Bristol BS39 6EB, Tel: 01761 452 645

Bill Baker's first job in the wine trade was at Avery's in Bristol in 1976, after studying History and the History of Art at Cambridge University. He then moved to the now-defunct Robertson wine merchant, before starting Reid Wines with Charles Reid in 1980 a year later. The firm went into receivership in the early '90s - a little interruption', according to Baker, when we had to get rid of Charles, since he carried

on shooting 100 days a year during the recession'. A result of this was David Boobbyer joining the firm as a partner

and an official name change to Reid Wines 1992. Having met chef Simon Hopkinson at Hilaire restaurant in Brompton Road, London, Baker began consulting for Conran Restaurants.

Major accounts include Rick Stein's Padstow restaurant, The Carved Angel, Gravetye Manor, Kinnaird and The Peat Inn.