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Profile - Jasper Morris MW

Published:  23 July, 2008

Basingstoke!' as Mad Margaret says in Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore. She says it to restore herself to sanity whenever she's about to relapse: for Jasper Morris, it's more of a biography. He was born there and lately he's been working there; and its clay-limestone soil (so he says; I have no idea) gives it an affinity with Burgundy, which of course has been the foundation of most of his working life. Neat, no?

We don't need to linger in Basingstoke very long, however. School was Charterhouse and university was Christ Church College, Oxford, where his sister Arabella, now a fellow MW, introduced him to wine - she had been a member of the wine circle before him. After that - well, his family have been lawyers 'for countless generations', he says (and they must have seen him as a future High Court judge when they named him Jasper), but all he knew was that he didn't want a classic professional career, 'either banking at one end or estate agency at the other'. He considered doing a DPhil, 'but I wasn't bright enough to have been a very good academic, though I was close enough for it to have been an option'.

It was at this point that a friend rang and suggested Birley & Goedhuis, in London's Fulham Road.

Neither Mark Birley nor Jonathan Goedhuis needs any introduction. The shop had been started because Annabel's nightclub had too much wine. On Morris's first day there, in September 1979, he attempted to remedy this by stacking bottles of Mcon-Lugny so high that they sagged in the night and neatly took the top off a bottle of Bienvenue-Btard-Montrachet - which naturally got drunk the next day. 'It was an amazing period,' he says now. 'Johnny Goedhuis knew everybody, and they all came in and sat in the back with the staff. Things walked at a less frantic pace in those days. And Johnny had lunch with friends every day, and they all bought wine.'

From Goedhuis he learned about selling, and from Birley about the absolute pursuit of quality. The latter influenced his buying policy when he started buying on his own account: 'Quality comes first, then you see if there's a chance of it working commercially - as opposed to working to a price.' He was at Birley and Goedhuis until January 1981; and on 1 February that year Morris & Verdin opened its doors for business.

This happened because at Oxford he'd got to know Tony Verdin, whose daughter was at school there and who later married Morris's other sister, Araminta. Verdin had been in gas analysis instrumentation, ran the Cherwell Boat House restaurant and was involved in the Chelsea Arts Club: 'He was a genuine entrepreneur who was always throwing out ideas, and he suggested a wine business to me.

'There were two great advantages to working with Tony. He was already a successful businessman, and I was clueless in business management. I have an arithmetical brain, which helps, but that's all. And he was 25 years older than me. If two young people start together, one or the other will grow away.

That wasn't the case here.' What Morris had to offer was enthusiasm, 'a key aspect of everything I've done'. And of course enthusiastic is just what he is. He describes himself as 'bounding around', all six foot four of him, with that relentlessly untidy hair. But it's not all bounding: he's a sharp judge of character and views his contemporaries with unsettling clarity.

He started off with no proper business plan and no USP, but with a bit of tied business. He started buying wine for that, and expanded from there, selling it where he could to private customers and restaurants, and learning as he went along. And it was Burgundy, where Becky Wasserman showed him the ropes, that caught his attention. He pounced on Dominique Lafon's wines, and regrets not taking Coche Dury as well. 'Becky showed me the human side of it, that it's not just the price being right; not just trading. In Burgundy you have people who are custodians of their vineyards,

and they work in the image of their terroir and what they think is important in life. They want to make the best wine they can, and sell it for a good price, but human considerations take precedence. And they're an intensely loyal lot. At the age of 23 you can't judge the future of young wine, so from the start I based my decisions on the people. Even today I make my decisions on a human basis. It's always stood me in good stead; it's why we had a good list at M&V.'

He credits Wasserman with being a great influence on him and on many others. Her comment is: 'Now one's getting older all these people say what an influence one has been. I think it's because I had a washing machine and a dryer, and they were young and poor.'

Harry Waugh was another influence. He had a wine business, Harry Waugh Selections, with Bruce Templeton, and asked Morris to administer it. 'Harry was an immaculate taster. His notes weren't much use - they were along the lines of,"I say, awfully good" - but he always tasted blind, and he was never afraid of contradicting himself, though he always judged wines the same each time. He had absolute integrity, and no vanity to get in the way.

'I was very conscious when I was enjoying the patronage of people like Harry that I could never repay them; so I've tried to repay via the next generation. We gave people a good start at M&V and some have become MWs; I've tried to be helpful with advice, and I do tastings at Oxford and train the tasting team so they can beat Cambridge. People opened wonderful bottles for me, and I'm delighted to do it for others.'

He had 20 years to do this at M&V. And if he hadn't had a USP to begin with, he soon acquired one: buying Burgundy domaines direct. By chance he was in at the start of domain e bottling and all the excitement about domaine wines; the only other companies were Domaine Direct and Haynes Hanson & Clark. 'And then one day Becky gave me a glass of red, and I guessed it was Volnay from Lafarge. It was Au Bon Climat.' Jim Clendenen promptly joined the M&V stable, followed by Bonny Doon and Ridge: 'It was never M&V's role to pioneer countries, but to come in at the new-generation stage.' They missed out on Australia a bit, owing to 'doing other things; timing is important,' but bagged Vega Sicilia when they approached it for its Tokaji and ended up with the lot.

And the company went on growing, 'rather too much for my amateur management skills'. Restructuring and downsizing were going to be necessary, 'to play to our strengths, and get rid of the bits that were bogging us down We were overstretched financially - we had too much stock, but we were managing our way through it, though afterwards we realised we were further into a hole than we'd thought.' But their 20 or so shareholders were behind them and would have put in more money, 'so we were not in extremis'. The Berry Bros offer was, he stresses, an alternative, not the only way. But it was a good offer, and Verdin was over 70, so it was a suitable moment. And so they sold, 'for less than I'd hoped but as much as I'd expected - not so much that I never needed to work again, but a handsome reward for the years put into it'. Some people said M&V would be swallowed up. Morris points out that 'small independents don't stay small independents. They either grow or they get swallowed up. It all has to renew itself; it's normal.' And BBR, he says, needed quality Burgundy domaines, as well as a person with a track record of working direct with them. He, obviously, could be that person.

One would think he would regret the lack of autonomy, after

all those years of independence, but he praises BBR's lack of micromanagement, and he even seems to have enjoyed being based in Basingstoke. 'I tend to be relatively happy wherever you put me down,' he says. But he prefers the country, and specifically he prefers the Burgundian countryside, where his London-loathing wife, Abigail, lives as a neighbour of Becky.

And now he'll be back there. BBR is restructuring and moving people about according to their strengths. Morris will now be based at home in Burgundy, instead of commuting to and from there, and will work for BBR 70% of his time, buying Burgundy, coming to Britain for tastings and dinners, and acting as an ambassador abroad. He has writing plans - 'a big Jasper book on Burgundy, with the emphasis on the vineyards and the sex lives of the producers' - and all in all seems happy as Larry. 'I've never for one minute regretted selling. I'm less stressed, physically fitter and generally happier. I should have sold out earlier.' Ah, Basingstoke.