There aren’t many people who can claim to have been involved in the wine and hospitality business for 50 years and none who can claim they spent eight years before that in the civil service overseeing, inter alia, the merger of Britain’s two national airlines BEA and BOAC, followed by a stint as a management consultant and lecturer at the London Business School.

Neville Abraham can. Now a fit 85-year-old, he’s run the restaurant groups Wheelers, Mario and Franco, Maxim’s, Café Fish and Bertorelli’s. He has only recently retired as chair of Liberty Wines. Liberty’s first order, in 1997, was for four cases of wine from the River Café. It is now one of the UK’s leading wine importers with a current turnover of more than £110mn and almost 200 staff. 

Liberty Wines’ founder, Master of Wine David Gleave, cites one of Abraham’s many contributions since his appointment to the board in 2003. “He taught us that cash is king. ‘Banks will give you a lovely umbrella when the sky is clear blue, but at the first sign of a cloud, they’ll ask for it back,’ he used to say when talking about overdrafts. Having cash in the bank enabled us to look after our customers and suppliers during the lockdown in 2020,” he adds, “something which provided the base for us to recover quickly and even to thrive as things opened up.”

I met Abraham over lunch at the Coal Office in London’s King’s Cross. He still marvels at the improvement in the quality of produce over his lifetime: cheese, bread, coffee and wine of course — “everything is getting better all the time!”

The business school lectureship was necessary in the early 1970s to fund him while he was starting up his first wine business, Les Amis du Vin, just up the road from Marylebone Fire Station, which is now the fashionable Chiltern Firehouse. “I would spend two days a month teaching and 28 days unpaid in the shop,” he says now. At least it meant he could use the Business School for wine tastings for customers, then a novelty.

It was not the only distinctive feature of his business. “As a wine lover I had become increasingly pissed off because British wine merchants seemed to wallow in Bordeaux after Bordeaux but didn’t get off their backsides and go and look for stuff. I thought I’d do something completely different, and Rioja seemed the obvious alternative.”

Abraham played a major part in introducing British wine drinkers to Spain’s top wine region, then terra incognita to the average wine merchant here. He even organised a festival that included 50 different riojas, which he admits was “daft”.

Abraham is dismissive of the many people who have set up their own wine companies in recent years, often out of a spare room or a garage. “How some of these wine merchants will stay in business, I don’t know. They are not proper businesses,” he says. “The wine trade is full of people who love wine and are very knowledgeable about it, but there is not always good management.”

Early in his wine career, the most important lesson he learnt was to master the rate of expansion. Initially Les Amis du Vin grew too fast. “I had to hire more people so I hired Master of Wine Clive Coates to buy for the business. He had an exceptional palate but we bought far too much. He left after 18 months.”

By about this time, Les Amis had grown into a warehouse in Acton, west London, and, in the early 1980s, merged with Geoffrey Roberts, the UK’s pioneer importer of fine California wine. I remember him complaining about having to source his lunch from a nearby Spudulike, rather than from somewhere smarter in Chelsea or Mayfair, but Abraham insists that the marriage made sense. “We solved each other’s problems.”

Abraham accompanied Roberts on one of his buying trips to California when he felt the good folk of Napa Valley needed to be taught a thing or two about the realities of the British wine market. “The price increases stopped,” he says. “Most wine producers, wherever they are, know nothing about the marketplace.”

Abraham was perhaps too savvy a businessman to be limited to wine. In 1980, as an offshoot of that wine business, he opened Le Café des Amis du Vin in an old banana warehouse next to the Royal Opera House in London. In 1984, he sold the entire business to the restaurant and hotel group Kennedy Brookes for a sum well in excess of £2mn. Within three years he and business partner Laurence Isaacson had bought out Café Fish and Bertorelli’s (it was the 1980s, after all). Their group, Groupe Chez Gérard, went public in 1994 and by 2000 it had grown to 22 restaurants. It was sold in 2003. Meanwhile, they co-founded the Covent Garden Festival.

“Apart from running the company, I did all the wine-buying — some £3mn a year for over 10 years — and learnt a bit more about any particular wine’s place in a restaurant’s wine list, as opposed to on the shelf in a shop or supermarket or, later, online,” he says.

His restaurant experience must have been particularly valuable to Liberty, whose business was focused on customers in hospitality. And during the lockdowns when restaurants were closed, he helped Liberty improve what it could offer wine retailers. “Service has become ever more important. Things like overnight delivery. In many ways we’re not a wine company but a logistics company now.”

He is sanguine about the realities of the restaurant business of old. “There was undoubted corruption. Backhanders for sommeliers and chefs, that sort of thing. I couldn’t understand how Le Café des Amis was full yet making a loss. People were obviously helping themselves.”

But he is clearly thrilled by many developments. “I used to say sommeliers were redundant, but nowadays I realise they do a great job of introducing people to good mid-range wines. And in the UK we’ve had this great influx of really knowledgeable people such as Ronan Sayburn and Gerard Basset and many others from France. They are so much better than the old-school wine waiters!

“And I love that service is much less hierarchical than it was. Hospitality used to be a lousy industry to work in: antisocial hours, rotten pay and customers treating you like servants. But the pandemic has changed that. Pay’s gone up.”

Our lunch ended with a gripe. Abraham is used to fighting industry battles, having been involved with the British Hospitality Association. The current one involves the proposed changes to duty on alcoholic drinks. It sounds sensible to tie it to potency, but the practicalities of implementing so many narrow duty bands would be a nightmare. The strength of any given wine can change from year to year and cannot, or at least should not, be manipulated by a producer to fit a duty band. Nature decides. Calculations by Liberty’s Gleave and team suggest that the new duties would result in an average increase of 18p per bottle wholesale.

Remembering his days in the civil service (about which he wrote a coruscating book in 1974, Big Business and Government), Abraham says, “If the government were to design the perfect tax collection office, it could well be a wine shop. They get all the tax upfront there.”

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