What do you see when you look in the mirror?
A fat bald bloke who wonders where the past 30 years have gone – but enough laughter lines to remember the good times.
Where did you grow up?
On a beach in South Africa.
Where were you educated?
At the University of Cape Town. Shockingly for someone who can’t count for shit, I am actually a qualified accountant. I hated it with a passion and, to this day, I still can't do my own tax return.
What drew you to wine?
Long, lazy weekends on the wine farms of friends' parents during university. I used to spend every second weekend out in the wine country, lying by the pool drinking wine and thinking I was in the wine business. My love of gluttony and glamor fooled me into thinking that's what the wine business was all about.
It wasn't until I started in the wine business that I realized how difficult it was. My first foray at Virgin Wines was absolutely disastrous. It was at the height of the dot-com boom and it was so easy to raise money. I really thought the name Virgin, wine, internet – put those three things together, how can it go wrong? And, of course, you put those three things together and nothing happened. I've probably spent more than anybody on the planet trying to sell wine to other people online unsuccessfully. We blew through all of our money.
Your view of awards?
In serious need of a kick up the arse. The world needs a genuinely consumer-focused award that seeks out new talent. Which is what we are doing this year.
Tell us more.
It's called Zero to Hero. What we're going to do is invite anyone who is not a recognized wine producer to put their wines forward, which will be tasted by consumers. The final judging is done by consumers drinking their wine at home with food and friends, as opposed to five people standing together in a tasting room and trying to work their way through 300 wines.
The biggest little secret in the wine industry is that the wine that actually appears in the supermarket wearing the medal is not the same as the wine that is put in front of the judges. No one will tell you that on the record, but all the competitions know this is a problem and they really don't know what to do about it. Our intention is to make 100 percent certain that the wine for sale through us is exactly the wine that won the competition, otherwise we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot, wouldn't we?
What impact is the recession having on your business?
Well, we have doubled sales every year for the past three years, so apparently quite a good one. Seriously, our proposition is that we help talented winemakers set up on their own, so a tough environment is actually quite good for us.
Who controls today’s fine-wine market?
The same people who always have: the producers!
How is the internet changing the world of wine?
For the better. A few weeks ago, 2,000 complete strangers got together to fund Rod Easthope, a talented New Zealand winemaker, to set up his own business. How cool is that? Completely impossible without the internet.
What really works when it comes to selling wine on the internet?
Two things. The turning point at Virgin came when we decided not to sell supermarket brands, even if you can sell them cheaper online, because no one gives a damn about brands in the wine business. What people are looking for is off-the-beaten-track, undiscovered wines, so we made it our mission to do that. We took it a step further and said the biggest obstacle for talented winemakers is that they can't raise the capital to do it. Once they've done it, they then have to give a return on investment, so their wines are stupidly expensive. They're caught in a vicious circle: their costs are high, therefore their selling prices are high, therefore their volumes are low, therefore their costs are high – and they can never break it. We help to break that vicious circle.
Is wine still perceived as elitist?
Yes, very much so, but we’re doing our best.
Whom or what do you most admire?
Outside of wine, Nelson Mandela, for never taking revenge for the wrongs done to him.
And least admire?
Anyone who thinks cork vs screw cap is worth debating.
In wine terms, who are your heroes?
The little guys who make wines their way, without compromise.
What is it you most dislike in a wine?
Wines made to recipes.
What do you drink on a school night?
Right now, I have a glass of Navarra rosé in my hand. Cheap as chips and incredibly delicious.
What have been your best and worst experiences in the wine industry?
The best: unquestionably, setting up Naked Wines from scratch, with 17 colleagues who left Virgin Wines, and getting it right. The worst: when we set up Virgin Wines, raised several million pounds, blew it all and thought, “Shit, we don’t have a business!”
Where would you like to be buried?
At sea, where the undertakers can’t get a penny.
Do you have any regrets?
Plenty … but I don’t dwell on them.
What brings you the greatest happiness?
In wine: when we have found a talented winemaker, from a place nobody has ever heard of, and the customers rave about their wine. Personally: children. It's not the big things like getting results at school; it's when you are in a grumpy mood and you are ready to bite someone's head off and your daughter gives you a hug and a kiss.
What do you think would make the world a better place?
When people refuse to pay to be sold to. The wine industry wastes so much money selling – which you can’t taste – and then compromises on the things you can taste, like grapes, talent and time. Bonkers.
In the end, what really matters?
Fun. No amount of money beats having fun going to work.