• Image about Tony Laithwaite
jude edgington

He’s the soft-spoken Brit who ships millions of bottles of wine every year. Now he’s out to conquer America.

Tony Laithwaite has the kind of life that makes the rest of us drool in envy. ¶ One week you might find the 65-year-old at his château in France’s Bordeaux region, checking on how the grapes are maturing for his next vintage. The next, you might find him on the benches of the vast tasting room at his Britain-based firm, Direct Wines, sampling pours from all over the world. And the next might see him flying off to hot, up-and-coming wineries in South Africa or Spain or Argentina, seeking out new flavors to render sommeliers speechless. ¶ Yes, it’s good to be Tony Laithwaite.

But the unassuming Brit isn’t a swashbuckling Richard Branson type or a shameless self-promoter like Donald Trump. He has just doggedly and quietly built one of the largest empires in the secretive world of wine. Direct Wines — the mail-order merchant behind wine clubs like those offered by The Wall Street Journal and Zagat, as well as The Sunday Times in the U.K. — now ships 40 million bottles to more than 750,000 people around the world, every single year.

If you’re sitting down tonight to a rich Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or a crisp South African chenin blanc, it’s entirely possible it was handpicked by Laithwaite or one of his six buyers.

For such a powerful figure who could make or break wineries, though, Laithwaite is hardly the snooty oenophile you might expect. Maybe that goes back to his unconventional start in the business: Rather than inheriting a château with 50-year-old vines or growing up in an aristocratic family on a country estate, he traces his wine career back to an offbeat journey in a beat-up Ford Transit van.

“When I started in the ’60s, the wine trade was very old-fashioned,” says Laithwaite, whose wife and sons are also active in the family business — crafting their own sparkling wines in England, and running a second château in Bordeaux. “You bought from one guy, who bought from another guy, who bought from another guy. I didn’t like that, but I loved that part of France and the way of life. So I decided to go fetch it myself and drove back in a van full of Bordeaux.”

And so was born a business that now ships more than a half billion dollars’ worth of wine worldwide. Laithwaite’s big break: In 1973 he started the Sunday Times Wine Club in the U.K., for which he would ship a case of selected vintages to subscribers. Eventually, it became kind of like a book-of-the-month club, but for rabid wine lovers. It was a novel concept at the time, but it has since ballooned into a raging success, with 200,000-plus active members who look forward to decanting their latest cabernet.

England is just one country, though. So the idea came in recent years: Why not take the concept global, with wine clubs everywhere — from Hong Kong to Germany to Switzerland to Australia? So that’s exactly what Laithwaite did. His current target (among many), and the biggest potential market of all: America.

Despite the old stereotype of Americans as beer drinkers, the U.S. is actually the No. 1 wine market on the planet, surpassing the previous champion, France, for the first time ever last year. American consumers spent $30 billion on the grape last year alone, with wine shipments to the U.S. market at an all-time high.

“Wine consumption in America has been growing for 17 years in a row,” says Gladys Horiuchi, spokeswoman for the San Francisco–based Wine Institute, a group that represents 85 percent of the country’s wine production. “And it looks like we’re going to have yet another record year. Even during the global recession, people didn’t want to give up their wine.”

And local palates are hardly anything to sniff at. Sure, we Americans love our Miller and Budweiser during a good playoff football game. But we’re also increasingly sophisticated at telling rioja from shiraz, or viognier from chablis. Not least because the quality of American wine, driven by top Napa Valley producers, has been leaping forward with every decade.

“It all dates back to a famous blind tasting in Paris in 1976,” remembers Horiuchi. “It was California wines against French wines, and to everybody’s amazement, the French critics all picked the California wines. Then there was a rematch 25 years later — and the California wines won again.”