It’s essentially become a new world order, where obscure wineries in Chile or British Columbia or the Australian outback can go toe-to-toe with storied French châteaus. And that’s exactly how Laithwaite likes it. He’s a maverick at heart, and he doesn’t go to a lot of trade events in London, preferring instead to spend time among the vines and guest rooms and cellars of actual producers. Even though he’s buddies with some powerful industry figures — like Hugh Johnson, famed critic and president of Laithwaite’s Sunday Times club — he finds many wine traditionalists can be a little hidebound, very stuffy and too in love with old-school names like Lafite Rothschild and Haut-Brion.
“He’s as far from a wine snob as you can get,” says Adrian Bentham, CEO of Direct Wines’ U.S. operations, who started out as a humble assistant in one of Laithwaite’s early wineshops. “It’s a love affair with the people, the places, the stories, the romance, the theater. He genuinely wants to share this with others. And he also wants to enjoy what he’s doing.”
And invading America is what he’s enjoying most at the moment. For years, the idea of stateside wine clubs had intimidated entrepreneurs — thanks, in part, to Byzantine alcohol-delivery laws, with each state having its own complex web of regulations. But, for Laithwaite, it was a challenge waiting to happen. And his partnership with the Wall Street Journal, which launched in 2008, has quickly grown into another success story. “It’s history repeating itself,” Laithwaite says. “It’s gone so well, and we’re way ahead of where we thought we’d be. It’s the thing I’m most proud of at the moment.”
For his new American audience, what Laithwaite really loves is taking them beyond the usual California chardonnays and Oregon pinot noirs. To spice up the mix, he’ll introduce obscure values from far-flung areas of the world; his favorite picks du jour: malbecs and syrahs from Argentina’s wild Patagonia region, as well as sauvignon blancs from the deserts of northern Chile.
It’s in unlikely nooks like those, after all, that you can make the most amazing discoveries. “Like the first time I ever tasted sauvignon blanc from Hunter’s estate in New Zealand,” says Laithwaite of the popular white that has come to dominate wine lists around the world. “That only came on the scene around 1985, and it didn’t even exist before that. Trying it was such a knockout; you don’t forget those things. Every day, I try to find another place like that.”
Even in the heart of France’s wine country, you can still uncover something surprising and spectacular. Like the time when the reclusive owner of a run-down French château passed away, and Laithwaite was tapped to investigate the forgotten cellars. The owner had long fallen out with the wine trade and didn’t even sell his cases on the market anymore.
When Laithwaite broke the old lock on the cellar and took a peek in the dark caverns (with the help of a torch), what he saw took his breath away: floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall stacks of the most delicious Bordeaux you could imagine. “It was every wine merchant’s dream,” says Laithwaite of the undiscovered cache. “It was lovely stuff, very classic. We bought as much of it as we possibly could.”
And there’s the rub: In addition to being a wine lover, he’s also got the crafty eye of a born entrepreneur. Otherwise, he would never have survived in the insular and high-cost wine world — where, as the saying goes, the way to make a small fortune is to start with a big one. “He’s very competitive,” says Bentham, who cut his teeth in the business by traveling with Laithwaite to visit wineries across Europe. “He wants to win by being more innovative. And he’s discovered along the way that being successful is much more enjoyable than being unsuccessful.”
Mission accomplished, given that Direct Wines has grown at a steady 20 percent, year after year. But Laithwaite doesn’t think he has discovered any towering secret to the wine trade. When asked the reasons for his success, he remembers asking the same question of the pioneering winemaker Ernest Gallo at his Napa vineyards years ago. Gallo’s response to him: “We just started a very long time ago.”
Despite how long Laithwaite has been working on his dream, he’s loved every minute of it. Indeed, it has allowed him to embark on what seems like one huge, lifelong trip of wine tourism. “I’d be perfectly happy to go around the world drinking odd little wines from peasant cellars out of plastic cups,” says Laithwaite with a laugh. “I’m fascinated by finding the unusual and the odd — wines that don’t have any preconceptions at all.”
Laithwaite may be at a point in his career where he doesn’t have to be driving old vans crammed with Bordeaux back from France. But he still loves experimenting, like at his new facility Le Chai au Quai (the Winery on the River), on the banks of the Dordogne river not far from his château. Having restored the old winery that had lain empty for many years, he’s now aiming to turn it into a center for wine tourism and using it to create small-batch fermentations of selected Bordeaux.
In fact, he doesn’t really see a finish line to his life’s work, because a real love of wine doesn’t work that way. “There’s no end to it,” Laithwaite says, just before he heads off to Sainte-Colombe for another spell at his French second home. “It’s not like other products, where there are a just a few big factories all making the same thing. There are thousands and thousands of people making wine all over the world, and that’s the endless fascination of it for me.
“I just want to introduce people to all this great stuff. And thank God I’ve got this job forever, until I fall off my perch.”