Bill Baker: Wine merchant extraordinaire
Tuesday 05 February 2008
Bill Baker, country wine merchant extraordinaire, was a rare blend of gourmet and gourmand. In his outsize pinstripe suit and trademark red braces, he was a regular and idiosyncratic fixture of the London wine tasting scene. Visible from afar, his ample figure was so well known by the wine trade that if he was nowhere to be seen at one of the London trade tastings, he was conspicuous by his absence. Yet there was a lot more to the proverbial legend in his own lunchtime than an ever-expanding girth.
The words rotund and jolly don't do full justice to a man whose gargantuan appetite and reactionary views added to the impression that he was a caricature from the pages of Dickens. Despite appearances, Baker was the least pretentious of men, and hugely respected by the wine trade for a combination of a discriminating palate, unfailing generosity and good humour, and an absolute dedication to quality in food and wine. He was equally revered for an encyclopaedic knowledge of fine wine and spirits, based largely on his own experience of having drunk them. As much as he demanded quality in quantity, magnums preferably, he was utterly intolerant of mediocrity and had little time for everyday wines or brands.
In order to combine looking after his customers' interests with his insatiable appetite for the best things in life, Bill Baker would spend much of his time following his nose and stomach around the world on wine-buying trips. It was a measure of his personal magnetism that suppliers would be as flattered as customers by regular visits aimed not just as an excuse for a Michelin-starred nosh but at genuinely maintaining the time-honoured tradition of personal contact. Baker's combination of infectious enthusiasm, hard work, extensive knowledge and Falstaffian energy ensured that his customers placed great confidence in his judgement of fine and rare vintage wines.
Political correctness was anathema to a man who'd call anyone he disliked or who disagreed with him a "bloody socialist!" He claimed during conversation last year, tongue always half in cheek, that in writing for The Independent, I, "Rose, old boy", as he put it, was working for a "bloody socialist rag". In a recent interview he said: "I'll be in the trade for at least another 10 years because the children are 10 and 13, so I have school fees and then university to put them through. And then I think I will have to make a decision about just how disgustingly politically correct this country has become, because it drives me bloody wild. I hate living here, with idiots telling you what to do all the time." He once described himself as "an old-fart English wine merchant because I still wear a suit occasionally and I do tend to like classic Bordeaux".
Baker's bluntness led to an unseemly spat with the American wine writer Robert Parker, whose love of powerfully alcoholic wines and scores out of 100 Baker detested as much as what Baker saw as a malign influence over Bordeaux producers. After the publication of Parker's Definitive Guide to the Wines of Bordeaux ("that got my bloody back up for a start – there is no such thing as a definitive guide to wine, and it was far less than a definitive guide anyway"), Baker wrote a review criticising Parker's "absurd" scoring system. To his astonishment, he received a reply from Parker "to the effect that I was a small and jealous man who would be better off selling freezers. It was classic stuff. Parker can't stand criticism, but nobody is above criticism."
Hugh Gillam Baker was born in 1954 and after a public school education at Charterhouse, his growing appetite for fine wine was further whetted at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he studied History, then switched to History of Art. "The dean of my college had been given a special bottle of wine, which turned out to be a Château Latour '61," recalled Baker. "He invited a couple of us to taste it after dinner and I was blown away. I couldn't believe that something could be that powerful and that complex."
After Cambridge, he worked in the mid 1970s for Averys of Bristol, who were still bottling much of their own fine wine at the time. Through a resource of large volumes of relatively inexpensive fine wine, Baker was able to make both buying and selling contacts that would stand him in good stead when, after a year with Robertson's wine merchants, he established his own business, then with Charles Reid, at Reid Wines in Bristol in 1980. The company soon became synonymous with Baker himself, whose notes would testily disparage his own wines as "crap" if he ended up disliking a wine he knew he shouldn't have bought. Reid Wines went into receivership in the early 1990s, "a little interruption', in Baker's words, before David Boobbyer joined him in the new "Reid Wines 1992".
While he was most at home in the classic wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône and Champagne, Bill Baker's palate was more catholic than sometimes appeared, for the simple reason that he had an open mind and a broad perspective on the world of wine. As a wine judge at the Decanter World Wine Awards, for instance, he was a valued member of the Australian wine panel and he judged in competitions in many New World countries, notably, most recently at Perth in Western Australia in November and last month in South Africa.
In addition to his traditional country wine merchant role, Bill Baker was a consultant for the Conran group of restaurants, creating Bibendum's first wine list, and he also became good friends with this newspaper's former food writer, Simon Hopkinson, and with Rick Stein. Appearing on Rick Stein's television programme one day, Baker suggested Stein add some wheels and a motor to Stein's beloved Jack Russell, Chalky, when it died. The programme was bombarded with hate mail from viewers demanding "Who is that dreadful fat man?"
After a failed early marriage, Bill Baker married Katie Gaunt in 1991 in Wells Cathedral, where their children, Polly and George, would later be choristers.
Hugh Gillam Baker, wine merchant: born London 6 July 1954; twice married, secondly 1991 Katie Gaunt (one son, one daughter); died Rock, Cornwall 27 January 2008.
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