Obituary: Geoffrey Roberts
Friday 06 May 1994
WINE MERCHANTS nowadays come in two sorts. There is the conventional, ex-public-schoolboy type, for whom selling wine is an alternative to a career in the Army or the City, and the modern eccentric type, with a passion for wine, food and travel, for whom the wine trade is more closely allied to the arts than to business. Geoffrey Roberts was an amalgam of both, a strikingly handsome Old Etonian who wore dark suits and his hair short and, though he loved to shoot, adored the opera and the ballet and boasted that he had eaten in every Michelin three-star restaurant in France.
Geoffrey's father, Cyril Roberts, had been distinguished in the Army and at the Bar, but his main career was as the Member for Staff of the National Coal Board. They were an Eton family, and Geoffrey left Eton in 1965, a member of Pop and head of the Corps, before being called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1970. The law, though, was not his calling. Earlier he had even flirted briefly with the idea of going into the Army, but in 1971, with Richard Jacobs, he started the Hungerford Wine Company in an old building in that market town. He was living there with his friend Christopher Selmes, then a whizz-kid financier, who later employed as his chef the young Simon Hopkinson, now of Bibendum restaurant, and universally recognised as one of the best cooks in London.
Nobody knows where Geoffrey Roberts got his interest in wine; members of his family say it was certainly not at the table at home. He made a success of the Hungerford venture, which sold not very interesting 'contract' wine for corporate entertaining. Then, in the early Seventies, Roberts went to Australia, where he fell in with Len Evans, the Welsh godfather of the Australian wine industry, and risked all by buying an entire container-load of Hunter Valley wine for Hungerford. Three months after taking delivery he had sold the lot.
In 1974 Roberts went to California on a holiday. While there he met most of the wine luminaries of Napa and Sonoma. He convinced his new (but about to become lifelong) friends there, who included Robert Mondavi, Barry and Audrey Sterling, Richard Graft of Chalono, Jamie Davies of Schramsberg and Janet Trefethen, to export their better wine to the British market, which had hitherto known California chiefly as a source of cheap wine. He traded as Geoffrey Roberts Associates and the wine world in Britain was stunned by what he had to show - though he did have a little trouble unloading the container of Zinfandel he had bought, trying to repeat his Australian wine coup. The huge tastings he held (and financed himself so that he retained an unusual degree of independence) from the late Seventies for 10 or 12 years were compulsory London wine events, and made him 'Mr California' to the British wine press as well as to his customers.
He sold an interest in his thriving business to Les Amis du Vin, who were in turn absorbed by Kennedy Brooke, and then by the Savoy Group. Roberts himself remained as a consultant.
Roberts kept an apartment in San Francisco, where he stayed twice a year. He visited Australia usually in February; and for the last four summers rented a house near St Tropez, to which he motored in his recently acquired vintage Bentley. Invitations to stay there were cherished by his circle of close friends, who also relished the occasional gastronomic excursion to Paris or the provinces.
In the course of the last few years I saw Geoffrey Roberts more often at the opera or the theatre than at wine events. He was a keen supporter of opera and ballet charity events, especially when the beneficiary was an Aids charity. I last ran into him three weeks ago, at a performance of Terry Johnson's Dead Funny, when he expressed his opinion of the play by leaving at the interval. He faced his final, and mercifully brief, illness with bravery and characteristic good-humour.
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