The Gilbey Heritage

Tom's family history

About Tom

Father of four and the daddy of The Vintner team, Tom founded the company in 2010 and follows a long line of Gilbeys in the wine industry. When your family has been involved in the trade for generations, it seems only natural that you should follow in their footsteps in one way or another. Here Tom shares with you a little about the generations that went before him, how they shaped the UK wine trade over the years and helped inspire him on in his own journey into the wonderful world of wine.


Where it all began

In 1856, two young men, discharged at the end of the Crimean War, were in need of jobs: Walter, aged 26 and Alfred 24 (my great-great-grandfather). Their older brother, Henry Parry Gilbey, was a partner in a wholesale wine merchants firm, Southard, Gilbey & Co. and he advised them to set up as retail wine merchants. Less than a year later they leased some cellars on Oxford Street and began to sell wine.


Through the years

They concentrated on good, cheap wines from Cape Town, as these could be imported at half duty. The wine was so good and so cheap that Gilbey's had 20,000 customers within months and just two years later new premises were opened in Dublin, Edinburgh and Belfast! Family members were drawn in to run the new branches, so that it expanded as a family business right from the start. When duty was reduced on French wines in 1861, Gilbeys were straight in there and started importing cheap Bordeaux wines at the expense of their South African ones. The firm's expansion was so rapid that they were able to take over the Pantheon in Oxford Street, the site of the present Marks & Spencer's building.

A decade later Gilbeys decided to diversify again, and began distilling gin in London in 1872. Cheap and easy to produce, it was an instant success and the beginning of a booming spirits trade for Gilbeys. By 1905, Gilbey's had bought three whiskey distilleries in the Glenlivet district of Strathspey, where they produced nearly 300,000 gallons of proof spirit. At the same time, they held large stocks of Irish whiskey in Dublin and had opened plants in Canada and Australia, as well as buying further property in London in which to store their drinks. In fact, by 1914 their empire covered 20 acres in Camden Town alone!

In the meantime, the wine arm of the business was taking a different direction as they made the transition from buying from suppliers, to buying direct from growers themselves, thus cutting out the middle man. Alfred Gilbey toured French and other Continental vineyards, buying and shipping direct and then bottling in England. As a result of these annual excursions, the family ties became even more complicated as three members of the Gilbey family married into Spanish wine firms whose wines too were soon on the Gilbeys list.

In their travels, Alfred Gilbey and James Blyth discovered the sparkling wines of the Lower Loire Valley. These were cheap, not unlike champagne, and became highly popular in Britain. In 1875, Gilbeys bought the 470 acre Château Loudenne, in the Gironde, north of Bordeaux, which produced claret. Here they made their own wine and stored purchases from elsewhere. Thus, at the peak of their success, Gilbeys owned wine shops around the world, distilleries, a Château, warehouses, and more!


The Gilbey Legacy

In 1997 I went to a secure documents store where I presented a letter from Gilbeys giving me permission to see the Camden Town files. Two large men carried in a huge wooden box with a hinged lid - I was warned not to move it or I would give myself a hernia. Instead, they carried in a table and chair so that I could work in comfort. Inside was album after album. The first contained dozens of different whisky labels - every village in Scotland seemed to have had its own distillery and Gilbeys had bought them all! The second album had more whisky labels and so did the third. Almost every album in the box had whisky labels and those that did not had wine labels. At last I realised the full scale of the business.

My grandfather was the last chairman of Gilbeys before it all sadly went a bit wrong.  The next generation, my father and his brother, opened one of the first wine bars outside of London in 1972 –originally the Eton Wine Bar, now proudly bearing the family name Gilbeys.  I was born above that.  They then opened in Amersham and both are still going strong today. Shipping in their own wines for the list, dad was the chef, my mum front of house, my aunt hiring and firing and my uncle did the adding up. Then came me and I find myself today being a true Gilbey and running The Vintner. Although Ive taken a different tack to my great-great-grandfather and have opted for quality over quantity, I do feel proud to be continuing the Gilbey legacy and hope that, although my children currently prefer a Smirnoff Ice to a white Burgundy, they might one day follow in the Gilbey footsteps.