The wrong trousers

David Thomas’s trans­gen­der diary

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

Istill don’t know which wines go well with Mex­i­can food. That’s de­spite hav­ing shared an enor­mous meal of fish tacos, pork tamales and chile rel­lenos with Rowan Gorm­ley, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Naked Wines, and Daryl Groom, a glob­ally renowned wine­maker. Call it a fail­ure of jour­nal­is­tic re­spon­si­bil­ity. In fair­ness, nei­ther man has much time for that kind of chat. ‘I re­mem­ber a per­son sug­gest­ing a pair­ing that has stuck in my mind,’ says Gorm­ley. ‘He sniffed the wine and said, “I think this will go re­ally well with quail stuffed with goose­ber­ries.” And I’m like, “Oh bril­liant, that’s my Thurs­day-night go-to recipe.” I mean, please.’

Groom is wear­ing a T-shirt from a ‘Pigs and Pinot’ evening, at which pulled pork was washed down with high-end Cal­i­for­nian pinot noir. This, they both agree, is how most peo­ple drink wine – with steaks, burg­ers and piz­zas, not haute cui­sine. We’re gath­ered round a tres­tle ta­ble groan­ing un­der the weight of mul­ti­ple dishes out­side a res­tau­rant that is lit­tle more than a shack deep in the heart of Cal­i­for­nian wine coun­try. ‘The truth is, we’re sit­ting here in the sun, en­joy­ing great food and hav­ing a nice chat,’ says Gorm­ley. ‘We could be drink­ing just about any­thing and it would still taste de­li­cious.’

This is ex­actly the kind of com­ment that gets right up the wine in­dus­try’s hy­per­sen­si­tive nose. Gorm­ley’s de­ci­sion to sell off the Ma­jes­tic Wines stores over the sum­mer and change the com­pany’s name back to Naked, the out­fit he founded that was bought by Ma­jes­tic four years ago, has prompted a num­ber of wine writ­ers to vent their feel­ings about the South African.

The main ac­cu­sa­tion ap­pears to be that he is a busi­ness­man at heart with no real un­der­stand­ing or love of wine. Ex­hibit A for the pros­e­cu­tion is Gorm­ley’s an­swer when asked his favourite wine: what­ever is in front of him. No proper wine per­son, the crit­ics ar­gue, would come up with an an­swer like that. A sim­i­lar charge is lev­elled at Naked Wines: the busi­ness model is smart and the cus­tomer ser­vice is slick but the wines them­selves can be a bit hit and miss.

Gorm­ley takes the per­sonal brick­bats on the chin. ‘I don’t have a great palate; I’m not a wine ex­pert by any mea­sure,’ he con­cedes. ‘But I am pas­sion­ate about this in­dus­try. The thing that ex­cites me about wine is get­ting other peo­ple ex­cited about wine. It’s not [at this point he swills his glass os­ten­ta­tiously and sniffs]: “I’ve got notes of dam­son berries and bi­cy­cle sad­dles.” I find all that stuff pompous, pre­ten­tious and te­dious.’ He ar­gues that Naked’s wines are continuall­y get­ting bet­ter as the com­pany ex­pands. The most im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent in any bot­tle, Gorm­ley likes to say, is the wine­maker, and he points to Groom – who started out at Pen­folds in Aus­tralia mak­ing its famed Grange wine be­fore mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia to run the multi-award-win­ning Geyser Peak win­ery – as an ex­am­ple of the tal­ent Naked can at­tract.

Gorm­ley be­lieves the an­i­mos­ity di­rected at him stems from some ‘un­for­tu­nate’ com­ments he made about whether any­one re­ally needs crit­ics if you have cus­tomer data that can tell you which wines peo­ple will en­joy. ‘Un­for­tu­nate’ or not, he’s def­i­nitely not back­ing down. Gorm­ley de­scribes wine crit­ics as a ‘nest of vipers’ who have be­come ob­sessed with their own in­ter­nal squab­bles as they fade into ir­rel­e­vance. ‘One of the things that I learnt quite early in the busi­ness is that the wines that crit­ics get frothy at the mouth about don’t in­ter­est con­sumers. [The crit­i­cism] used to worry me un­til one of the fa­mous wine crit­ics wrote a pos­i­tive piece about us. And sales of those wines did not budge an inch. Sadly, the public are not pay­ing at­ten­tion to wine crit­ics. Whereas James Martin on Satur­day Kitchen …he shifts a lot of wine.’

It is clear that the in­ter­net has marginalis­ed the tra­di­tional ar­biters of taste. Most of us now rely on Spo­tify to sug­gest the next song we will lis­ten to, Net­flix to help choose our next film and Ama­zon to pick our next book. Gorm­ley wants Naked to pick our next bot­tle of wine. It will do so in the same way that those other com­pa­nies work – by find­ing out what we like and know­ing what other peo­ple who en­joy that have also given the thumbs up to. The trou­ble is that few con­sumer goods are more daunt­ing than wine. Most of us don’t know our pino­tage from our pinot noir and plump for the sec­ond cheap­est bot­tle on res­tau­rant wine lists. And we worry that our ig­no­rance will be used against us – not least by our own brains. A study con­ducted by the Uni­ver­sity of Bonn a cou­ple of years ago found that peo­ple

‘I don’t have a great palate; I’m not a wine ex­pert. But I am pas­sion­ate’

en­joyed the same wine more if it had a higher price tag.

Gorm­ley be­lieves that noth­ing cuts through this anx­i­ety bet­ter than cus­tomer rat­ings – pro­vided they’re set up prop­erly. For a while, Naked had a five-star rat­ing sys­tem. But it found that the cor­re­la­tion was not be­tween the rat­ing and sales but be­tween rat­ings and price. ‘Peo­ple were rat­ing the wine based on what we were charg­ing them,’ says Gorm­ley. ‘So we changed it to a sim­ple: would you buy this wine again – yes or no? Sud­denly the rat­ings per­fectly re­flected whether the cus­tomers ac­tu­ally liked the wine or not.’

Groom says wine­mak­ers like him ap­pre­ci­ate Naked’s ready­made cus­tomer base and the fact they don’t have to spend their time court­ing dis­trib­u­tors and restau­rants. ‘We are like a pub­lisher is to an au­thor,’ says Gorm­ley. ‘Imag­ine if the book in­dus­try re­quired the au­thor to not just write the book, but also edit it, print it, fi­nance the print­ing, do the sales and dis­tri­bu­tion and col­lect the money. That’s the pub­lisher’s job. That’s what we do – all the bor­ing crap.’

He might be an out­sider in the wine in­dus­try but the 57-year-old Gorm­ley is cer­tainly not a stan­dard-is­sue chief ex­ec­u­tive ei­ther. Dressed in shorts and flip-flops, he looks more like an age­ing roadie than a but­toned-up denizen of the board­room – a hang­over, per­haps, from his days as a beach bum grow­ing up on South Africa’s east coast. The en­tre­pre­neur­ial bug first bit him when he got a part-time job fit­ting bur­glar alarms while at uni­ver­sity in Cape Town. He quickly re­alised two things. One was that he was work­ing all day for a pit­tance while the owner of the com­pany made all the money. The other was that most peo­ple didn’t want to spend loads on a bur­glar alarm, they just wanted to be able to put up a sign say­ing their house was fit­ted with one. He quit his job, got a whole load of signs made up and went from door to door flog­ging enough ‘to fund a uni­ver­sity-level beer habit’. He is not afraid of mak­ing bold moves – even in his pri­vate life. He met his Kenyan wife Jenny on a blind date in 1987. They hit it off but she had bought a oneway ticket to Lon­don, so he ditched the ac­coun­tancy job he hated and fol­lowed her to the UK. They were en­gaged six weeks later. Gorm­ley’s big break came when the pri­vate eq­uity firm he was work­ing for in Lon­don teamed up with Vir­gin on a project. The deal never hap­pened but he got to meet Richard Bran­son, who spot­ted some­thing in the young Gorm­ley and made him a very neb­u­lous job of­fer. Gorm­ley was in­trigued enough to ac­cept.

‘The first week, there was this lunch with all the Vir­gin big wigs and Bran­son about where we were go­ing to take the Vir­gin brand,’ says Gorm­ley. ‘All the talk was about bou­tique ho­tels, night­clubs and game re­serves. And I said, “How about fi­nan­cial ser­vices?” Ev­ery­one laughed – apart from Richard. He asked why. I said, “Be­cause no one trusts banks but they do trust Vir­gin.” He said, “OK, great, let’s do it.”’ This ex­change even­tu­ally spawned Vir­gin Di­rect, which later mor­phed into Vir­gin Money and was sold to the Cly­des­dale and York­shire Bank­ing Group for £1.7 bil­lion last year.

Like all en­trepreneur­s, Gorm­ley had his eye out for the next big thing. At the end of the 1990s that was the in­ter­net. He was quick to spot that the ap­peal of com­pa­nies like Ama­zon was not just their wide range and low prices but their abil­ity to make rec­om­men­da­tions. He tried to think of ar­eas in which Ama­zon didn’t yet com­pete and came up with wine, which he had grown up around in South Africa. The up­shot was Or­gas­mic Wines (risqué com­pany names were one of the things he learnt from Bran­son), which he set up with the help of his brother and a busi­ness part­ner and was re­branded as Vir­gin Wines when his men­tor took a stake.

Talk­ing to Gorm­ley about Naked, you are struck by the ex­tent to which he freely ad­mits that the cur­rent busi­ness is built on past er­rors, wrong turns and blind luck. He says that Or­gas­mic Wines made ‘ev­ery dot­com mis­take in the book’ and burnt through about £20 mil­lion in less than a year. It fo­cused on the big wine brands and strug­gled to con­vince cus­tomers to make re­peat pur­chases. In the end, the busi­ness was sold on to Laith­waite’s Wine. Gorm­ley was at­tempt­ing to fix its flaws and buy back the com­pany when he was abruptly fired in 2008.

He de­cided to start from scratch. Lehman Broth­ers had just gone bust. This in­aus­pi­cious back­drop forced him to come up with a busi­ness model that – al­most ac­ci­den­tally, as he tells it – solved the is­sues with which Or­gas­mic had strug­gled. ‘In 2008 wine­mak­ers were in trou­ble be­cause the banks were sud­denly call­ing their loans back in,’ says Gorm­ley. ‘This was be­fore crowd­fund­ing was even a thing. But I thought that we could build a busi­ness where our cus­tomers fi­nanced wine­mak­ers and, in­stead of div­i­dends or in­ter­est, got pref­er­en­tial prices on the wine.’

He’s made a for­tune, lost it and made an­other one. By the time he left Vir­gin, Gorm­ley was worth £5 mil­lion (and had

‘We are like a pub­lisher is to an au­thor… That’s what we do – all the bor­ing crap’

sus­tained a back in­jury in a tram­polin­ing ac­ci­dent on Bran­son’s Necker Is­land – don’t ask) but he blew the lot on Or­gas­mic Wines. His stake in Naked Wines is worth around £9.5 mil­lion at to­day’s prices. Ma­jes­tic Wine’s an­nual re­port notes that he keeps re­fus­ing pay rises (de­spite get­ting about half what his pre­de­ces­sor earned) and ex­cludes him­self from the bonus scheme so that there’s more to go round the rest of the staff. The Gorm­leys own Met­ting­ham Cas­tle on the Suf­folk-nor­folk bor­der, which was built by Sir John de Nor­wich in 1342, and reg­u­larly host par­ties for staff at their home. The pair have a son, Luke, the el­dest, and two daugh­ters, Phoebe and Han­nah. It seems there may be an en­tre­pre­neur­ial gene: Phoebe dropped out of uni­ver­sity to set up Gorm­ley & Gam­ble, the first women-only tai­lor on Sav­ile Row (the ‘Gam­ble’ in the name refers not to a busi­ness part­ner but the punt she took in spend­ing her fi­nal-year tu­ition fees of £9,000 on start­ing her busi­ness), and has won a num­ber of busi­ness awards.

The wine in­dus­try might call Gorm­ley a num­bers man; he’s not so sure. A more sig­nif­i­cant gift ap­pears to be his abil­ity to re­cover from mis­steps and lis­ten when cus­tomers tell him he’s gone wrong. Talk­ing to Naked’s boss over sev­eral hours I oc­ca­sion­ally get the im­pres­sion that my views are be­ing re­flected back at me. At one point, he says, ‘This ob­ses­sion with buy­ing, stor­ing and cel­lar­ing wine – I just don’t get it.’ But when I con­fess to hav­ing bought some wine to lay down, he turns on a dime and says, ‘There is some­thing lovely about putting wine away and pulling it out in the fu­ture. You can’t buy age.’

These opin­ions are fairly con­tra­dic­tory and yet they’re both de­liv­ered with equal con­vic­tion. There’s a thin line be­tween in­con­sis­tency and adapt­abil­ity. But you could cer­tainly ar­gue that this is, as they say in the tech world, a fea­ture not a flaw: re­spond­ing smartly to feed­back might be the sin­gle most im­por­tant skill of a mod­ern on­line re­tailer.

We are eat­ing lunch in the Sonoma Val­ley be­cause of Gorm­ley’s lat­est pivot. A year ago, he was ex­tolling the virtues of oper­at­ing both the Ma­jes­tic and Naked brands un­der one roof, ex­plain­ing how the tra­di­tional bricks-and-mor­tar re­tailer could learn from the on­line up­start and, in­deed, vice versa. But this sum­mer the com­pany sold off all 200 of Ma­jes­tic’s stores for £100 mil­lion and changed its name to Naked Wines.

Gorm­ley ar­gues that Ma­jes­tic is still a good busi­ness, al­though it, like most re­tail­ers in the UK, faces head­winds. He also thinks that a full in­te­gra­tion of Naked and Ma­jes­tic was pos­si­ble. The trou­ble was it would have taken up all of the man­age­ment team’s time just as a more en­tic­ing op­por­tu­nity was pre­sent­ing it­self – Naked was mak­ing real head­way in the US. Amer­ica rep­re­sents only around 12 per cent of the world’s wine mar­ket by vol­ume but is re­spon­si­ble for 62 per cent of the in­dus­try’s global gross profit. That’s be­cause the byzan­tine struc­ture of Amer­ica’s booze in­dus­try re­sults in the av­er­age bot­tle of wine cost­ing, Gorm­ley says, £7.15 com­pared, for ex­am­ple, to just £2.28 in Ger­many. Home-de­liv­ered wine in the US is also, he adds, ‘the last big con­sumer goods mar­ket that hasn’t had the mar­row sucked out of it by Ama­zon’.

Lots of British com­pa­nies have tried and failed to crack the US. Those that have suc­ceeded have, broadly speak­ing, done so by turn­ing them­selves Amer­i­can. At the end of the meal, Gorm­ley gath­ers up the Ama­zon pack­ages he has with him and climbs into the Uber he’s hailed for the ride back to San Fran­cisco. He looks very com­fort­able in the bor­der­land be­tween wine coun­try and Sil­i­con Val­ley. Both he and Naked’s new chair­man, who by no co­in­ci­dence is Amer­i­can, have floated the idea of list­ing the com­pany’s shares on Nas­daq. The US stock ex­change is home to lots of tech com­pa­nies, like Ama­zon and Uber, that es­chew prof­its in the pur­suit of growth – the same strat­egy Naked is em­ploy­ing. Its share price over re­cent months sug­gests the cur­rent crop of in­vestors re­mains un­con­vinced. It may be that Naked’s fu­ture lies in ap­peal­ing not only to US con­sumers but also US in­vestors.

In my ho­tel room later that night I eat the re­mains of the Mex­i­can food that I’ve brought back with me in a doggy bag and fin­ish off a bot­tle of Groom’s Rus­sian River pinot noir. I think they go well to­gether. But, if I’ve learnt one thing about wine from Rowan Gorm­ley, it’s that you shouldn’t take my word for it.

‘Wine is the last mar­ket that hasn’t had the mar­row sucked out of it by Ama­zon’

THE WINE WORLD ac­cord­ing to Gorm­ley

Gorm­ley cel­e­brat­ing Naked’s suc­cess with his team

From top: renowned wine­maker Daryl Groom; Gorm­ley (right) with Richard Bran­son in 1997

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.