Founder of UK wine retailer Laithwaite’s, Tony Laithwaite, has been made a CBE for services to the UK and global wine industry, admitting he was so shocked by the honour that he thought the awards envelope was a speeding ticket.
Laithwaite founded his eponymous company in 1969 with 2019 marking its fiftieth year in business. Born in Lancashire in 1945 and now residing in Henley-on-Thames, avid boat enthusiast Laithwaite dreamt of becoming a farmer as a child. He made his way into wine, however, while studying geography at the University of Durham where he also met his wife and business partner Barbara.
After a trip to France in the sixties during which he intended to join an archaeological dig, Laithwaite left and began working for a local wine co-op. This inspired him to set up his own business in the UK importing French wines, initially transported in the back of a Ford van.
After an open letter to The Sunday Times addressing an article on fraudulent wines, he told readers that they could trust the wines he was shipping from France. This led to the formation of The Sunday Times Wine Club, headed up by Hugh Johnson.
Beginning with just five wines and 150 customers, Bordeaux Direct became Laithwaite’s Wine, a multi-million pound business boasting over 1,500 wines and 750,000 customers.
Ignoring advice to retire and take it easy after a heart attack in 1988, Laithwaite is in charge of business that employs over 1,000 people and is now part of mail order group Direct Wines.
With a net worth of £163m following a half-century in wine, Laithwaite was still shocked to receive his CBE.
Writing on the Laithwaite’s blog, he said: “It is a bit over the top, to give Laithwaite a CBE. Certainly that will be said. But I would never be so ungrateful as to say it myself.
“I’m just totally thrilled but embarrassed a bit. I had no idea. When the OHMS envelope came, I thought ‘speeding fine’.”
A firm fan of English sparkling, Laithwaite was one of the first to enter the industry, planting a vineyard in the 1990s in Theale near Reading. He has even teamed up with Pantone to create a bespoke off-white shade of paint called ‘English sparkling wine’ that went on sale in B&Q.
His family are also equally involved in the industry. In 2003 Barbara Laithwaite and Cherry Thompson planted 4,000 vines in a hectare of the Chiltern Hills, releasing their first wine under the Wyfold brand in 2009. Meanwhile Laithwaite’s son, Henry, makes English sparkling wine under the Harrow & Hope brand, middle son Will runs a brewery and youngest son Tom works for the family firm.
In 2018, Laithwaite received the Lifetime Achievement Award at The Drinks Business Awards. To read the full profile, please click here.