Q&A: Michael Gilbey, Gilbey’s of Eton and Amersham

Restaurateur and co-owner of family restaurant group Gilbey’s, Michael Gilbey, reveals his love of French wine, why he believes in importing directly and how the restaurant trade has changed since Gilbey’s Eton first opened in 1975.

Michael and Linda Gilbey

What or who inspired you to open Eton Wine Bar and then go in to the restaurant trade?

My wife Linda and I wanted to work for ourselves and the Eton site seemed a great opportunity. Originally the plan had been to re-develop old properties in Scotland but we did not have the access to capital to get that off the ground.  The wine bar was then a way of starting a business with a small bank loan and was hopefully a business that would provide instant cash-flow. It did!

Originally we never thought the food side of the business would become so important, it was really a question of catering for the demand and developing from there with the help of some very talented chefs along the way.

If you could give your younger self advice when starting out, what would it be?

Careful choice of site is paramount.  There are so many things you have to get right, the list is almost endless.  Good financial controls and regular monthly profit and loss figures are vital if you want your business and career to survive and prosper.  Passion and hard work are taken as a given, but it is all for nothing if you can’t make a profit.  Never lose sight of the bottom line!

Do you believe the restaurant trade has changed significantly since you first opened and in what ways?

The restaurant trade has changed dramatically since we first opened back in 1975.  It is no longer a suitable choice of business for gifted amateurs.  UK restaurants used to be seen as a joke when compared with their French counterparts – no longer.  There are now some fabulous restaurants throughout the UK, there are many more talented people involved in the business and it is a business that is moving forwards all the time.  You can’t stand still!  Hugely challenging.

How would you describe your approach to wine and why do you believe in importing directly?

I was once described as a master of medium-priced deliciousness!  The top end is not our market.  I deal in the wines that people enjoy drinking, not investing in, and I am always looking for wines of character, wines that express well the characteristics of the grapes they are made from.  How do I get there: a lot of intensive tasting.  I like to import direct from passionate individuals, I like to know the individual vineyards and I enjoy the contact with the growers. And I like, where possible, to cut out the middlemen too.

What’s your favourite part of the job?

Tasting wines, tasting more wines, visiting the growers and writing the wine lists. I am tremendously proud of so many of the people who work for us and they and our restaurants give me a real buzz, and I do enjoy the responsibility of making it all add up!

What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?

A top quality English sparkling wine or, if it is really hot, a gin and tonic would not go amiss, my latest discovery being the gin from the new distillery on the Isle of Harris.  A good white Sancerre is another favourite. The Sauvignon grape has such refreshing qualities.

What bottle sparked your love of wine?

It has to be the first two weeks I spent in the Beaujolais at the age of eighteen.  What an introduction!  I accompanied a courtier to domaines all over the Beaujolais and he taught me how to taste. We were tasting eighty wines a day so from a standing start it was quite an introduction.  I was hooked!

What to date has been your most memorable wine experience?

The experiences I have valued the most have been in Burgundian cellars when certain growers can get very excited when they realise you share their passion, and then you get to taste some memorable wines and at the same time learn so much from the growers themselves.  Some fascinating moments, but you have to be able to speak French!

Which customer habit annoys you the most?

There isn’t one.  Customers need to be celebrated!  If they are celebrated they will more than likely leave bad habits behind!

Who is your inspiration in the wine-making and gastronomic world and why?

I am not going to single out anyone in particular, because there are so many.  They need to be able to write though.  The best wine book I have read recently has been Oz Clarke’s Red & White especially when he was talking about great Burgundy: never use one word when five will do!

What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?

There are so many.  Some live in your memory.  One is wild salmon, beautifully cooked, Jersey royal potatoes and peas, yes peas, with a top quality white Meursault.  There are lots of others!

Where would your fantasy vineyard be?

We owned and ran a small English vineyard until fairly recently.  If I was younger I would like to do that all over again.  I would like to run it as we ran our last one too: with a group of local enthusiastic volunteers with all profits going to charity.

We had the greatest fun doing that, we made good wine and we were surprisingly profitable – no-one was paid obviously!  We stopped because I was rather ill and did not want to die with 15,000 bottles in the garage unsold. Happily the wine is now all sold and I am living to tell the tale.  God bless the NHS!

If you weren’t in the restaurant trade, what would you be doing and why?

I did qualify as a chartered surveyor before going into the restaurant business. So the next string to my bow, which has still continued in a small way, is the property business.  I also ran a wine importing and wholesaling business, so, I would be more involved in that too.  The other alternatives are therefore wine and property, in that order.

Which wine (grape/style) do you find it impossible to get along with and why?

My least favourite grape is probably Viognier (excluding Condrieu!).  I do like wines to have edge and grip and most mid-range Viogniers I find too ‘soft’ in character.

What has been your greatest professional success?

Right at the beginning it was my wife and I who wanted to work together and the fact that we have done that together successfully and happily for nearly 45 years means an awful lot. And the fact that we have so many fabulous people who have been with us for so long means we must be doing something right.

Even the granddaughter of the first person who ever worked for us at Eton is with us now.  We may not have conquered the world, but I think we have done right by each other, our staff and our customers.  Hopefully we have given a lot of pleasure along the way!

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