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Published:  23 July, 2008

When Harpers first made its own headlines, in August 1878, Benjamin Disraeli was Prime Minister, Edison had begun experimenting with the light bulb and the battle of Rorke's Drift was five months away. Joanne Simon looks back at the evolution of the magazine and the wine trade during Harpers' first 125 years.

One hundred and twenty five years ago this month, a solicitor named E Norton Harper launched The London and Provincial Agency for Protecting the Interests of the Wine Trade. Its purpose was to meet a long-felt want' in the trade for members to work together to protect themselves from the numerous rogues' in the industry. To this end, members would also be supplied with a monthly gazette, the first edition of which is dated 1 August 1878. While Harper acknowledged that the gazette's readers were perfectly wide awake au naturel', he said it would take leave to remind them of a fact or two which we venture to think will prove worthy of their consideration'. By 1880 the publication had gone weekly and, at least on the surface, not much has changed since then. For those who are serious about wine, Harpers is about the best read going at the moment,' confirms the latest Which? Wine Guide. This weekly is first and foremost a trade publication, but for real "news from the coalface" (i.e. straight from the vineyards), you won't do better.' Tellingly, there have been only six editors in Harpers' 125-year history, including Christian Davis, formerly the magazine's deputy editor, who is now poised to take Harpers into a new era, as the magazine moves out of London for the first time.

Across the miles When Harper started his gazette, the wine trade was thriving. The Post Office Directory listed 800 UK merchants in the 1850s, but numbers grew significantly in the 1860s and 1870s, after William Gladstone's reduction in duty led to a boom in wine sales. By 1880 nearly 15% of all consumer expenditure went towards alcoholic beverages, with annual wine sales having doubled in two decades to nearly 11 million gallons, over 65 million bottles, while sales of beers and spirits had risen by half. The Gilbeys were the major beneficiaries of this boom, dominating the drinks trade through their 2,000 agents, which were mostly independent grocers throughout the country. But there were many other merchants, and all too often they were victims of creditors who cannot or will not find time to attend the meetings which take place in connection with the inevitable failures of some of their customers'. Enter Harper: These evils we propose to neutralise by means of the agency,' he pledged. And of course there were those rogues', which is why early issues of the gazette included endless pages of county court judgements, as well as bankruptcies. Within 20 years, Harper himself had fallen into financial difficulties and the magazine, which had changed its name to Harper's Weekly Gazette in 1885, went into the hands of its printers - always a publisher's biggest creditors. The buyer was Lionel Straker, a name synonymous with printing in the Square Mile at the time. He let Harper carry on running the business until his retirement, when Arthur Burke took over. In fact, it was Burke who later started a magazine called Wine Butler, which was also subsequently bought by Straker and transformed into the first consumer wine magazine. Called Wine, it proved unprofitable and, after being sold and resold, ended up in the hands of Colin Parnell and Tony Lord, who transformed it into Decanter. After his retirement, Burke handed over to David Cranston, who had joined from The Scotsman in the 1920s. Well remembered for his explosive temper, Cranston was the gazette's dominant figure in the post-World War Two years, by which time the title had changed to Harpers Wine and Spirit Gazette and the Wine & Spirit Association had been incorporated. He was also responsible for its first international initiative, an export quarterly brought out soon after 1945 (in effect, the forerunner of the supplements). But Cranston was best known for his Trade Jottings' section (later to become Faber's Diary'), which was sometimes up to seven pages long (at the expense of the news pages), always written in long hand, and usually composed after lunch at the Wine Trade Club. Very conveniently located on the fourth floor of Harpers' offices at 8 Lloyds Avenue, this was the nucleus of the industry in those days. At an average lunch they drank treble Sherries before lunch, Hock and Claret during the meal and treble Ports afterwards,' recalls Cranston's successor, Pat Straker. Business calls were tolerated from 10am until noon, and few appointments were made in the afternoon (letters had to be signed, you know).' In the 1950s, wine consumption in the UK was less than eight million cases, with Sherry, Port and other fortified wines accounting for about 60% of the business. It was a time when less than 10% of the population accounted for more than 90% of wine consumption (and out of this elite 10%, the wine trade accounted for 90% of the drinking). It was also a time when fine Hocks and Moselles' dominated the wine lists of the top hotels, with Claret taking a poor second in terms of range.

New licensing laws The old order began to change in the swinging Sixties. While the Sherry sector continued to grow, light wine consumption showed its most significant rise to date - up to 15 million cases, fuelled by the first hint of competition to the classic areas in the form of Yugoslav Riesling (the best take-home quality/value wine in town) and Mateus Ros (the trendy brand to rival straw-flasked Chianti in the on-trade). But 1962 was the real turning point, when Ted Heath and the Conservative Government abolished Resale Price Maintenance and changed the licensing laws to allow far more retailers to sell alcohol. The biggest long-term beneficiaries of the changes were the supermarkets, and the relatively few survivors of the Wine Trade Club were confined to a strictly marginal role. And the final straw? A new Drink Drive Law was introduced in October 1967. Perhaps because of his immersion' in the old ways of doing business, Cranston had never come to terms with all the changes. I've had enough,' he reportedly muttered as he left the building in 1972, aged 70, after a staggering 50 years at the helm. Up stepped Pat Straker, the youngest son of Lionel Straker's youngest son, John, whose job had been to build a good relationship with the trade rather than actually write anything for the magazine. Straker, however, had gained writing experience on another family publication, Harper's Sports & Games, before learning the hard way' under the temperamental Cranston, who nonetheless had instilled in Straker a keen awareness of the need for personal relationships in the trade. Straker had already spent three years working at wineries and making contacts in Bordeaux, the Rhine and the Mosel, as well as in Oporto and Jerez. Now he helped to start a new trade group, the Under-40 Club. The 1970s were years of unprecedented growth in the wine trade, with UK sales almost trebling to over 42 million cases. The decade began with the entry of litre-bottle branded wines in the guise of Nicolas wines (French), and ended with strong sales of even bigger bottles - two-litre Italian generics, such as Soave and Frascati. Sherry hit its peak in the middle of the decade, with sales from Jerez topping eight million cases, while Cyprus sherries (as they could still be described) hit four million cases. Vermouths flourished too, with sales not far short of seven million cases. France still dominated the light wine sector, with nearly ten million cases, with second place contested by Germany (led by the big brands of Blue Nun, Black Tower, Goldener Oktober and Green Label) and Italy, with 4.5 million cases each. Spanish wines, dominated by the big cheap brands, accounted for almost four million cases. It was in 1976 that Harpers launched its regular regional supplements, starting with Champagne, followed by Sherry. What's more, Harpers spearheaded the drive to establish a wine exhibition' with proper identity' and real purpose', namely the London International Wine & Spirits Fair, which started life as the Bristol Wine Trade Fair in 1978. This was a resounding success, despite the fears of Henry Mason, managing director of Direct Wine Suppliers, that the whole thing [would collapse] through irresponsible behaviour on the part of some exhibitors, pouring wine down ever-willing throats and generally indulging in ballyhoo' (Harpers, 25 August 1978). Fortunately, it seems that the overwhelming majority' of visitors to Bristol were thirsty for knowledge rather than free drink', so three companies approached Harpers with the idea of starting a London equivalent. Straker chose the most modest proposal, from the family-owned Brintex, and the rest, as they say, is history -or, in Straker's own words, very good for Harpers and for the trade'.

Old boys' club But some aspects of the trade were changing less quickly than others. I was angry and sad to hear today that a member of the wine trade (who happens to be a woman) had her application to attend the Benevolent Banquet refused,' wrote one Serena Sutcliffe in Letters to the Editor' on 7 April 1978. The reasons given were that the Banquet has always been, and will always be, a stag affair' and is not a Dinner Dance'. Sutcliffe raged: One can imagine the public outcry were women doctors or women lawyers barred from attending their professional gatherings. Is the wine trade really such a backward profession that it cannot evolve in the same way?' A lively debate ensued: There are a number of members of the fair sex in the wine trade who make an extremely useful, knowledgeable and highly responsible contribution; but who feel very adequately fulfilled by being the power behind the throne and who do not consider that the culmination of the joys of the wine trade is attendance at the Benevolent,' wrote Pat Green of French Wine Farmers (14 April 1978). Beware, ye chauvinistic pigs of the Benevolent!' warned Wally Brooks of Westbury on Trym the following week. Surrender! - or suffer the slings and arrows of a Sutcliffe bearing aloft the banner of Sexual Discrimination.' The following week a solution to the Ladies v. Benevolent controversy' was offered by Betty Ellwand: The Benevolent should agree to admit the hussies (thereby raking in additional money), but secrete them behind screens so that their presence would not offend male susceptibilities.' In the end, of course, male susceptibilities have proved less easily offended, and (as Brooks put it) we have yet to see orgiastic rituals with women dancing "nekked" on tables -although I live in hope!' Reading through the Harpers archives (it is impossible to dip in without getting distracted for hours) it is in fact obvious that women have played an important part in the trade from the early days. Take this tribute to a Plucky Wine Shop Manageress' in the 14 January 1928 edition: Hats off to Miss Eva Tapley, the manageress at the Eclipse Wine Co's shop in Lisle Street, Leicester Square,' reads the item. She displayed great courage' when confronted by a masked man with a pistol: "Don't be a fool",' she said, knocking it out of his hand, whereupon he picked up a model of the White Horse whisky and flung it at her, striking her on the head, and he then ran out of the shop and disappeared.' It's fascinating, it's folksy and in many ways it was still very much the trade's parish gazette', as Straker described it, as recently as 1985. By then Harpers may have had a new look (which essentially meant a different size), but financial pressure meant the magazine was struggling under increasingly unfavourable circumstances. Indeed, its survival through the 1980s seems almost miraculous, given that there were a mere ten people, in all, producing an annual as well as a weekly magazine with supplements. It was during the 1980s that the UK's big supermarkets entered the wine trade in earnest. Sainsbury's and Tesco pioneered the idea of covering all areas of the wine world, from Champagne to California, and own-label business became the most important sector. From a relatively humble beginning, by the end of the decade supermarkets could claim more than 50% of off-trade sales in the UK. Sainsbury's also pioneered own-label Champagne, with the result that Champagne reached record levels in 1989 and 1990. Fortified wines were on the decline, and vermouths followed a similar downward path. Very cheap own-label Liebfraumilch was the biggest selling brand', with vast amounts of Lambrusco being stripped from the shelves. Though French wines held on to their traditional share of the market, new boys on the block were Bulgaria, with sales of red wines above one million cases, and California (as the most important supplier of wines from the New World). The overall wine market rose to 80 million cases, due in no small part to a new Licensing Act which saw the start of liberalisation in the UK drinks market after 1988.

New World order The early 1990s were difficult times for Harpers. The Straker family's printing business, which had gone in for some ill-advised expansion in the 1980s, was finally sold for a peppercorn 1 in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, the deep economic depression which struck the UK economy (well before France) could have been equally disastrous for the wine business. Sterling was weak, but the French, in their wisdom, were in the mood to raise prices rather than reduce them. It was the ideal opportunity for the keen, hungry and willing suppliers from the New World to attack the UK market with wine styles and prices to attract a whole new generation of consumers. By the end of the 1990s Australia was selling over ten million cases, with South Africa and Chile shipping more than four million cases each and California not far behind. Even New Zealand had found an expensive niche in the market. Overall, the wine market had surged beyond 100 million cases, without taking cross-Channel shopping into consideration (the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, the same year that the EU signed a wine agreement with Australia). And let's not forget the introduction of Alcopops in 1997. The furore over these teen-targeting tipples led The Portman Group to strengthen its Code of Practice, and gave rise to the formation of a Ministerial Group to deal with the issue. How reassuring, then, to open Harpers of 14 July 1978 and find an editorial 20 years ahead of its time. Straker's leader that week referred to a survey into the attitudes to alcohol of boys and girls aged between 13 and 18. Almost half of those interviewed were given their first drink at home by their parents, while a further 16% tasted alcohol for the first time at a party. However the pub and the open air accounted for only 5.5% and 6% respectively' of first-time drinking occasions. Just as some of those irresponsible teenage tipplers have probably moved on to lead the anti-FAB lobby today, Harpers not only survived the 1990s but, if anything, emerged stronger. In 1996, new managing director Alan Chalmers, publisher Anthony Hawser and associate publisher Lisa Barnard realised that a complete relaunch was necessary if the magazine were to have any chance of prospering into the 21st century. As the magazine's current art editor, Dominic Ray, observes: The design [in 1878] was a strong example of hot metal composition. That it hadn't changed much since then was the scary thing.' Hawser ushered in a new look and new energy, but the aim was the same: We want to build on the outstanding goodwill that Harpers has in the trade and make the magazine indispensible to everyone who makes their living out of wines and spirits,' he wrote. In 1998, Straker handed over the reins to Peter Bathe, in order to attend more tastings, explaining: Harpers has always been about friendships and personal contacts.'

Raison d'tre The same is true today, although the editorial content of the magazine has come on leaps and bounds since Tim Atkin MW took over on a full-time basis in September 2000. The new face' of Harpers was launched in May 2001 to coincide with the London International Wine & Spirit Fair, with an issue referred to, not always flatteringly, as the Chardonnay Girl' edition. In many sectors of trade publishing, editorial copy is regarded as something to stop the ad pages colliding,' wrote Atkin. At Harpers, we take a different view. Good, well-written articles, full of opinion, insight and hard facts are the raison d'tre of this magazine.' Between 1997 and 2002, wine consumption in the UK increased 19.1% by volume and 27% by value, cementing Britain's position as the world's biggest wine importer by value. The wine and spirits trade is changing rapidly, and we aim to change with it,' said Atkin, in May 2001. This does not mean that we are listless followers of fashion, however. As ever, we aim to be a distinctive, independent, sceptical voice within the industry. Thumbing through the first few issues of Harpers, published well over a century ago, is an inspiring experience. In those days, the magazine was not afraid to speak its mind, irrespective of commercial pressures and imperatives. The same is true today.' Other things haven't changed much either. How amusing to find the following article, entitled Kismet', and written 100 years ago (Harpers, 1 August 1903): In a country such as ours, with a climate responsible for many of our better and manly qualities, it is necessary that we should be indefatigable in maintaining the leadership among all nationalities, because our climate would perhaps not even attract our enemies to our sea-beaten shores,' writes Beldemonio. He (and I think we can safely assume the gender of our manly' correspondent) goes on: As gin and whisky distillers we stand foremost, yet we burden the industry with an exceptionally heavy duty, and practically not lighter than the import duty; we do not produce wine made from the grape, yet our homely ale is placed under a heavy contribution. Why so much contradictory policy? If we are to enjoy free trade, let us try it in all earnestness and fair play, because hitherto it has been a mockery.' In an increasingly strong partnership with the trade, Harpers and the Wine & Spirit Association launched a petition at this year's London International Wine & Spirit Fair calling for the Treasury to reduce the tax on wine. Cometh the Fair, cometh the petition,' wrote Christian Davis in the leader that week. Rumour has it that we are in a single market. An economic trading zone where milk and honey can move across borders effortlessly and without penalty. Now for the reality check. For reasons best known to successive Governments and the Treasury, we have never quite bought into that Elysian view of the European Union The British may be reluctant Europeans,' Davis continued, but we are entitled to what we signed up to and it is time Gordon Brown and his coterie of money grabbers looked up the Treaty of Rome.' Clearly, Harpers is in safe hands as it arrives at its new home in Swanley, Kent. Glancing through the archives it's clear that it hasn't always been plain-sailing, but the magazine has recently gone from strength to strength. I am very pleased to be taking over the editorship of the magazine and I aim to uphold the high standards shown by the Harpers team over the past few years,' says Davis. Here's to the future, Harpers.