The Dennis Wheatley 'Museum' - The Wine Merchant
The Wine Merchant
The Wheatley wine business began in the mid 1880s when DW's paternal grandfather bought a firm of wine merchants in North Audley Street called Davey and Pain. They had sunk a great deal of money in 1870 clarets, which had initially shown great promised, but they didn't mature as expected, and by the mid 1880s were being sold at rock bottom prices. As a result Davey and Pain fell into financial difficulties. They owed money to 'Ready Money' Wheatley, and became his almost overnight. His timing was magnificent because shortly afterwards the 1870 clarets came into their own, and prices rocketed.
At first 'Ready Money' put his eldest son Jess in to run the business, but later on DW's father took his place. As DW later commented, had this not happened, he would have ended up a poultryman or grocer rather than joining 'one of the most interesting and delightful professions in the world'.
Shortly after 'Ready Money' bought the business, the Grosvenor Estate decided to rebuild part of South Audley Street, and 'Ready Money' applied for a lease. He was granted a site in the middle of the block but by fair means or foul he managed to exchange it for the more valuable corner plot next to the Grosvenor Chapel. This remained the site of Wheatley & Son from its opening in 1893 until it was taken over in the early 1930s.
Through the hard work of DW's father, the firm flourished. It didn't have the resources or reputation to compete with the great houses such as Justerinis or Berry Brothers, but in the early days the firm made a very decent living from selling mineral waters and beers, which the other firms didn't stock. Wheatley & Son were the principal West End agents for Schweppes and Bulmers, and supplied hundreds of mansions with Malvern water in the days when 'persons of quality' did not knowingly drink water which had come from a tap.
DW's father also conducted a significant business with a German firm of wine shippers called Julius Kayser & Co, and it was with them that DW served his apprenticeship until just before World War One. The intention had been that DW would then move on to study wine in France, but thanks to World War One this never happened.
The War over, DW started work back at South Audley Street on 1st January, 1919.
In the mornings he was supposed to cultivate the butlers of the great houses of the day. With some he would sit beside a blazing fire drinking some of their master's finest wine, but others were of a less appealing sort. Accordingly, DW would often sneak away to a local coffee shop and read a book instead. He would then spend an hour in the middle of the day selling wine and beer over the counter before spending the afternoon either helping out in the cellar or working on the stock and day books.
As DW recounted in his Memoirs, he was never given any formal training in wine but was blessed with a natural palate. In his father's office there were never any tastings but at professional tastings later on he rarely failed to pick out two or three of the best bottles out of a choice of a dozen or more. In addition, when customers died, the firm frequently bought up what remained of their cellars, and this enabled him to drink some of the finest clarets of the 1870s, which after a long maturing, had reached their peaks by the 1920s.
The firm's clientele became steadily 'up market'. When Sir Louis Newton (who was to marry DW's mother when his father died) became Lord Mayor of London in 1923, Wheatley & Son was his exclusive supplier.
At around the same time, the King of Rumania came on a state visit to King George V. The City entertained the King of Rumania at Guildhall and later the King of Rumania entertained King George V at the Rumanian Embassy. Wheatley & Son provided the wines for both occasions. DW's father was away on holiday so DW took the order himself. To read DW's account of the purchase, click here
A couple of years later, in the autumn of 1925, a Polish Jew called Stambois came round trying to sell some quite exceptional old brandies. They were so expensive that no one else would buy them, but DW's father took a (perhaps uncharacteristic) gamble and bought some of them. He then went off on holiday and DW took a (more characteristic) gamble of his own.
He designed and had printed a special catalogue with gold lettering on thick brown paper, much larger than usual but only eight pages long. Each page had a brief essay on one of the brandies, all of which were over a hundred years old, and the prices asked ranged from two and a half guineas a bottle to £100 per dozen - colossal prices for those days.
DW was worried what his father might think, but the enterprise was a colossal success and the orders came pouring in. For more details, see the exhibit on 'Historic Brandies' below.
DW's father died in 1927. He had intended to make DW a partner in the business but had never signed the papers, so DW arranged with his father's doctor and the family solicitor for them to be signed at his father's deathbed.
As sole proprietor, DW determined to make the firm one of London's leading wine merchants. He did away with the beer counter, replacing it with two big glass cabinets to display exceptional wines, had a large gilded flagon set up above the entrance to the shop, and changed the telegraphic address to 'Bacchus'.
Next he instituted a series of 'cellar sales'. He began with his father's cellar. In reality it was a fairly modest affair, but DW enhanced it with exceptional vintage ports, chateau clarets, champagnes and old brandies, and sold it at auction at a handsome profit.
Next DW formed a company with his friend Mervyn Baron, who was a great tobacco connoisseur to sell fine cigars, including the Hoyo de Monterreys which would become the staple of his great fictional hero the Duke de Richleau.
In the late 1920s, DW showed his usual flair for publicity. Having scooped the market with 'Historic Brandies', he devised other novel ways of promoting his wares. These included special diaries given to his most prestigious customers (uncommon then, but normal now), a catalogue in the form of a narrow scroll some six feet long, and special bottles to contain the finest port modelled on an old square shouldered eighteenth century bottle.
Success led to the taking on of new staff and expansion, and for a while all went well, but then came the Great Slump. While some people cut back, DW carried on with his expansion plans, and as demand for luxury goods dried up, he came under increasing financial pressure.
He had to lay off staff and as bad debts increased it was suggested he make himself bankrupt. Three of his closest friends rallied round and saved him from disaster; two lent him money and a third, Mervyn Baron, arranged an introduction to another firm, which bought his business.
DW was made a director of Fearon, Block & Co but had little influence in the new business. DW's divorce from Nancy came through at this stage and he married Joan, and, with the consent of the head of the combined firm, they went off for a honeymoon in France. When he came back however, worse was to follow. The directors of the new business said he had wrongly included his private overdraft of £4,000 among the debts of the firm, and accused him of fraud.
At this low point, little did he realise that a new life was just around the corner.