John Gauntley tribute

Renegade of the Rhône

Gauntleys of Nottingham’s iconoclastic approach to its range, and its fervent devotion to its producers, reflects the personality of its former boss, who has died of cancer aged 56. But John Gauntley will be missed as much for his humour, encouragement and enthusiasm as he will for his style of buying

John Gauntley will be remembered for transforming his family business into one of the UK’s leading Rhône suppliers. But his original plan was to become a pharmacist, despite a secret yearning to be a professional musician.

Enjoying a broad spectrum of styles, from opera to prog rock, John played the piano and guitar by ear, and at one point even co-wrote a musical, which was performed in Windsor.

Another passion was cricket. A keen and talented player, his passion for the game was generally contagious. “But despite his best and countless endeavours, the eyes of our French associates would glaze over as he tried his utmost to explain the rules,” recalls Victoria Rogers, managing director of the Gauntleys business.

“John was someone who had incredible drive, passion and enthusiasm for anything which interested him, with a fabulous sense of humour.

“He was not somebody for half measures and if something sparked his interest, he had to know as much about it as humanly possible, whether that be wine, opera, gardening, sport or history.

“Indeed, as we travelled from Calais to Châteauneuf, John would delight in describing how each historic battle of note was won or lost and had an incredible memory for figures, be it dates or fatalities.”

John decided to join the family business, which started in Nottingham in 1880, after receiving a copy of Hugh Johnson’s Wine Encyclopaedia on his 21st birthday.

True to form, he swiftly set out on his own personal voyage of discovery to explore the vineyards of France and gain first-hand knowledge and understanding.

His visits to Jaboulet and Chave in Hermitage ignited his lifelong passion for the wines of the Rhône Valley, resulting in him representing many of the region’s leading domaines and Gauntleys becoming recognised as one of the country’s foremost Rhône specialists.

“Whether from the Rhône or beyond, he only ever chose to work with wines that he truly believed in,” says Victoria Rogers.

“As with everything John did, he made no compromises and only ever purchased wines that truly excited him.”

At the time, most merchants’ lists were remarkably similar, but John took a more iconoclastic approach: for example, to this day the business chooses not to offer a range of claret.

“John was a true people person and always happy to offer help and encouragement,” says Victoria Rogers. “Having the ability to spot the talent in up-and-coming young growers, he was always happy to spend time with them and offer advice.

“I know many probably looked to John for guidance and approval above leading authorities in their own appellation, and all growers became far more than business partners but lifelong friends, as did our customers in the UK.

“He offered the same encouragement to the Gauntley team, allowing everyone a free rein to get on with their own role. He was a great team leader, instilling confidence and exceptional loyalty.

“As well as his passion for wine and head for business, he was of course always great company with a wonderful sense of humour.

“I am sure the growers not only appreciated John’s knowledge and enthusiasm for their wines and work, but also genuinely enjoyed his company and humorous banter. For me it was great to be able to share the excitement of tasting an amazing wine or discovering an up-and-coming, or hitherto unknown grower.

“John was a true friend and, above all, a great family man who did everything possible to ensure that he gave his children every possible opportunity. He understandably never got over the tragic loss of his daughter Jessica Hope, who died of a brain tumour at the age of 16 [he and his wife Karen set up a fundraising foundation in her memory], but he was incredibly proud of his two sons, Samuel and Thomas.

“I had the immense pleasure, pride and privilege to work with John for over 30 years and indeed, was a friend before this. I feel as if I have lost the yin to my yang and will miss him dreadfully.”

Business friends remember wit, wisdom and energy

“I had much fun with John in the early 2000s as we charged around various estates in and around Châteauneuf.

“His enthusiasm and just plain joy in the growers and wines that we came across was so uplifting and his energy drove us all over the vineyards of the southern Rhône, always with the rudiments of a plan taking shape in his mind. We shall miss that passion.”
Paul Shinnie, Alliance Wine

“I will miss John terribly. He was one of the first who truly understood my craziness and made a hero’s effort to spread the word and bring people here to the domaine. I will also miss his laughter, wit, and sharp critique of those things that needed a strong rebuke. The world is a lesser place without him.”
Even Bakke, Clos des Trias