Interview with Tom Beattie & Francis Roberts
“when you visit a winemaker and they don’t have a massive showroom, but rather a tiny room they make wine in. You just go to a cellar that's behind their house or in their garage”.
Meet Tom Beattie (P.Franco) and Francis Roberts (Bright) of Beattie & Roberts, one of the most exciting natural wine importers in the UK right now. Specialising in mostly French wine, the two have chosen a delectable box of five wines from the Jura Mountains.
Tom Beattie of Melbourne, Australia got into wine from an early age, while picking grapes on his father's small vineyard in the Yarra Valley. While he remembers it as “quite fun,” he concedes that “when you are a child, it doesn’t seem like a passion, it just seems like extra work”. But in his early 20s he studied to become a sommelier and moved to London to learn more about wine and the market. En route to London, he toured vineyards across France and Italy, and he attributes this trip with informing his taste now. By visiting and meeting with winemakers, he learnt what a healthy vineyard looks like. Having lived in London for almost four years, he juggles his role with Beattie & Roberts with managing P.Franco.
Francis Roberts, hailing from the Wirral, UK. got into natural wine around 10 years ago when he began working at the Anchor and Hope in Waterloo, London. Their wine list, whilst not 100 per cent natural was his entree into the world of low intervention wine. He says that “it was the ethos of sourcing good ingredients and natural wines that really resonated with me”, and this philosophy has guided him since. He then went on to be general manager at Western Laundry and worked there for two years, before moving on to Bright, where he worked as the head sommelier, wine buyer and General Manager.
Together their partnership began over a few glasses, or even bottles, in P.Franco on a Sunday night. Tom describes Francis as the person who would come into P.Franco and ask to see what wines were available beyond the wine list and cellar.
Tom says of Francis: “He is a ball of knowledge, which is great. HIs dedication to the winemakers is phenomenal.”
Francis says that he always knew that he wanted to move into importing wines but needed to find the right partner. On meeting Tom, something clicked.
“We both had the same mentality when it came to wine. We both came through a long period working in hospitality. We understood the wines, and the market as well.”
A year and half later, they have managed to bring their tastes and talents together to establish Beattie & Roberts, which has been busy even during lockdown.
At the beginning, they found it difficult as they were putting all their energy into building the business. This meant working full time at their respective restaurants (P. Franco and Bright) and using their days off to travel to different wine regions to meet winemakers, build connections and most importantly taste wine. Francis recalls that around last year there were “at least three points of potential burnout” and Tom agrees that the only thing holding them back was “either time or just sheer exhaustion”. But working such crazy hours wasn’t all bad, Francis reasons, “I am not going to pretend that all we did was work. One of the benefits was being able to hang out with winemakers and sample the goods. It was a bit too much, but fantastic at the same time”.
They credit Noble Fine liquor, their employers, and the East London hospitality community for creating a supportive space in which they could do this. Tom says: “It’s so amazingly supportive, and it's not about competition. It's about people who work together to use good produce and farmers”. Through their expertise and connections, they have been able to create a space in this emerging and competitive environment.
During lockdown, they have had an opportunity to reappraise their time. Francis has decided to dedicate more time to Beattie & Roberts whilst continuing to work at Bright, but now as Assistant Manager.
They chose the Jura because they felt that region has an incredible terroir and it’s a real patchwork of soil types. Due to its higher altitude and proximity to the Jura mountain range it presents winemakers with many challenges and entire crops can be wiped out by frost or hail, but can yield truly remarkable results. The land is not easy to work here so work can be rather gruelling in the vineyard.
The two believe that it is home to some of the most influential natural winemakers of the whole of France. This is perhaps due to the strong sense of community in the Jura, with everyone helping one another out and information is passed freely between winemakers.
For them, while the region has a long history of winemaking but has not been held back by tradition. The new generation of winemakers we are now seeing are experimenting further which they find exciting to see.
On top of that Tom and Francis find the wines really exciting to drink! They particularly love the lower alcohol light reds of the region - Poulsard, Trousseau, Pinot Noir grapes are all grown widely in the Jura and thrive. For them, the region’s most famous grape, Savagnin, is incredibly versatile and in the right hands has the power to age gracefully for decades.
Correspondingly, Tom believes that the region is so special because it has not been commercialised in the same way that Bordeaux and Burgundy have been. Tom regards it a good sign “when you visit a winemaker and they don’t have a massive showroom, but rather a tiny room they make wine in. You just go to a cellar that's behind their house or in their garage”.
When discussing the future of natural wine, the two are both optimistic and pessimistic. Francis believes that as people become more concerned about what they eat and drink they will become more aware of natural wine and its benefits to the environment. For him, it is exciting that natural wine is garnering more support in the market. Tom is somewhat more reticent as he fears that as natural wines become trendier the ethos and philosophy of small-scale winemaking may be lost. He questions whether the natural wine industry will be manipulated by the market and be forced to cut corners in order to produce wine in large quantities.
However, on the other hand he is optimistic about the future of natural wine as he hopes that one day all wine will be natural, with people moving away from herbicides and pesticides in both food and wine production. While this may start small, he believes that it must be widely adopted to be effective. He feels that these practices should be widely shared and open to anyone who is interested