Tribute to Don Hewitson

13 May 2020

by Terry Dunleavy MBE

Don Hewitson
Don Hewitson

When I think back to my first visits to London in the mid-1980s generating interest in our New Zealand wines, the names of four UK-based Kiwis spring to mind:  Margaret Harvey MW who began importing for New Zealand Fine Wines, Tom and Susan Glynn owners and operators of Suze restaurant and wine bar in Mayfair, and Don Hewitson, the ebullient pioneer of the Cork & Bottle wine bar and café.

I am deeply saddened to learn that cancer has claimed the life of Don at too early an age.

For me, no visit to London was complete without a stroll through the back streets from New Zealand House at the bottom of Haymarket to Cranbourn Street, just off Leicester Square, and down the stairs to Cork & Bottle for a wine-accompanied lunch, usually with Philip Atkinson who served our industry so well as a marketing officer with the New Zealand Trade Commission.

Even then, Don had achieved legendary status for the laid back Kiwi-style hospitality of Cork & Bottle, and the quality of the food and wine that was served. He was a true pioneer and unforgettable Kiwi bloke.

It was in 1972, that Don went from running front of house in one of this country’s pre-eminent restaurants, The Coachman in Wellington, to open Cork & Bottle just off Leicester Square, and to introduce London to a new way to enjoy wine and good company. 

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This note brings back memories of Don. It is in the flyleaf of his book “Enjoying Wine”, published in 1985. At $US898.87 on Amazon, it must be one of the most expensive wine books on sale.

What set Cork & Bottle apart was the quality of wine offered by the glass or the bottle.

He himself later wrote of those first days: “The wine list was rubbish. Those days were before European Community rules had to be obeyed and UK bottled wines, mainly from the brewers, didn’t have to observe the niceties of appellation controlee laws.

Tankers of foul North African stuff was brought into Blighty and labelled with the great names. Bogus Beaujolais; Nuits St Georges which owed more to nights in Tunisia; malicious Meursault and Moroccan powered glutinous Cotes du Rhone.

Anyway, I chucked all the wines out and only purchased genuine stuff. It took a while to sort everything out. I opened Shampers which allowed me the economies of scale to ship wines directly from suppliers, therefore guaranteeing a certain degree of authenticity.”

As soon as New Zealand wines became available, Don served them at Cork & Bottle, giving our brands both popularity and credibility among the growing ranks of London wine cognoscenti who were his regular customers. 

For his huge and pioneering part in promoting our wines in what is undoubtedly the capital of the world wine trade, London, Don Hewitson will ever be remembered by New Zealand winemakers with gratitude, respect and affection.

 

Terry Dunleavy MBE was the inaugural CEO of Wine Institute of New Zealand (now New Zealand Winegrowers).

 

 

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