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Sir Guy Fison MW

Sir Guy Fison, Bart MW

Became an MW 1954, IMW Chairman 1956, died 2008

Tribute by Robin Blackburne MW

When I joined Saccone and Speed in the autumn of 1952, Guy Fison was already renowned as a great taster and revered by his peers in the London wine trade for his exceptional palate.  I don’t think he sat in during my interview at Saccone.  Had he been present I expect I would not have been so scared to death, since he surely would have imparted his wonderful calming effect on a very nervous young man at his first job interview.

I spent my first year at Sackville Street shunting from department to department, since I was Saccone’s first “trainee”.  Some of that year was spent in the tasting room and of course Guy, being the group wine buyer was routinely present, daily, from eleven to one.

Guy frequently let me taste some of the wines and guided me through the rudimentary elements of tasting.  I soon became impassioned with wine – yes – wine for its own sake. Over the coming years I would discover the many happinesses and fulfillment of being in the “wine trade”.  But then, in the first blush of awe and wonder for wine itself, it was “wine” that I fell in love with.  This passion must be attributed in large part to Guy’s encouragement.

After a few months I moved, reluctantly, out of the tasting room and on to other departments, including advertising, marketing, whisky (ugh!), export, cigars and, of course, the diplomatic division, in which Saccone dominated the global market.  And let us not forget the “postal department” where I spent my first three weeks.  The secretaries typed letters for their bosses, typed the envelopes and pinned them together, but their job description did not require them to pop the letters into the envelopes and use their Oh! so sensitive tongues to lick and seal them.  Guy’s secretary was a Mrs. Connie Beaver whose décolleté was considerable and Guy, like the rest of us had problems looking into her eyes and not allowing them to wander.

Time in the menial “post department” was, for me, the chance of a lifetime.  Before folding the letters and inserting them in the envelopes, I had the opportunity to read every missive dictated by perhaps a score of Saccone executives in the offices upstairs, an incredible learning experience.  What impressed me most were the names and titles of the Diplomatic division clients.  Every Maharajah, every Ambassador, many of whom were Princes, and hundreds of other exotic and powerful personages were written to daily.  This was heady stuff, to match the wines I would later taste with Guy.  I was also pretty impressed by the size of the orders placed with the big names and lesser negociants of Bordeaux and Burgundy. These substantial orders, usually for dozens of “hogsheads” (a new word to me) were signed by a mysterious someone “upstairs” whose name looked like R.G. Fison.

After a year of roaming the divisions of Sackville Street, and going to Chatham (ugh! – Naval business) a couple of times, I was called into the office of Kenneth Simmons (then the MD) and, with Guy Fison sitting in on the meeting, I was told they wanted to send me to live in Bordeaux for a while with a view to my becoming, later, Saccone’s so called “Bordeaux expert”.  This was incredible news since it indicated that I would be on the buying side and therefore, when I returned, working closely with Guy Fison.  I arrived in Bordeaux before the 1953 vintage and returned to London in May 1954.  Everyone at Sackville Street seemed surprised to see me.

In Bordeaux, Saccone’s connection was amazing and of course everyone there revered Guy as a great taster, speaking highly of him.  The degree of personal affection was magic.  Back in London, I was weaned on Guy’s assessment of the 1949 vintage in the form of a twenty page booklet published by the company following Guy’s Bordeaux visits in 1951 and the Spring of 1952.  It contained immaculate tasting notes of hundreds on hundreds of clarets.  Eat your hearts out Robert Parker and Michael Broadbent, – Guy’s notes were very good.  So now I was back, and Guy found himself with a very young and incredibly enthusiastic pupil and assistant.

Saccone was a pretty large organisation by the standards of the day and we sold a ton of wine to clients all over the world which means that you have to buy in equally copious quantities.  Guy did buying tastings virtually every day throughout the year, and I was present for all of them  An incredible learning experience, and he was a consummate pro.

The London agents from whom even the largest companies bought in the great days of the trade in the 1950’s before “going direct” became the norm, would visit Guy in his office and I would often sit in on the meetings.  They were selling, and Guy was buying.  But there was never a feeling of them and us.  Guy’s relations with them were wonderfully warm and they adored him.

The proprietors of the shippers from Bordeaux and Burgundy would also frequently come to London and would always visit us.  Guy and I seldom lunched together unless a shipper would invite us both.  I tended to lunch with the younger crowd, mainly my contemporaries and friends from our so called competitors in the West End.  Dick Bridgeman of Justerini, Pat Grubb, and occasionally Peter Noble, Christopher Green, Freddy Price and Michael Broadbent were the young bloods of the London trade at that time.

Even in those days, Guy drank very little at lunch or dinner.  Perhaps the sheer number of wines he tasted daily was enough to make him “go slow”.  Although I have visited Bordeaux some forty or more times, Guy and I only once travelled together as one of us had to hold the fort at Sackville Street.  We went to Jerez in the summer of 1959.  There was a sherry crisis looming and Guy asked me to accompany him to add weight to what looked like a major confrontation and nasty dispute.  But I needn’t have been there since Guy’s natural charm and diplomacy solved the issue to our entire satisfaction before it ever reached the expected confrontation.

From Jerez we naturally went to Gibraltar where Saccone’s head office was situated.  We were met at the border by the Chairman, Sir Edward Cotterell in his Rolls Royce.  Afterwards I went for the week-end to Tangier, where we had a branch.  I tried to persuade Guy to come with me, but he declined saying “No, must get back to London!”  Guy proved a delightful travelling companion with always easy and interesting conversation, and.we seldom talked “shop” on this trip.

In his office he invariably wore impeccably cut suits and a stiff collar.  I never enquired if his tailor was in Sackville Street or Saville Row.  Frequently, he wore the blue striped old Etonian tie, and always, when out, a bowler hat, although I think perhaps he dropped this later on.

Few people in the trade smoked in those days, and I remember that Guy never did.  I do recall however, at some trade banquet, his being offered a cigar which he accepted.  He seemed ill at ease trying to smoke it, but being such a gentleman, I suspect he carried on the effort to get through it.  By contrast, Jacques Calvet smoked like a chimney, even in the tasting room at his Bordeaux office.

Tastings at Sackville Street were legendary.  Guy and I were usually alone, although occasionally we would invite colleagues to join us for their opinions.  Ian Collins, my counterpart as the “Burgundy man” who tragically died so long ago was often with us too.  Tasting the “dock samples” was a serious chore, one sample drawn from each cask on landing.  We would plough our way through hundreds of these samples.  Once Guy felt that I had enough experience to assess these, he usually left me to get on with it.  A very lonely task on your own, I recall.

Twice a month we would present a formal “themed” tasting of bottled wines to the sales team, and for us to see how they were developing.  My job was to open about eight bottles and the salesmen would come in and taste between 11.30 and 1pm.  Guy was usually present and gave outstanding guidance as he felt it so important to get the sales people informed and enthused.  Guy, acting as mentor did this brilliantly.

Tasting on our own, there was often much hilarity, particularly after an hour or so.  However much we spit, our mucous membranes are not impermeable, so as one o’clock approached it was natural to become a little jocular.  I remember some of Guy’s amusing descriptions.  After tasting one wine which was soft, easy and perhaps over pretty (rare in those days) Guy announced “Drinks nicely but it’s a bit Tchaikovsky”.  I knew what he meant immediately, but since I had never heard such a description it struck me as very funny.  It is now common, and things are only funny when novel.

I often wonder how people manage to pass the tasting component of the MW exam without tasting a vast number of different wines and at all stages of maturity.  As one of the first passes, Guy probably walked through it easily thanks to his extraordinary daily varied exposure.  When I was preparing for the exam in 1959, he was exceptionally encouraging and allowed me a lot of time off to study for the academic part.  Like Guy, I did not need to arrange any preparatory tastings as with the mass of wine I had tasted when on my Bordeaux “stage” and my daily work at Sackville Street.  Guy gave generously of his time to conduct tutored tastings and talks to aspiring M’sW during the year’s lead up to the exam.

I left England in 1962 and, when I was passing through London over the following years, I would see Guy occasionally and it was always a huge pleasure.  He came to stay with us at our home in Bermuda in the early summer of 1969 and we had some very happy days together.  Wonderful reminiscences of course.

I did not see hin for many years then, but after he moved to Hampshire, I would visit him occasionally for tea as his home was close to Lasham where Wally Kahn and I used to fly our gliders.  Perhaps it was Wally who gave Guy that cigar?  Shame on him.  It was always great to see Guy and chat about the old wine trade of the fifties.

I shall leave those who knew him well and saw a lot of him from the 1960’s to the 2000’s to comment on his full life in this period.  But from the occasions that I  saw him after he had become, perhaps unwillingly, but inevitably and inexorably “big business” after several acquisitions and take-overs, I felt that he really did not relish his new role despite speaking the jargon and giving the impression that he was inspired by the big deal.  I believe he was at his most comfortable and happy in the smaller, cozier, friendlier and kinder wine trade in the 1950’s.  A prince among men.

Tribute by Patrick Grubb MW

Sir Guy was kind, charming and erudite with a lovely sense of humour helping to diffuse sometimes taught situations. For three years from 1956 to 1958 Guy was Chairman of the IMW. He wore many hats during his long career, but among the highlights were his Presidency of the Wine and Spirit Association in 1976, and in the same year he was elected to the Court of the Vintners’ Company. He was Chairman of Saccone and Speed and Percy Fox from 1980 to 1983, Chairman of the Wine Development Board from 1982 to 1983, Director of the Wine Standards Board in 1983, and Chairman of Fine Vintage Wines from 1985 to 1997.  But for him and his friends in the Vintners Company, one of the proudest moments was his election as Master in 1983.

The Guy that the Institute and the Wine Trade knew was kind, charming, and erudite with a lovely sense of humour helping to defuse sometimes taught situations.  What many of us only glimpsed, because of his modesty, was his resolve and courage in adversity or even danger in the War.

Guy was born in Anglesey and as a boy learned to sail in the treacherous waters of the Menai Straits.  Later the family had a house in Wharfedale, but like many at the time home was a boarding school, eventually Eton, where he was a gifted games player, cricket and tennis primarily.  There he made many lifelong friends including the late John Surtees MW.  He cut a dash as a skilled sportsman, skating and skiing in the Swiss Alps.  He must have taken the equivalent of a gap year after graduating in Modern History from New College at Oxford because he was touring in North America with a friend, the son of John Buchan, when in 1939 war was declared.

He returned and joined the RNVR.  After receiving his commission he joined the Coastal forces, rather the equivalent of the Cavalry on land.  Great dash and daring in lightly armoured launches and MTB’s, taking the war to the enemy around our coasts.  He earned a Distinguished Service Cross off le Harvre in 1945 and was twice sunk by enemy action.  He was rightly proud of being one of a team who provided the Royal Navy with its RADAR capability, – the RAF having been ahead in this game.  His work involved standing on cliff tops in all weathers to triangulate the radar beams of two ships positioned out to sea.

At the end of the war he sat the Foreign Office Preliminary exam, just failing to make the short list.  A potential loss for the FO, but a great gain for the Wine Trade.  He met the late Tony Finch-Noyes, who owned a small car and the two of them set off to learn more about wine, visiting Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Jerez and Oporto.  On their return he joined Saccone and Speed and by 1950 he had become their wine buyer.  Two years later he married Elyn, the very pretty daughter of a Norwegan wine shipper based in Bordeaux.  1n 1954 Guy passed the MW exam and his son Charles was born.

For three years from 1956 to 1958 Guy was Chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine.  He wore many “hats” during his long career, but among the highlights were his Presidency of the Wine and Spirit Association in 1976, and in the same year he was elected to the Court of the Vintners Company.  He was Chairman of Saccone and Speed and Percy Fox from 1980 to 1983, Chairman of the Wine Development Board from 1982 to 1983, Director of the Wine Standards Board in 1983, and Chairman of Fine Vintage Wines from 1985 to 1997.  But for him and his friends in the Vintners Company, one of the proudest moments was his election as Master in 1983.

In retirement Guy moved to Odiham in Surrey with Elyn, but sadly she died shortly afterwards.  He became Chairman of the Odiam Voluntary Care Group and served for six years.  He continued to lead a pretty active life, looking after himself and enjoying his garden.  In 2007 he left Odiham and moved into a care home in Tite Street, London.

Guy was the kindest and most supportive friend to many, both in and out of the trade.  He was loyal and never spoke ill of anyone.  He had a puckish sense of humour and a brilliant ready smile, enjoying a joke against himself too.  On one occasion after the merger of Saccone and Speed with Charles Kinloch and the move to Park Royal, Guy’s magnificent Jensen was being serviced in the company’s central garage.  A mechanic rang the office to advise that Sir Jensen’s Fison was ready.  Robin Blackburne, who worked with Guy in Sackville Street has a fund of stories in this vein.

Farewell Guy, sailor, courageous in war and peace and brilliant judge of wine and rum.  Our sympathies are with his extended family, which must be justly proud of a good husband, father and grandfather.

Address by Arnold Tasker OBE MW at Guy’s Memorial Service St Etheldreda’s Church, Holborn, London on 10 December 2008

Sir Richard Guy Fison, 4th Baronet, DSC, BA, Master of Wine

Born 9th January 1917, died 1st October 2008

Today we join members of Sir Guy Fison’s family to remember the outstanding achievements of his long life and to express our gratitude for the enormous contributions that he made to this country and to our individual lives.  He enriched the lives of so many of us.

I first met Guy in 1960 in Manchester.  He had passed the MW exam in 1954.  I was organising a study day for aspiring Masters of Wine in the North of England, having passed the exam in 1959 and being based in Liverpool.  Guy, at that time the wine buyer for Saccone and Speed readily agreed to lead the tasting tutorial.  The third member of the team was John Plowman who had also passed the exam in 1954, and he was buyer for the Wine Society.  Within a year, all three of us were working for the same company, Saccone and Speed in London and I had the good fortune to work alongside Guy for the next twenty years.

Throughout his life, Guy kept a photographic record of events in a series of albums, meticulously annotated.  Through the kindness of Charles and Nina, I had the privilege of reading eight of these volumes which filled in many of the early gaps in my knowledge of Guy’s remarkable life and career.

He was born in 1917 in Bangor in North Wales and had an elder sister Elizabeth and a younger brother Michael.  There in the Menai Straits he learned to sail.  At Eton, he developed his love of sport including tennis, cricket, skating and skiing.  Among his many school friends was John Surtees MW who later became godfather to Guy’s son, Charles.  Guy maintained his life-long love of cricket and attended Test Matches wherever possible, and when unable to attend phoned from the office, frequently, for an update of the score.  On one occasion there was a drive to reduce expenses so our individual outgoing calls were scrutinized.  Guy was called to account but far from being reprimanded he charmed the inquisitors and emerged as the official company Test Match score keeper.  He was a master at diffusing a fraught situation.

On leaving Eton in 1936, Guy went up to New College in Oxford to read Modern History and graduated in the summer of 1939.  It will be remembered that Germany had seized Czechoslovakia in March of that year and on 11th July Guy enrolled as a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve.  A few weeks later, he took a holiday and sailed to New York to meet a friend, the son of John Buchan.  Meanwhile, on September 1st Germany invaded Poland and the UK was at war.  Guy cut short his travels and returned home.

On 27th October, he was offered a commission as Temporary Probationary Sub Lieutenant RNVR at 9 shillings a day.  He completed his initial training and saw active service on motor launches, mostly in the English Channel.  In June 1941 his captain on ML113 wrote of Guy “an officer with a charming personality and quiet efficiency”, and at the end of the year he was promoted to full Lieutenant.   The same day he lost the key to the CB safe on his ML114 and in due course their Lordships at the Admiralty advised, in what today seems rather archaic English that they “were of the opinion that Lt Fison was to blame as he had failed to carry the key secured to his person in accordance with regulations”.  On this letter Guy had written “Bad show”.  Meanwhile, the next summer he moved over to Motor Torpedo Boats and after training, saw active service in various parts of our coastal waters, serving with the 9th Flotilla as did his friend Peter Scott, the ornithologist.  During this time he worked closely with the Dutch.

Then from 1943 -1944 he was based at Dartmouth working secretly on Radar development and Radar control of MTBs.

D-Day was 6th June 1944.  Guy wrote in his album under the heading July-August 1944 “We installed Radar control in frigates and operate nightly off le Havre”  His modesty does not permit mention of the dangers, being sunk and rescued and the action that led to his award of the DSC.  The Evening News of 26th August 1944 has an account of the sinking of 38 German ships.  Alongside this Guy has written simply “a successful night”. His letter from King George V1 dated 21st November 1944 awarding him the medal recalled his “outstanding courage, skill and determination as Control Officer in Frigates, preventing the enemy from bringing supplies into and withdrawing troops from le Havre”.  The investiture was held at Buckingham Palace on 6th March 1945.

VE Day was 8th May 1945 and Guy was demobbed at the end of that year.  He was commended by the Captain of HMS Beehive for having “carried out his duties as Senior Officer of CF Controllers with outstanding ability and success.”

After narrowly failing to join the Foreign Office, Guy spent much of 1947 studying all the main wine producing areas of Europe including Bordeaux, where he became a great friend of Mogens Hartmann, the Norwegian wine shipper.  Together on a subsequent salmon fishing expedition in Guy’s much admired Austin A90 they drove the virtual length of Norway.  It was on this trip that Guy met Mogen’s daughter, Elyn Hartmann, who he later married.

The next year he joined Saccone and Speed and with his prodigious sense of smell and palate became their wine buyer two years later and was appointed to the board in 1952, the year in which he married Elyn, thereby inheriting a stepdaughter Kristine.  He travelled a great deal, buying wine, training his staff and indulging his passion for sport, including salmon fishing and holidaying on Elba where he had a house.  He learned Italian, adding to his existing linguistic skills in French and German.  His son Charles was born in 1954 and his daughter Isabelle in 1957.

Guy enjoyed and indulged his family.  Photographs abound in the albums of his children as they grew up, participating in school concerts, sports and pony events, birthday parties and summer holidays including of course Elba.  In later years the family increased.  Charles and Nina have three children, Eleanor, Freddie and Elizabeth.  Isabelle and Clive have four.  India, Milo, Georgia and Bruno.

In 1953 the Vintners Company with the Wine and Spirit Association founded the Master of Wine examination.  Guy passed in 1954 and was Chairman of the newly formed Institute of Masters of Wine from 1956 to 1958, helping and encouraging trade members to submit to the test.  In subsequent years under his tutelage at least seven of Saccone’s staff passed the exam.

1961 saw the merger of Simmonds Brewery in Reading with Courage Barclay and their two wine companies, Charles Kinloch and Saccone traded as one with three MsW on the board, John Plowman, Guy and myself, often referred to by our brewery Chief Executive as “Jacks of all trades and Masters of Wine”.

In 1964 Guy succeeded to the title as 4th Baronet, and at this time our stand alone offices were integrated at Park Royal to which Guy drove to work in a sleek Jensen.

He loved both opera and ballet, often took the family to Covent Garden and when travelling never missed an opportunity to enjoy performances in many of the great European houses including la Scala of Milan.  I seem to remember that he once told me he had learned to play the saxophone as a boy.

Edward Courage was our chairman for some years and owned racehorses, one of which he named Saccone and Speed and entered in the Grand National.  It came nowhere.  Guy, with his wonderful sense of humour and ready wit remarked “Oh dear, Saccone without the speed”.

In 1972 the UK joined the then Common Market which meant that the wine trade had to make changes.  Guy was appointed Chairman of the Geographical Appellations Committee which, under his leadership and working with MAFF was responsible  for new labelling laws and standardized bottle sizes.  His contribution to the wine trade was immense, not only as Chairman of Saccone and Speed International and Percy Fox, but also his work behind the scenes at the Institute of Masters of Wine, setting and marking examination papers and subsequently chairing the Examination Board.

1976 was an eventful year.  Guy was made an Honorary Freeman of the City of London and also became President of the Wine and Spirit Association of Great Britain.  Saccone and Speed were appointed “into the place and quality of wine merchants to Her Majesty”, with Guy as their first  Warrant Holder, due entirely to his ability and wine tasting skills.  In the same year he was elected to the Court of the Vintners Company, and later Swan Warden, when some of us enjoyed the Swan Upping ceremony as his guests.  Also he was invited by the Greek Ministry of Agriculture to head a small team, of which I was delighted to be a member, who visited the main wine producers there to prepare a report on the suitability of Greek wines for the UK market.  Finding them at that time rather unattractive Guy needed all his diplomatic skills in its preparation.

Two years later he retired from Saccone and Speed but remained for another year as Chairman of Percy Fox, and during this time he was elected Chairman of the Wine Development Board  where he instigated a consumer’s guide to the taste of white wines ranging from 1-9 for dry to sweet.  He was also instrumental in the standardisation of the 12.5cl glass for on-trade wine sales.

Undoubtedly his proudest day in a distinguished career in the wine trade came with his becoming Master of the Vintners Company in 1983.

After retirement he maintained his valuable contributions to the wine trade and served for several years during the 1980’s on the Wine Standards Board.

From 1985 to 1997 Guy was Chairman of Fine Vintage Wines.  Sadly Elyn died in February 1997 whilst they were living at Long Sutton where, for many years Guy served as a churchwarden.  He then moved to Odiham in Hampshire where he later became Chairman of the Odiham Voluntary Care Group.  He enjoyed his garden, fishing, golfing and keeping in touch with his many wine trade friends.  As some of us remember he had an enquiring mind and never stopped learning.  In 1999, after my first wife had died, Guy and I spent a very enjoyable few days in Prague and Budapest where he asked one of our guides “what is the meaning of the word Balkans?”.  Several weeks after our return we learned that it was Turkish for “mountains”.

Eight years ago whilst in Odiham Guy converted to Catholicism which is why we are here today in this lovely Catholic church of St Etheldreda for this service of thanksgiving.

I hope in this address to have been able to convey something of Guy’s extraordinary courage, erudition, modesty, kindness, charm and wit combined with his great sense of fun.  I like to remember him as a true friend and colleague, a genial polymath of outstanding practical ability.

His is truly a life worth celebrating.