In 1973*, a journalist challenged his fellow writers to a race to be the first to bring a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau from France to his office in London, and thus was born the annual Beaujolais Run.
He didn’t invent the Run though, as it was created in 1970, when Clement Freud and Joseph Berkmann were having dinner in Romanèche and came up with the idea of a race. They set off in their respective Rolls-Royces with a case of Beaujolais Nouveau each to see who could return to London the fastest.
Berkmann won, and the following year they tried it again.
Rumours swirled in the wine and food gossipmongers about this curious race, and finally in 1973, the Sunday Times wine correspondent Alan Hall laid down the public challenge – turning a race between two friends into a public event.
Although the two gormands were the accidental creators of this very British idea, it was the wine merchant Georges Duboeuf who spotted the commercial opportunity, ensuring every greater amounts of publicity for the Beaujolais Run. What had been really a local drink for locals and something shipped to wine buyers to give them a sample of what that year’s harvest would mature into — became a big thing, a really big thing.
In the first few years of the Beaujolais Run, the target the drivers aimed for was the City Golf Club just off Fleet Street, but later as it grew, it left its Fleet Street origins behind and spread across the country. The race got bigger and bigger, picked up sponsors quite early (Reliant in 1975, Ford in 1976) and was a BIG THING in the mid-1980s.
Later, it was organised by the Showbiz Car Club of Great Britain as a charity fundraiser. Lots of towns also got in on the act, but the main event was always in London, and specifically, one of the grander hotels, often the Gloucester Hotel in South Kensington.
In 1980, two barristers, Barnaby Waylen and Oliver Ross, took to motorbikes, winning the Beaujolais Run in just nine hours and 17 minutes, carrying 28 bottles with them. I will note that a case of wine is typically 6 or 12 bottles, so I suspect they set off with 30 bottles and ahem, consumed one each en route.
One chap is reputed to have worked out that it was quicker to catch Air France’s Concorde from Paris to New York then hop back on British Airways Concorde to London. The publicity got ever crazier, with a two-hour record set by The Savoy hotel, who shaved precious time by having their wine dropped by parachute by the Red Devils, and then finally, the unlikely to beaten record of 32 minutes — when the RAF flew the wine in a Harrier jump jet.
In 1985, it was reported that around 1,000 vehicles of various sorts set off at midnight for the race back to Blighty.
That year probably triggered a change though — as there were road accidents and fatalities. I have vague memories during my wine-selling days of being told that in addition to awful weather, some drivers got more than a bit merry before the race, with the inevitable consequences on the road, and it wasn’t too many years later that French decided they had enough of the crazy Brits racing through their dark streets.
Anyhow, the race, while still hugely popular, became more of a charity fundraiser than an actual race, and nowadays, whisper it quietly, the bulk of the wine arrives in most shops and restaurants a day or two before The Day itself.
I was the manager of an off-license in the late 1980s, and the wine would arrive the day before it could go on sale. I remember so many pleadings from my better wine customers for me to open a case a day early. But I stood my ground, as traditions should be protected, no matter how barmy.
In 1988, the French newspaper, Figaro, called the race to put the wine on the table ”the greatest marketing stroke since the end of World War II.”
However, based on nothing more than how many newspaper articles were written about it, while the Beaujolais Run took off in 1986, it started to fade in the 1990s, dropping off a cliff in 1993.
It’s a bit of a faded memory now, but Beaujolais Nouveau Day still exists, and some restaurants and wine bars will open early on the Day to serve the youngest of young wines to people who fancy something a bit different.
So, on Thursday 16th November, wine drinkers will once again cheer as “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé”
*I have seen some references to Alan Hall’s article being in 1972, but almost everyone cites 1973, and The Sunday Times isn’t included in the Times archive, so I’ve stuck with the most commonly used date, especially as I only stumbled upon 1972 when I was 80% through this article. This may be the 51st anniversary. Oh well, cheers anyway.
**The Beaujolais Run no longer generates the headlines it once did, but it still exists, sort of. Now it’s a more gentle rally, and done backwards, from the UK to Burgundy.
***Although the Beaujolais Run is credited as having started in 1970-73, I did find a reference claiming that there were Beaujolais Runs in the 1920s, when London’s hoteliers would compete to be the first to serve that year’s vintage with oysters.