Smooth Red – When wine leads the way

For someone as enmeshed in the wine trade as Tony Stebbings, travel is determined by where they’re growing grapes, as he tells Liz Granirer.

Tony Stebbings - SmoothRed“I was made a Chevalier du Tastevin – amongst other things,” Tony Stebbings, a man who has spent his entire life involved in the business of wine, almost throws away toward the end of our interview. This is a rare honour, reserved for a brotherhood that promotes everything to do with Burgundy and, in particular, its wine, that has operated out of the beautiful Chateau du Clos du Vougeot in Burgundy since 1934. So, he has clearly been more than ‘just’ a wine importer.

In fact, if you google Tony Stebbings, an entertaining article by Jancis Robinson, the doyenne of wine writing, pops up. It includes the recounting of a celebratory wine-trade lunch which ends with the line: “How Tony Stebbings, with co-conspirators, managed what he referred to the next morning as ‘a cleansing ale’ afterwards, I shall never know.” One imagines this is a man who knows how to enjoy himself.

SmoothRed teamAnd so, perhaps, he should, being the fifth generation of the Stebbings family to be involved with wine. It all started back in Lowestoft in 1858, when Tony’s great, great grandfather set up a wine and spirit importer, bottler and bonder business. And now Tony’s son, Adam, the sixth generation, has spearheaded another wine-related company, SmoothRed, taking couples and small groups of friends on carefully planned, tailor-made holidays centred around wine-producing regions. “Only two weeks ago, we did a black-tie dinner in some cellars in the Loire Valley and it was at producers that my father and grandfather had bought from,” Tony tells me, clearly – and rightly – proud of the long connection between Stebbings and wine.

But back to Burgundy. “I did my first grape harvest in Cos du Vougeot back in 1968,” Tony says. “Not a good year,” he adds, almost as an afterthought. “It was winter and it rained nearly every day. I lived with a French family in Nuits-Saint-George and had to cycle to the vineyard in Vougeot. There was another gentleman from the UK there and he said to me, ‘Tony, if you want to get on in the wine trade, you need to come down to London where they hold wine exams.’ So, I upped sticks from Suffolk and came down to London and started my own business in 1974 at the tender age of 23.”

SmoothRed original vehiclesHe went on to develop a very successful wine-brokering business, counting all the major supermarkets, regional wholesalers and brewers as clients. “My little business sold over 300 million bottles,” he says modestly. Then, in 2002, he sold the business and since 2004 has been helping Adam run SmoothRed, curating tailor-made wine holidays to the world’s finest wine regions.

But where does Tony like to holiday? “I’m afraid my wife used to say, ‘We’re going back to France for our holiday, aren’t we?’ So, yes, wine does definitely influence where I go, without a shadow of a doubt. Even now, if you asked me, ‘Where do I want to go back to?’, I have to admit it would be Bordeaux. I love going there. It’s just been voted number-one city to visit in 2017 by Lonely Planet and I think it’s stunning. It’s a lovely city to visit. I’ve been to-ing and fro-ing to Bordeaux for 40 years.”

This year, as well as Bordeaux, he’s also been to Avignon to see an old friend he used to work for (also in the wine trade); southern Spain, where SmoothRed may start doing trips; and Scotland, where he plays a regular bi-annual golf match in Prestwick (Wine Trade against Whisky Trade, of course).Adam and Tony - SmoothRed “I’m going to Hungary next. We have a lot of repeat business. Clients who say, ‘We’ve been to Bordeaux, Champagne, Lisbon. Where can we go next?’ We haven’t done a trip yet to Hungary, so Adam and I are going out to do a little recce in January. We’ll find the restaurants, the hotels, the wineries, flights and everything else and put together a package.” And then there’s Romania. “We’re doing a trip to Romania in 2018, so we’ll be going out there too.”

Does he ever travel without wine on the agenda? He has to think for a minute. “My wife and I always said we’d never go on a cruise,” he says. “We didn’t think it would be our sort of thing, but we went on a Silverseas cruise around the Caribbean and it was a wonderful holiday. Absolutely fantastic. We’ll probably do another, somewhere different. We’re thinking about one going through the Panama Canal and do a bit of South America.” And would he be stopping off – “At the wineries?” he says, taking the words out of my mouth. “Definitely.”

Hmmm. So maybe, where Tony is concerned, wine is never really off the agenda.

SmoothRed offers bespoke wine holidays for couples, private groups, wine societies and for corporate hospitality. To find out more, visit or call 020 8877 4940.

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Liz Granirer

Freelance journalist

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