Towards the end of our interview, I worry for Adrian Bridge’s trousers. We’ve been talking about Jane Austen and we get onto the subject of Russian dancing, which is a hobby of his. He jumps up to demonstrate, arms folded, knees bent in the classic Cossack squat, and nearly keels over. ‘I’ve got people waiting outside the office,’ he says between guffaws.
A conversation with the CEO of the port-to-tourism company the Fladgate Partnership is wide-ranging. He’s an obsessive collector – of ancient drinking vessels, of daggers (‘I had to give that up – there are too many daggers in the house’) – and like all collectors, once he gets going, he’s unstoppable.
That’s how we get onto the subject of Jane Austen. Bridge owns a fine early-19th-century silver punchbowl that came from Harewood House, where the great novelist was a frequent visitor. ‘So she certainly would have had a ladle or two of punch from that very vessel.’ There are more: the goblet with which the British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool toasted victory at the Battle of Waterloo; a shallow dish made for Shah Jahan (whose father built the Taj Mahal); a silver tumbler from 1386, struck in Amiens, ‘the oldest secular piece of silver from France’. In all he’s got ‘about 3000 pieces’, covering 9,000 years of history.
Bridge joined Fladgate in 1994 after a distinguished career in the army and in investment banking. His wife Natasha, whom he met in 1982, is the daughter of former Fladgate chairman Alistair Robertson; she was the house’s chief blender until 2013 and now sits on the board.
When he’s not collecting, and cutting Russian capers in his office, Bridge has a demanding day job. He oversees Fladgate’s 781ha of vineyard and 14 wine estates – including Taylor’s, Croft, Fonseca and Krohn – and its four luxury hotels, a clutch of restaurants and visitor centres, and the distribution arm. And he’s also the mastermind behind the World of Wine, known as WOW, Fladgate’s sprawling ‘cultural district’ in the middle of Vila Nova de Gaia, which opened in August 2020. It’s an extraordinary place – seven museums, 12 restaurants and bars, a wine school, events… It’s eclectic, to say the least. There’s a museum of chocolate, a museum of cork, the Pink Palace (‘a light look at rosé’), a tasting experience and a history of Porto through the ages.
But I have to ask – why would you come to Vila Nova de Gaia to have a virtual experience instead of the real thing? After all, every major port house in Porto and Vila Nova has its own visitor centre, and the magnificent Douro is on your doorstep. Bridge reels off the statistics. Of the 3.5m visitors that arrive in Porto every year, only about 150,000 actually make it up the Douro. ‘So the numbers don’t bear out what you say.’ WOW has had ‘record’ visitors this summer, he says. He concedes that some parts haven’t done as well as they’d hoped, and visitors said in feedback that they ‘didn’t know what [WOW] was for’. But he’s bullish: he expects ‘easily 400,000 visitors in 2023’.
Collecting is a disease…If you have to stop collecting one thing, then you soon start on another
Just as Bridge has stamped his personality on WOW (his drinking vessels are on display at the Bridge Collection, a ‘museum of drinking’, for example), he has consistently led trends in port. Taylor’s is at the forefront of the trend for very old cask-aged tawnies – he says the idea came to him when he turned 50 in 2013. ‘People wanted to send me a present and [as 1963 was a classic vintage] there wasn’t much around, so my mind turned to these stocks of tawnies we have, sitting in wood.’ They are now releasing one old tawny a year (as well as a series of pre-Second World War wines they are calling Very Very Old Port, and treasures like the Scion 1855). But surely they are going to run out of barrels soon? ‘Taylor’s always had huge reserves but of course there are finite amounts of very old port.’ They are constantly on the lookout for what he calls ‘jewels’, ancient pipes that have been sitting in cellars all over the Douro for decades and passed down through the generations.
Indeed, they’ve just been offered 800-odd litres of an 1888 wine that someone has inherited and doesn’t know what to do with. ‘That’s the romance of our industry – things that have been squirrelled away, time passes and then they come on the market.’
We began our interview talking about collecting and so we end it. It might be cups, it might be daggers, it might be vineyards (Fladgate bought another 100ha just before lockdown) or it might be wonderful old barrels of port. ‘Collecting is a disease,’ Bridge says. ‘If you have to stop collecting one thing, then you soon start on another.’
What was your childhood ambition?
I am not sure I had one – my father always said I spent too much time looking out of the window daydreaming.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?
That life is very short; I should have wasted less time and read more.
What exercise do you do?
I walk, run and cycle in order to climb mountains.
What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
I need to procrastinate less; spending less time delegating to my future self.
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)?
This drinking vessel made for Shah Jahan or his successor Emperor Aurangzeb in the end of the 17th century. It is carved in the Royal Mughal workshops from white nephrite jade and was used to drink a mixture of wine, opium and spices, known as ‘kawa’ and favoured by Mughal emperors and their Timurid ancestors. It is a cornerstone of the Bridge Collection – 9,000 years of drinking – which is in the World of Wine in Vila Nova de Gaia.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
A stately home in England’s West Country surrounded by mature wooded parkland, and the sense of history.
If you could do any other job what would it be and why?
I think a photographer of wild places, particularly mountains, because I would love the adventure.
What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island (apart from wine, whisky or spirits)?
I think this must be a machete or a knife to allow me to survive. Unless the island has a cocktail bar, where my dinner jacket would be most useful.
What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
Playing a musical instrument.
If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party – and why?
The participants of the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) as it set so much of the history of the last 200 years.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Very very old tawny port.
What’s your secret talent?
When were you happiest?
When I was in the British Army working for the UN Peace Keeping Force in Cyprus.
Who do you most admire?
Wassily Kandinsky, the father of modern art. Born in Odessa; lived in Moscow, Munich and Paris – as well as travelling extensively. His art shows an amazing progression, and I love the fact that he had synaesthesia – he could hear his paintings.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
It is what it is.
What’s your greatest regret?
Not saving a 300-year-old Magnolia Grande Flora tree that had graffiti carved into it by Portuguese soldiers in the 1832 civil war. It was on land near my house and I should have gone to its rescue and stood in front of the machines tearing it down. This was in 1998 and it still haunts me.
What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?
The Thomas Crown Affair (1999). Great movie, great soundtrack, top escapism.
What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?
A 19th century Moroccan silk embroidered wedding belt that I use as a cummerbund.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
At home with my wife’s cooking. She is very inventive – it’s where I eat most.
What time do you go to bed?
When I’m not entertaining, I target 23:00hrs.