Obituary: Mauricio González-Gordon, sherry producer and environmentalist

Mauricio Gonzalez-Gordon
Mauricio Gonzalez-Gordon
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Born: 18 October, 1923, in Hampton Hill, Greater London. Died: 27 September, 2013, in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, aged 89.

ALTHOUGH born in London and descended from lairds of the Clan Gordon, Mauricio González-Gordon was also from one of Spain’s oldest noble families, best-known in recent times for producing González Byass sherry, including the popular Tío Pepe. He spent his life at the historic family firm, making, tasting and marketing sherry and latterly also brandies and white, red and rosé wines. He held the noble title of Marquis of Bonanza, a town and area of southern Spain.

As company chairman in the 1990s and afterwards as adviser to his son, Mauricio Jnr, the current chairman, he saw the company grow around the globe, including in the UK and latterly in the United States, China and other Asian markets. The González Byass bodegas in his hometown of Jerez de la Frontera are now among the most visited wine production centres in Europe.

Before he died just three weeks short of his 90th birthday – according to his family, a Tío Pepe was the last thing he drank – he witnessed a renaissance of the company’s dry sherries among younger generations, thanks partly to the rise of tapas bars in the UK and elsewhere, as well as in Asian fusion restaurants and publicity boosts by chefs such as Heston Blumenthal.

For much of González-Gordon’s career, the dry sherries, which are a way of life in his native Andalucia, southern Spain, had been in the shadow of the sweet or cream sherries beloved by UK aunties and grannies at Christmas or Hogmanay.

In the year ended August 2012, net sales increased by more than 20 per cent, on a year-to year basis, to more than ¤193 million (£163m before tax), largely due to growing sales in the Americas and Asia.

Foreign sales accounted for more than 60 per cent of the revenue of a company that had traditionally relied on its home sales in Andalucia, where locals chalk up on a barrel the number of glasses they have consumed.

In August this year, González Byass bought the Chicago-based wine importer Vin Divino for an undisclosed sum as part of its effort to push its own Spanish wines in the US market. González Byass also developed its table wine portfolio by gaining control of such brands as Jackson Estate from New Zealand and Wirra Wirra from South Australia. Earlier this year, the UK arm of González Byass took over distribution of the increasingly popular Undurraga wines from Chile.

Although most identified with Tío Pepe – made famous by its iconic advertising campaign featuring a human-like bottle with a red Andalucian hat and jacket and a flamenco guitar – Don Mauricio, as he became respectfully known, was also one of Spain’s leading environmentalists and ornithologists.

He was the driving force behind preserving a massive area of woodland and wildlife on his family’s estate which the dictator Francisco Franco had earmarked for building development. He dissuaded Franco, at some danger to his person, and the area is now the highly popular, 540 square kilometre Doñana National Park, north-west of Jerez, a Unesco World Heritage Centre with a biodiversity unique in Europe.

The park shelters European and African migratory birds, fallow deer, Spanish red deer, wild board, the European badger, the Egyptian mongoose and endangered species including the Iberian Lynx and the Spanish Imperial Eagle. Having trained his binoculars on those eagles and other birds as a child, he founded the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO in Spanish) in 1954, now known as SEO/Birdlife and a branch of Cambridge-based BirdLife International.

Although he was very much Spanish, he was proud of his Scottish connections in the Huntly area of Aberdeenshire, where he was considered one of the “Spanish Gordons”. He was born in Hampton Hill in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, on 18 October, 1923, the second of five children.

His father Manuel María González-Gordon, known as Tío, or Uncle Manolo – and variously referred to in the UK media as “the Pope of Sherry,” was chairman of González Byass sherry and was marketing it in the UK along with his wife Emilia Díez. Mauricio was descended on his maternal side from James Arthur Gordon, an Aberdeenshire laird who emigrated to Andalucia in the late 18th century and went into the sherry business. When the Scotsman’s great-grand-daughter María married local sherry producer Pedro González in 1877, the surname González-Gordon emerged.

Already bilingual in Spanish and English – with a Scottish lilt he credited to his childhood nanny – Mauricio left London to be educated in Spain, first at La Salle Buen Pastor college, later at the Jerez College of Commerce and finally graduating in Chemical Sciences from the University of Seville in 1946. The following year, he joined his father’s company, starting at the bottom, picking and crushing grapes and learning the nuances of the solera system – aging the sherry in barrels.

The name Byass had come from an English importing agent, Robert Blake Byass whose descendants gradually pulled out of the business towards the end of the 20th century, leaving it now in the hands of the González-Gordon family of Jerez.

Mauricio visited Scotland several times for reunions of the “Spanish Gordons” – whose ancestors were lairds of Wardhouse, Beldorney and Kildrummy in the North-east. His father also sent him as an ambassador for González Byass to New York and California.

Mauricio González-
Gordon y Díez died in Jerez de la Frontera on 27 September. His wife of 62 years, Milagro López de Carrizosa y Eizaguirre, died in July. He is survived by their daughter Bibiana and son Mauricio, the latter currently chairman of González Byass, and by seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.