The sale of Croft and Delaforce by Diageo, represents good news at last for small brands in a world increasingly obsessed by the margins of mass produced products. Andrew Jefford reports

A short letter arrived recently. It was from John Harvey & Sons. Printed at its head was the Queen's royal warrant, plus the dignified boast that this company had been "fine wine merchants and shippers since 1796". Thirteenth-century wine cellars, a historic wine shop and a restaurant were also proclaimed, testifying to this great merchant's longevity.

Or ex-longevity. From September 3rd, director of Ssales Robin Wodehouse informed customers like the Queen and myself, no further orders were to be accepted. John Harvey & Sons, one of European wine's greatest mercantile names, "will become integrated within the sales and marketing operations of our sister company, Allied Domecq Spirits and Wine (UK) Ltd, based in Horsham, West Sussex". It is, in other words, turning into an agency shell.

The staff are doubtless learning their Montana USPs as I write. Two hundred years of trading knowledge and tradition, thus, expire in a peremptory ten-line letter. End of Harvey story. Perhaps the Queen will join me to browse the shelves of Oddbins.

Lessons should scarcely be needed in the ruthlessness of large multi-national companies, and the sight of John Harvey being stuffed into a black bin-bag overnight must make the ladies and gents at Justerini & Brooks (owned of course by one UDV) shiver a little. For smallish, service-based business entities, acquisition by a large multinational really is the kiss of death; the only question is whether death comes swiftly or slowly. Ownership of a whisky brand may help save 61 St James's St - but then again it may not. Bristol Cream, in the end, failed to save John Harvey - it just gave it a little longer to chew its dentures in the old people's home. And UDV's ruthlessness can hardly be in doubt.

It was a nice irony that on the very same day as John Harvey closed its historic Bristol doors forever, September 3rd, UDV offloaded its Croft and Delaforce brands to Taylor Fonseca (Port) and Gonzalez Byass (Sherry).

Unlike a footling 200-year-old wine merchant, these brands are actually worth something, though the Euro82.5m price tag (with a mere Euro28.5m for the two port businesses) looks like a steal to me. Take into account the enormous stockholdings necessary for Port and Sherry production, and the fact that Quinta da Roêda and Quinta da Corte offer the new owners some prime Douro vineyard land, and you can read into this price the fact that Diageo simply couldn't be bothered any more.

Pumping out Smirnoff or Guinness must take a fraction of the effort and bring vastly greater reward. This is called "a strategy to focus on key global brands".

John Harvey's has met a tragic demise, but things are looking much brighter for Croft and Delaforce. On the Port side, neither company has had a particularly happy time since acquisition by UDV back in 1968 (Delaforce) and 1972 (Croft). Some wines (like the 1982 and 1985 vintages from both houses) were a disgrace, evidently the result of accountants driving the businesses.

There had been recent improvements thanks to the winemaking skills of Nick Delaforce, but neither had yet become a name to conjure with. In the hands of Taylor and Fonseca, one hopes, things will be very different, since this company has an unrivalled quality tradition. The interesting question concerns the Taylor-Fonseca strategy for Croft and Delaforce. The latter, I would guess, seems likely to become a "second-string" brand, as Smith Woodhouse, Gould Campbell and Quarles Harris are for the Symington group.

Harveys Bristol Cream advert

And whether Croft (and Roêda) will be given the investment it requires to provide an internal quality challenge to Taylors (and Vargellas) and Fonseca (and Fonseca-Guimaraens) remains to be seen. Few port lovers, at any rate, would not welcome a richer, beefier and more Tayloresque style for Croft and Delaforce.

The Sherry side of the deal is more intriguing. Croft has been a genuine innovator in the Sherry region, having with Croft Original single-handedly created the style deplored by all Sherry aficionados but adored by most of Britain's remaining "traditional" Sherry drinkers: pale cream.

Everyone else in Jerez quickly jumped onto this ersatz juggernaut, but it is still Croft which holds the steering wheel. Nothing could be further than pale cream from the noble aesthetic ideals of Jerez aristocrat Gonzalez Byass - yet owning the market leader in what must be one of the few truly profitable areas of Sherry production today makes gleaming business sense.

As far as classic Sherry production was concerned, Croft didn't have a lot to offer other than its excellent Palo Cortado. Perhaps Gonzalez Byass will strengthen this area as a way of giving the Croft brand a little more heritage and bottom; perhaps it won't. Perhaps it doesn't matter.

This is one story, then, which seems to have a happy outcome - but which also poses interesting questions. What were these companies doing in multinational ownership anyway? What was the point? Spirits and beer (with their industrial production processes and innate consistency) are well-suited to multinational ownership. Wine, being profoundly agricultural and innately inconsistent, is much less well-suited to such ownership structures, and rarely flourishes within them. Now, what am I bid for Sandeman?