Take a look behind the scenes at Berry Bros & Rudd’s new flagship store in the heart of St. James
Walk into the wine merchants Berry Brothers & Rudd at No.3 St James’s Street and you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. The walls are wood panelled and lined with portraits; there are wooden barrels in the corner, and the floor is uneven at best. In fact, if you told me I was on-board a 16th-century galleon, I would have believed you. Berry Bros have been operating out of this very same building since 1698; originally as a tea and coffee merchants opened by the widow Bourne.
After bringing in George Berry, a wine merchant from Exeter in the mid 1700s she expanded into selling alcohol and the rest, as they say, is history. The origins of the company are still clear to see; the sign that hangs outside No.3 St James’ has an image of a coffee mill on it, and the original giant scales on which customers used to weigh their coffee (as well as weighing themselves) are still proudly on display.
This year Berry Bros decided to expand their London base beyond the space they’ve inhabited for over 300 years and have opened a new shop, just around the corner at 63 Pall Mall. This new offering has a very different atmosphere from the company’s original residence – but that’s no bad thing. Yes, plenty of Berry Brothers’ customers still bulk buy or are members of the Berry Bros’ Cellar Plan, whereby wine collectors invest a certain amount per month in their personal wine cellar, aided by the expert team at Berry Bros. (Their Cellar Plan is, according to chief executive Dan Jago, the best savings scheme in the world, and his Chief Financial Officer now collects wine instead of having a pension.) But there are still plenty of people who would like to pop into a shop and just buy one or two bottles that take their fancy. The new shop also gives Berry Bros the space to showcase more of what they have on offer; they now have around 20,000 bottles of wine in London, and over 10 million at their state-of-the-art warehouse down in Hampshire. 63 Pall Mall is now home to what Jago believes is “probably one of the best collections of fine wine available by the bottle anywhere in London”.
Making wine accessible. Perhaps most importantly – at least for Geordie Willis, creative director at Berry Bros and an eighth generation Berry family member – the new shop is far more welcoming than the one in St James’s Street – which he described as ‘terrifying’. He aims to democratise wine and make it more accessible, something which both the new shop and the wine school that the company run in their cellars (where, incidentally, the future Napoleon III sheltered while in exile from France) can help to do. Walking into the old shop, says Willis, is “a bit like walking straight into a gentleman’s tailors”; in the new shop, he was delighted to see a man browsing for wine wearing shorts and flipflops. “I don’t think anyone has ever worn shorts in No. 3 St James,” he says.
It might seem slightly strange that today, when it’s so easy to pop into your local supermarket or wine shop and buy a few bottles, the services that Berry Bros offer are still so popular. But what Berry Bros do, more than anything else, is give their customers a personal experience that very few wine merchants can rival. “Lots of people sell wine, lots of people import spirits”, says Jago. “That’s not unique to us. But where we do it and how we do it, and the facilities we have here to make that connection with customers is unique to us and separates us from everyone else.” And it would appear that people are still willing to pay for that experience.
What that ‘experience’ might be is unique to each customer. It could be dinner with the world’s best Burgundy growers, or lunch with the chairman; there’s a personal touch that Berry Bros add to the wine-buying experience, and it’s one that people value. “In a world where everything is available at a few clicks of an iPhone, customers still really value high quality interaction with people who look after them and are able to give them access to the fine wines they want to buy,” he says. And of course, Berry Bros’ long history and the familiar name add a level of trustworthiness that many other businesses would rightfully be jealous of.
Their property empire is another thing that most other companies would envy. Stretching round from No.3 St James’s to 63 Pall Mall, many of the buildings at ground level and above are rented out. But the cellars below their original home on St James’s form a vital part of the Berry experience.
Some of the space is still used for storing the house reserve. But three of the cellars – named Pickering, Napoleon and Sussex – are used to host wine tastings, meals and private events, as well as the wine school. “It’s a rabbit warren,” says Geordie Willis, whose role covers “anything visual… which is linked to the experience the customers get. That can come from architecture and interiors, through to social media and publishing and design.”
His main focus since the Sussex Cellars were completed in 2015 has been on using the space that Berry Bros are fortunate enough to have to look after Berry’s customers and visitors in the best possible way – and to draw a line around certain areas (including the cellars) and, as he puts it, “keep them sacrosanct”. You can see this clearly in everything from the floor of the Pickering Cellar, which still has the old brickwork along which barrels used to be rolled, and a preserved underground well which predates Henry VIII’s time. Fieldsports are also something that run very close to the Berry Bros business.
Jago admits to being ‘astonished’ by how often he is served Berry Bros wine on shoots, and the company often works alongside the Countryside Alliance at events such as the annual London Wine Auction dinner. “I think we share similar values with the shooting and fishing communities,” Jago explains. “We’re a modern business but we’re very interested in protecting history and heritage, and I think that is something that would be very understandable to people who enjoy country sports.” It all just goes to show that while the 21st century might appear to be all about the here and now and having the newest goods on offer, there is still a market for top-quality, honest companies that customers know they can trust.