This is a longer version of an article published in The Financial Times.
Two or three times a year I spend a morning underneath Buckingham Palace with the chairmen of Britain's two oldest wine merchants choosing wine for the Queen's cellar. That's the sort of thing you do if you are Hew Blair of Justerini & Brooks and Simon Berry of Berry Bros & Rudd. These venerable companies face each other across St James's Street, quietly doing their damnedest to prise more money out of the well-heeled and bibulous than the other. For well over two centuries they have done battle in the British marketplace but nowadays their immaculately tailored sales teams are just as likely to be jostling for orders in Hong Kong and Singapore too.
Family-owned Berrys, ever the innovator, also has a branch in Tokyo and has flirted with outposts in Dublin and Heathrow. It was the first UK wine merchant to invest - in 1994, digital pre-history - in its own (comprehensive) website, to establish its own online fine-wine trading platform, to become an accomplished book (and e-book) publisher, to run its own wine school, and to operate a fully fledged corporate events space in the recently renovated and atmospheric cellars under its extensive freehold premises a stone's throw from St James's Palace.
Justerinis prides itself on being a bit more conservative, which is strange since it is owned by Diageo and thus constitutes a sister brand to, say, Bailey's, Blossom Hill and Piat d'Or. Blair himself admits that the company is a bit of a corporate anomaly. 'Ninety nine per cent of the people in Diageo don't know we exist. But then the people we buy from do know they'll be paid.' Presumably what Diageo values most about Justerinis is the Royal Warrant that can be applied to J&B Scotch whisky. Justerinis, and Blair, are strong on Scotland. He is based there and spends much of his time on the East Coast rail line. He's been a member of the Royal Company of Archers, who guard the Queen in Scotland, since 1985, owns four kilts, and his home in the Borders is surrounded by a mile of the River Leader so that he can 'flick a fly while walking the dogs'.
You know things are going well for Blair if, at one of Justerinis' customer tastings of a new vintage, he swells out his pinstriped chest and discreetly puts a number on the millions of pounds that the orders so far tally. This way of selling wine, now routine in the UK wine trade, was pioneered by Blair in 1992 with 1990 burgundy. Justerinis' sales of 2009 bordeaux apparently nearly reached £20 million but in recent vintages the Burgundy orders have overtaken those for Bordeaux. Blair claims that the company's turnover continues to rise, even though it employs only about 50 people (compared with Berry's 310).
While Blair is known for a certain canniness, Berry is generosity itself. Affable supporter of innumerable charities, tireless host in the Berrys boardroom overlooking St James's Street, he is an active supporter of good causes in both the wine trade and theatre in particular. Berrys currently have two Royal Warrants; but then so did Justerinis until the Queen Mother sipped her last. While Blair was president of the Royal Warrant Holders Association recently, Berry took over from Blair's predecessor as Clerk of the Royal Cellars in 2008. Blair, like me and Adam Brett Smith of equally royal Corney & Barrow, is a mere member of the Royal Household Wine Committee. Berry runs our blind tastings with aplomb, almost invariably inviting us all to walk back through Green Park to his boardroom for a cellar-busting lunch afterwards.
Blair has been celebrating his fortieth year with Justerinis in 2014 and, as Simon Berry did 10 years or so after him, apprenticed in various French cellars before joining the firm. But whereas Berry's job has focused on steering the company's future, Blair, who is vague on retail prices, has been happiest at the coalface of wine buying. (Berry has eight Masters of Wine to do that for him.) Blair is justifiably proud of the portfolio he has personally built up, in some cases only after many years of courtship. 'As my uncle the Seaforth Highlanders General said, reconnaissance time is never wasted.' His first loves may have been Bordeaux and Burgundy but he has amassed enviable portfolios of top German and Piemontese producers. Giles Burke-Gaffney, his successor as buyer, enjoys watching his mentor squirm while being lovingly embraced by some of Barolo's top producers. Domaines Leroy and Comte Liger-Belair are notable exclusivities in Burgundy, and Blair certainly put in the hours to be appointed joint UK distributor of the Pomerol jewels Chateau Lafleur and Petrus recently.
The big problem for the producers of these hyper-valuable wines is to keep them off brokers' lists by embedding them in the cellars of people who can afford to drink them. Blair has been known to whisk a client list past a prospective supplier. 'They do like to see the odd Duke', he assures me. I wondered to what extent Justerinis' order books were benefiting from all the new money in London. 'There are a few people who are (pause) international', he admits carefully, 'people who have houses in London. We occasionally deliver to Heathrow or some private runway. And then there are people who deliberately schedule their London banking meetings for the day of one of our tastings.'
Justerinis' own finances are buried so deeply in Diageo's accounts that the rest of the wine trade finds it difficult to monitor the company's performance in much detail. The same cannot be said for Berrys, whose accounts are picked over minutely by their rivals, alternating between envy and Schadenfreude depending on the year. There was an expensive recent blip when things soured between Berrys and their Chinese partner in Hong Kong, and having a family members' board above those who actually run the company might not satisfy the most fastidious of management consultants. But overall Berry Bros has been sufficiently prosperous to absorb at least four of Britain's most dynamic wine-importing companies. The most gifted wine merchants of my generation have all turned to Simon Berry when they wanted to cash in.
While Berrys broke new ground, literally, constructing a vast, and expanded, modern warehouse for their customers' reserves in Basingstoke (referred to in their literature as 'our Hampshire cellars'), Justerinis, like many of their competitors, use Octavian's specialist underground wine-storage facility in Wiltshire. Blair claims to be one of just two merchants who go to the trouble of allocating individual rotation numbers to each case, rather than each pallet, of wine in order to avoid any dispute about ownership. Just one of many nuggets he has let slip to me over the years – usually at the Palace.
SOME ST JAMES'S SPECIALTIES
Dom Comte Liger-Belair
Dom Bruno Clair
Dom Weinbach (Faller)
Many of these names are represented by their agency subsidiary Fields Morris & Verdin.
Dominique Lafon's own label
Clos de la Perrière
Au Bon Climat
Sadie Family Vineyards