A rather shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Last week was a good one for the first new club to have opened in London's clubland in St James's in a century. When I dropped in to 67 Pall Mall – no silly limitations on female access here - they were celebrating one of their team, Terry Kandylis of Greece, being crowned UK Sommelier of the Year the day before.
But there was no celebratory respite for him. The club's head of wine Ronan Sayburn (left in the picture), Master Sommelier and a past UK Sommelier of the Year himself who would normally have been one of the judges but had to step aside, was taking the reflected glory in his stride. On his team he already has Spain's top sommelier and South Africa's, who came fifteenth in the World Sommelier Championships in Mendoza last month. Learning about wine is just part of the job spec for Sayburn's team of sommeliers. 'We have nine of them, with two more starting soon – for a 35-cover restaurant. It's crazy!' he beamed. (See Ask a sommelier.)
But then the whole point of 67 Pall Mall is wine, the finer and more keenly priced the better. The idea for a wine-based private members' club was born over various dinner tables when, fuelled by fine wine, hedge-fund manager Grant Ashton (right above right) would bemoan the high mark-ups routinely charged by restaurateurs. Geoffrey Fink, currently on gardening leave from his private equity career, is just one of those who found themselves early investors in a site that had once been Hambro's bank. 'I thought it was just drunk talk', he says now, still bemused by what Ashton's determination has achieved.
The club is heaven for wine lovers. I watched a bottle of Krug (£168) being shared by four young people in one corner of the (somewhat cramped) upstairs seating area, next to a pair of businessmen sharing a bottle of Ponsot's Griotte Chambertin 2011 (£345), all sopped up by particularly fine salted almonds and fat green olives. Terry and Ronan told me about a lone diner recently who had chosen to wash his burger down with a bottle of Ch Latour 1964 (£567). Wine-searcher.com lists the current retail price at £474; the club's mark ups really are very much lower than restaurants', so there is a tendency for members to order seriously smart wine from the well-designed iPad lists.
But the point of 67 Pall Mall is to venture much further afield than the conventional trophy wines. As Grant Ashton puts it, what he was seeking was 'the road less travelled; it would have been too easy to buy a collection of well known "brand name" (French) wines and plonk them on a wine list with some bar staff, but Ronan is happier to recommend a lesser known (and for that read cheaper) wine to a member if his judgement is that that is what the circumstance demands. He is constantly seeking to challenge our members' preconceptions about what they "like" and want to drink.'
If all of this makes Ronan sound like a tedious proselytiser then it shouldn't. He may have earned his spurs as head wine guy for Gordon Ramsay and the Dorchester Group but this is a Yorkshireman with his feet on the ground and a playful smile never far from his lips. A marathon-runner, he travels incessantly – not least in his role organising the Court of Master Sommeliers, and is in constant search for the new and different. His wife sells Uruguayan wine. 'There's so much fine wine out there that's just put into Eurocaves and stared at', he lamented as we sat in the lee of the glittery phalanx of backlit bottles behind the busy bar.
Ashton's persistence may have transformed 'drunk talk' into decidedly stylish bricks and mortar (including retaining the subterranean safe for storing members' own wines) but Sayburn's engaging manner and international reputation played a major part in putting 67 Pall Mall on the map even before it opened. When Frédéric Engerer, director of François Pinault's wine empire, wanted to open the latest wines from Château-Grillet, he chose to do so in the bottle-lined 'library' of 67 Pall Mall pictured below. Ditto for young Miguel Torres when he had some new wines to show off. In the bar area on the way there you are likely to bump into the CEO of Berry Bros and, most obviously, a significant slice of London's finance sector.
It does seem to me as though there are these two very distinct sorts of members, wine trade and bankers, with extremely disparate incomes, but Ronan and Terry assured me that the wine itself encourages fraternisation at the bar. I wondered whether fraternisation had ever reached problematic levels. Ronan smiled and admitted that in the first couple of weeks there had been 'a bit of bad behaviour; we had to blacklist one or two members'. On my visits I have seen many great bottles but never any lack of decorum.
The club offers more than 500 wines by the glass. When I asked Grant Ashton when he realised he had a success on his hands his answer was one word: Coravin. This bit of kit, no bigger than many corkscrews, allows any amount of fine wine to be extracted from a bottle without pulling the cork and keeps the remaining wine in good condition. At 67 Pall Mall they have seven Coravins, with different widths of needle according to the condition of the cork, and no fewer than 9,000 wafer-thin Zalto wine glasses which may be the world's biggest collection of them.
Food is no poor relation. Chef Marcus Verberne from Dunedin was selected only after rigorous food and wine matching tests and works from a (surely rather valuable) spreadsheet that Ronan has created of combinations that work. All food and drink staff are encouraged to taste widely and blind and to do formal wine courses. (The club already has the reputation of being the world's best billet for any budding sommelier.) One of the top performers so far has been a Muslim in the kitchen who doesn't drink.
I am conscious of sounding a bit too enthusiastic about 67 Pall Mall. I am not a member and I have to confess to feeling a certain scepticism about it initially. But I could not be more delighted to see how it has met a need and prospered. There is currently a waiting list for new members, and now the talk is of expanding the London premises and even possibly exporting the concept.
A selection of some of the more unusual wines from the 67 Pall Mall list, with UK retail prices and stockists.
Black Dog Hill Vineyards 2011 South Downs, Sussex (£30 Waitrose)
Clos Canarelli 2012 Figari, Corsica (£22.50 H2Vin)
Domaine Macle 2007 Château Chalon (£63 Hedonism)
Equipo Navazos, La Bota 54 Fino Macharnudo Alto NV Sherry (£29 Cambridge Wine Merchants)
Filipa Pato, Nossa Calcario 2013 Beiras (£23 Clark Foyster Wines)
Knipser Spätburgunder 2012 Pfalz (£25 Wine Source)