Making merry with the Berrys
Berry Brothers has supplied wine to the nation for more than three centuries from premises that are as unique as its cellars
In 1698, the sprawling Palace of Whitehall burnt down. William III was on the throne, and London was a bustling city of more than half a million people. It was also the year that the Widow Bourne opened her shop in 3 St James’s Street, selling pretty much anything that came in a sack. From dealing in coffee, tea and tobacco, the premises were passed down through the family and became a shop for the burgeoning wine trade.
More than 300 years have passed, the nation has seen a further 12 monarchs and the population of London now stands at 7.8 million. The shop in 3 St James’s Street is still there. Berry Bros & Rudd, as it came to be named, is unequivocally the oldest wine shop in the world.
I meet Simon Berry in the characterful parlour at the back of the shop floor. This inner sanctum is where chairmen of ages past would sit and receive letters from customers and sign cheques – a role that now befalls Simon, who is a seventh-generation Berry family member. ‘It was always what I was told I would go into,’ he says. ‘Though I did have a period of youthful rebellion.’
This distinguished chap recounts how as a young man, he attempted to forgo the family business in favour of working in films. ‘My parents were frightfully upset and said if I wanted to be artistic, why couldn’t I be a solicitor?’ They didn’t have to despair for too long. ‘I discovered that films were a horrible industry and the wine trade was much nicer,’ he chuckles. ‘It’s a fantastically civilised place to work.’
It is delightfully apparent that the shop has barely changed in three centuries. A mass of wonky floors, ramshackle rooms and dusty cellars: it is intrinsically elegant and only a tiny bit scruffy round the edges – much like a quintessential British gentleman. As part of his lifelong apprenticeship, Simon has spent much time on the shop floor and clearly holds huge affection for its idiosyncrasies.
‘I’m particularly fond of the spurs attached to the wall. No one knows quite what they’re doing there. The only explanation has to be that there was a time when lots of our customers walked in wearing spurs. One must have sat down, took them off for comfort’s sake and left them there.’
Along with the antique furniture and enormous collection of antique bottles (‘Better than that of the British Museum, apparently’), the walls of the parlour are filled with portraits, photos and other family mementoes. There are drawers filled with delights, including First World War recruitment posters (complete with pin holes) and – rather bizarrely – a toasting fork and silk fishing line. ‘If you’ve been in a single place for 300 odd years, you tend to collect things,’ Simon remarks.
He pulls one of the frames off the wall to show me. It is a letter, slightly time-worn, with a portrait of a man having a merry time. ‘One of my grandfather’s great friends was the Irish painter William Orpen. He had lunch here, and that’s a self-portrait of him and the bottle he was enjoying drawn in Burgundy – he dipped his finger in the wine.’ The scrappy handwriting reads: ‘My dear Berry Brothers, thank you very much, the wine was excellent.’
And that isn’t even the most fascinating letter. Back out on the shop floor there is a note on the wall with the Titanic letterhead, dated just a few days after the ship sank in 1912. It apologises for the lost cases of Berry Brothers wine, but makes no mention of the fact that anyone had died. ‘We found it in the back of one of my father’s old filing cabinets,’ says Simon. ‘It’s an extraordinary piece of history.’
In the centre of the shop stands a set of imposing scales, which have been there since Widow Bourne opened her doors. They were originally meant for weighing the sacks of products, but customers soon came to use them to weigh themselves as a way of measuring health. Rumour has it Lord Bryon often visited to sit on them (and select a few bottles, naturally).
With so much history, I’m keen to know if the shop has ever been haunted. ‘There was a sighting a long time ago,’ Simon reveals. ‘Someone saw a ghostly figure walk through one of the panelled walls. Research took place, and it transpired there had been a door there once.’ Could it have been one of his ancestors? ‘Possibly,’ he smiles, ‘or perhaps the witness had been partaking too much of the product.’
Another famous Berry Brothers yarn tells of a shop assistant who, descending into the cellars one night, heard a mysterious sound. He discovered a rat, which had chewed through the cork of a highly expensive bottle. ‘He’d drunk so much he had passed out and was snoring! There are so many stories like that, it’s hard to know which ones are true.’
Despite a lifetime immersed in the wine industry, Simon himself is not a collector. He explains, ‘I’m very lucky in that we’ve got cellars full of the most astonishing things, which I’m able to pick and choose from.’ He is resolutely down to earth about what he calls ‘fermented grape juice’, and while bottles costing up to £15,000 pass through his hands, the most popular bottle Berry Brothers sells is its Good Ordinary Claret, which costs a reasonable £8.75. He does, however, employ his expertise to collect for other people, most notably the Royal Family. ‘I’m clerk of the Royal cellars, which means I run the committee that chooses the wine of the Royal household.’ He will not reveal Her Majesty’s favourite tipple – discretion is everything – but he will say ‘most of it is used for entertaining, and hardly any of it is hugely expensive’.
The wine trade continues to flourish on a global scale, and from its humble beginnings as a rickety shop in St James’s Street, Berry Brothers has become a key industry player. I am interested to learn that, increasingly, much of the world’s ‘great wine’ ends up in China. ‘It’s a status symbol,’ says Simon. ‘If you have a lot of money and want to show it to people, you can buy a Picasso or a Lamborghini. But one of the cheapest ways to show you’re rich is to spend £10,000 on a bottle and share it with friends.’
I remark that some might be shocked by such a display of ostentation. ‘Perhaps,’ Simon laughs. ‘Or perhaps we should all be friendly to these people and hope they invite us to their homes.’ Failing that, some Berry Bros Claret should do the trick.
Berry Bros & Rudd, 3 St James’s Street, London SW1 1EG: 0800-280 2440, www.bbr.com
Daily tip from the lady archive
“THERE is great satisfaction to be had in properly ironed garments that look as if they have just come out of the shop window.”The Lady. You Can’t Iron? 19th February, 1953