Thursday 22 June 2017

Berry Bros. & Rudd: My Secret Shame

So PK has been on at me for ages, years, even, about Berry Bros. & Rudd, legendary wine sellers of Piccadilly, established in the seventeenth century, impossibly period retail premises, outrageous client list (Lord Byron, the Aga Khan, Napoleon III, the British Royal Family past and present), superlative knowledge of high-end wines (eight Masters of Wine working for them), history issuing from their eighteenth-century headquarters like an invisible gas, a surprising number of drinkable wines listed online for under a tenner, I mean, he says, why wouldn't anyone get down to 3 St. James's Street, SW1, and have themselves the heritage time of their lives and come away laden with drink? 'Go on' he concludes, 'you know you want to', the phrase he invariably uses for anything I really don't want to do.

How do I know I don't want to? Because I've been past the place plenty of times and everything about it puts me off, apart from the facade and a beetling covered alleyway next door which bears a plaque set on the jamb of its entrance arch: In this building was the legation from the Republic of Texas to the Court of St. James 1842 - 1845. Everything else makes my blood run cold. And yet, just to shut PK up, I will give it a go.

Give it a go is of course a relatively nuanced term. What it means in practice is that I stand at the windows (like the poop of a Napoleonic ship of the line, gnarled and lacquered with centuries of paint), peer inside and see nothing that appears to be a shop. In one part of the building there seems to be a sitting room, recently vacated by Beau Brummel or Queen Mary; in another part there is a Georgian office or counting house, a handful of scriveners seated at desks towards the rear of the space. The window displays contain a handful of sullenly impressive wine bottles, each poised on a single metal stand like a museum exhibit. There are no prices. Apart from the enigmatic bottles in the windows and the legend Wine Merchants in quiet gold lettering, there is nothing to make the uncommitted pedestrian believe that he is in fact passing a wine store. It might as well be an antiques dealer. And although this particular pedestrian knows that he is passing a wine store, he does not stop and go in; he just keeps moving. That's what the place is saying: nothing for you here, nothing you could make sense of.

What makes it worse is the fact that Berry Bros. & Rudd are not alone in this act of deadly hauteur. Next door is a shop owned by Dunhill, for the pleasure of extremely serious cigar enthusiasts. When I peer, hobo-like, through its window, all I see are three expensively-dressed men propping up a counter, talking; in the window it says Cigar Lounge; there is a humidor; I move away.

And on the other side of Berry Bros. are two even greater villains: Lock, the hatters (oldest hatmakers in the world, clients include Lord Nelson, Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Kennedy, Winston Churchill) and Lobb the bootmaker (Queen Victoria, Frank Sinatra, Churchill again). Lobb scarcely announce themselves at all, their shopfront bare except for a couple of By Appointments over the doorway and a dusty shelf in the window bearing an assortment of single shoes, apparently dropped there by chance, and an old cardboard box. In other words, I am faced, overall, with about a hundred feet of pure retailing disdain. Why, exactly, am I meant to feel good about this?

Yes, I know that high-end shops like to make themselves inaccessible and I understand that Berry Bros. aren't going to have a chalkboard outside shouting about a supremely chuggable pinot grigio, just to get me in. But there is a limit to the amount of patrician indifference I can put up with, not least because in the modern, disintermediated, world, Amazon (bless them) will supersubtly know what I want almost before I know it myself and silently and efficiently get it to me without my having to do anything more than caress my phone. Just the idea of an antiquated Piccadilly snob shop playing hard to get makes me mad. And a wine shop at that! Where the whole transaction is already rank with elitism, even in a high street outlet! What the hell kind of world are we living in? What the hell kind of world is PK living in? Not for the first time, I tell myself that I must never, ever, act on one of his suggestions again. Only this time I really, really, really mean it.



  1. You wuss CJ. I've been popping into Berry's ever since I was an 18 year old clutching a couple of recommendations from a book. I'm far from posh, but I was charmed (still am) by its historic fa├žade, and entering the shop does feel like a welcome step back in time. It's actually nice that there isn't a ridiculously jocular message on a blackboard outside flogging some dubious plonk.

    Another thing in its defence is the welcome from the staff is warm and professional, I am never made to feel like an oik by their knowledgeable but unstuffy staff.

    Listen to PK, it's a joy to visit Berry's, it's not like other merchants, and that's the point. Have a go, it may look inaccessible but it really isn't, and the wealth of lovely wines to browse through is joyous.

  2. Well I take your point totally about my being a wuss. And I have to believe you when you talk about B.B. & R.'s staff & their warmth & professionalism. You do, of course, have a supporter in PK: who,I am fairly confident, is going to come back to this tangled topic before too long. Just saying...

  3. Popping into Berry's since an 18 year old, I am afraid puts Bex into an income bracket that, as a youthful 62 year old, I have sadly yet to attain. I shall keep trying but it is a long way to go from Lewes even with my discounted rail pass. And I should think the staff would be warm and helpful too. They are hardly likely to be surly when Betty Battenburg is a customer!

  4. Couldn't have put it better myself - although I bet Lewes has got a few nice wine shops to keep the dedicated drinker happy; it's a very pleasant part of the world, as I recollect...

  5. Indeed it does. Harveys brewery has an excellent wine store where, if one if feeling a just tad stingy, one can always walk away with a small selection of Sussex's finest ales. I fear Berry's might not be seeing me for quite a while, what with Southern Rail and all!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.