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Grape Britain

For centuries, London has been the hub of the world's wine trade. Today London is still at the center of the action, with venerable wine shops, new wine-centric restaurants and a thriving wine culture.

It's the city that made Australian wine into a global success story——and it's not Sydney. It's where Robert M. Parker, Jr.'s judgments acquired a near-infallible status—and it isn't Bordeaux. It's where wine nuts from Tokyo to San Francisco hoard and trade their priceless collections, and it's where the leading publisher of wine books in Swedish, Dutch and Bulgarian is located. Here's a clue: The national drink of the place isn't wine—it's beer (or tea, for the abstemious).

London shares the same northerly latitude as Saskatoon, in Canada, and so might not seem an obvious stop on a wine lover's itinerary. Yet this city has been the linchpin of the world's wine trade for centuries and remains so today. That England's relative lack of vineyards has been an advantage may seem like a paradox, but according to Simon Berry, deputy chairman of the three-hundred-year-old wine merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd, "Britain became the center of the wine market because we don't have a tradition of making wine."

In Britain, until very recently, drinking wine was a mark of privilege. The first Londoners to have enjoyed wine were Roman soldiers who invaded Britain from France under the emperor Claudius in a.d. 43 and created a new settlement where they forded the Thames. Though posted among barbarians, they insisted on some home comforts, including wine. Peter Rowsome of the Museum of London describes how, in 1995, archaeologists in London dug up a huge wine barrel made of silver fir that had probably been filled in the Alps. The barrel was almost intact, though it dated from a mere 30 years after the Roman invasion.

London has looked to Bordeaux for wine since the late Middle Ages. (Bordeaux, a maritime city, was actually ruled by England from 1154 to 1453.) French merchants living in London joined forces as the Merchant-Wine-Tonners of Gascony in 1302. Half a century later, a confederation of English merchants and taverners was granted a royal charter (and a little later, part ownership of all the swans on the Thames); the organization exists to this day as the Worshipful Company of Vintners.

Many places in London give a sense that little has changed in the city's wine trade—even though this impression may be misleading. Although Berry Bros. & Rudd is now well-known through its Web site and airport shops, it is still based in an oak-paneled shop where the crazily uneven floor dates all the way back to 1698. The past also weighs heavily at the El Vino wine bar on Fleet Street. In the 1970s, feminists regularly picketed this nicotine-stained haunt of lawyers and newspaper journalists because the establishment did not allow women to drink at its bar, only at its tables. Friends of mine once brought an Anglican minister to the wine bar; although he was wearing a tie, as required, he had failed to put on a jacket, and thus was ejected. Only in the late 1990s was El Vino's dress code relaxed.

El Vino is also one of the last bastions of a more congenial tradition—cellaring wines until they reach maturity. The firm's house rule, first proclaimed in the 1920s, is that El Vino will sell no bottle before it is ready. In fact, the purpose of the posh end of the British wine trade was once to buy wine when it was first released and mature it in London's cool, damp vaults before selling it. These cellars even gave rise to a distinct style of brandy called early landed Cognac, which developed differently from French-matured spirits.

London still sells millions of pounds' worth of mature wines, mainly from its old trading partner Bordeaux. But few British firms can bear the cost of holding a large inventory. "A lot of the old-fashioned wine trade has gone," sighs Berry. Yet many fine-wine merchants have reinvented themselves, attracting new customers and substantially increasing their sales volume.

Traditionally, the English upper classes regarded wine as the only truly gentlemanly trade, and their sons went into the business as a respectable alternative to the church or the army. Such gentleman merchants have been in relative decline since the 1960s, however, when supermarkets were first allowed to sell wine; today, three out of every four bottles sold in the retail trade are purchased in supermarkets.

Australia has particularly benefited from supermarket sales. Once specializing in fortified ports and sherries for the United Kingdom, Australia became a global player after it started exporting large quantities of fruity, inexpensive Cabernets and Chardonnays to the United Kingdom. This change didn't happen by chance. Australian Wine Bureau CEO Hazel Murphy, from Manchester, directed it from her office in the Australian High Commission (not far from El Vino). During her 20 years in charge of marketing Australian wine, Murphy has seen exports to Britain grow by an unbelievable 23,500 percent. She achieved this by selling wine to people who had never bought it before.

"The traditional trade couldn't be the route. We had to get it into the supermarkets," Murphy says. At the same time, she cultivated old-fashioned experts, in the form of London's custodians of wine knowledge, the Institute of Masters of Wine, set up in 1955 under the auspices of the Worshipful Company of Vintners. She decided to organize a trip of Masters of Wine (MWs) to visit Australian producers and was rewarded with their endorsement. Murphy's untraditional background raised some eyebrows among the wine establishment. At the first formal dinner she attended, her neighbors were intrigued to hear that her grandfather was in coal mining. "Did he actually own a mine?" they wanted to know. "I explained he worked on the coal face," she says.

Another aspect of the British wine boom—namely, the business of wine journalism—has created ripples beyond Britain's shores. There are now literally hundreds of full- or part-time wine writers in London. Hilary Lumsden, wine editor for Mitchell Beazley, which publishes volumes by the canonical Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, says she's lost count of the number of wine-related titles the company has in print (close to 100). She asserts that about 70 percent of the world's wine books are published in London. And in London there seems to be an enormous population of interested readers. Then there are the publishers in search of new markets. According to Lumsden, "Eastern Europe: Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria... You'd be surprised, but they're really hot for our books."

Wine buffs in London also enjoy an unrivaled number of opportunities to meet with winemakers face to face—partly because of London's proximity to the Continent. According to Simon Berry, "Wine producers can come here individually and visit with London wine merchants and their customers."

There are plenty of ways to learn about wine in London too. One of the British pioneers of wine education is Michael Schuster, who in 1986 began giving classes to nonprofessionals at his Victorian house in north London and now passes on his skills to Masters of Wine students as well. Schuster honed his tasting and descriptive skills at Bordeaux University, where he paid his way by teaching English to oil scientists. "Wine instructors in the United Kingdom have a huge advantage," Schuster says. "In London you can get examples of any wine in the world."

Those who are truly serious about wine—and have serious money—make use of London's auction houses and brokers. London pretty much created the modern wine auction, and the city is still the world's center for this method of buying and selling wine. Christie's launched its specialist wine department in 1966, and its rival, Sotheby's, followed in 1970. Auctioneer Michael Broadbent of Christie's found the stock for his first great sale in the cellar of the nobleman Lord Rosebery. Says Broadbent, "Lord Rosebery was an old man who had two great houses and a fantastic range of pre-phylloxera claret: 1858 Lafite, some 1864, and 1865 in large quantities. We had American buyers interested almost from the word go." Later Broadbent took Christie's wine auctions to Chicago, where he admits to playing up his British image for all it was worth: "I was more English than the English, wearing a carnation and a morning coat—at Christie's request, mind."

The brokers, to begin with at any rate, were less gentlemanly. Broadbent used to call them "the weasels." Berry Bros. didn't sell to them. The business of wine brokering was practically invented by Farr Vintners, which matched buyers with sellers in return for a fee; the company itself didn't hold any wine. "The initial reason for being brokers was that we didn't have the money to buy anything and keep it in stock," says Farr Vintners' purchasing director Stephen Browett, who entered the wine trade in his teens as a van driver.

Browett and his colleagues annoyed Christie's and Sotheby's by scoping out their clientele at auctions in order to poach customers. Farr Vintners couldn't afford in-house expertise like Christie's or Sotheby's, so they simply reprinted listings from Broadbent's Great Vintage Wine Book (along with recommendations from a then little-known pundit named Robert M. Parker, Jr.).

Their audacity paid off: Farr Vintners now sells from $65 to $95 million worth of wine a year to customers all over the world—a larger turnover than those of Sotheby's and Christie's put together. And today, Browett and Broadbent are on the best of terms. Meanwhile, Farr Vintners now stocks a large selection of wine and has become a traditional merchant, while the likes of Berry Bros. & Rudd have their own brokering departments.

As much as London's wine scene has evolved, many of those in the wine business are doing things the same way the Worshipful Company of Vintners did seven centuries ago. Admits Browett, "I can't even get my head around Italian wine. I'm a French-wine man myself."

Londoner Patrick Matthews is the author of Real Wine and The Wild Bunch.

Published October 2003
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