In the first of a new series, we are bringing you the best of London’s top wine merchants, those with a strong online and often international presence, but who importantly have a bricks and mortar element to their business.
We begin with ‘the classics’ – merchants that have been trading for at least 100 years, and typically much longer, who are such stalwarts of the wine trade that they command their own category.
Between them the following merchants have nearly 1,300 years of business experience, having navigated two world wars, the flu pandemic of 1918, countless economic boom and busts, the dawn of the internet and e-commerce and now Covid-19. While it has not always been plain sailing, their universal ability to adapt to changing times has made these five retailers among the most respected, experienced and robust wine merchants, not only in London but the world.
Now more than ever, wine merchants are working to maintain their fundamental values while adapting and evolving to meet new challenges.
Here, we take a look at their turnover, range and approach to selection, as well as how they are working to meet the challenges of the future, not least in light of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Click through for our pick of London’s top classic wine merchants…
Davy’s Wine Merchants
Founded: 1870 Locations: Greenwich HQ and shop, plus 21 bars and restaurants across London. Turnover: 2019 £14.6m vs. £13.9m in 2018 (up 5%)
Davy’s Wine Merchants was founded in 1870 by Franck’s Edwin Davy, first in the form of a “wine house” just off the Strand called the Rising Sun, marking the beginning of a family wine business that would span five generations. Later, a headquarters and warehouse was set up in Barking. The merchant’s own-label wines (which are still a strong feature of its portfolio) in 1902 by F.E. Davy, and Ports also feature strongly, having built a reputation as a major shipper during the early 1900s. During the 60s, the business expanded to include wine bars under the helm of 4th generation John Davy, and in the 1990s the company made its first steps into online retail. It was at this time that the merchant added a private cellar division and began offering en primeur sales. A wholesale business followed the acquisition of Wine & Spirit Merchant, Mayor Sworder, and in 2015 Davy’s purchased Fleet Street-based wine merchants, El Vino, with five El Vino Wine & Tapas Bars now operating across the capital. Today the business’ headquarters and flagship shop is based in Greenwich.
“The past 12 months were very positive until Covid-19,” says James Davy, fifth generation chairman of Davy’s. “Sales suffered immediately after the Brexit vote, but had come back strongly and all departments of the business were trading very well. Over the past year, we have reinvested in our online shop which is really paying dividends. Our fine wine division was seeing double-digit growth, as was wholesale. All parts of the business had a very successful Christmas.
“We began working with a number of excellent new producers including Gilvesey in Hungary, Bousquet in Argentina and Te Kano in New Zealand and their wines have been well received by our customers and the media. We have spent more time keeping the press up to date on our portfolio that has really paid off with more positive write-ups – and awards – than ever before. In turn, we are now being contacted by journalists more and more and there has been a real snow-ball effect.”
Speaking of its range, Davy says simplicity is key. “We like dealing with independent, family businesses that are a similar size and have a similar philosophy to ours. We are only interested in quality and being fully independent we only need to buy wines if we like them. So we taste and re-taste and don’t settle for something if it doesn’t hit the spot. We like a good environmental approach too.”
This year, the company was set to celebrate 150 years in business, a key milestone that has been somewhat overshadowed by the coronavirus lockdown. All of its wine bars and restaurants, are currently closed, but despite calling this period in history “truly awful”, Davy remains upbeat.
“While things started very positively in January, we have obviously had to cancel or postpone almost everything since. We were excited to develop an exclusive label with Pol Roger which was to have been launched at a tasting on March 17, unfortunately just as the whole lockdown started. Having put so much effort into creating a busy calendar of events, offers, content and competitions for our customers, it has been a real shame; but we will reschedule what we can for later in the year.”
At such an uncertain time, Davy’s is working to adapt to the challenges emerging due to Covid-19, reporting a 600% increase in online sales on the previous year. “Unlike some who have had to switch the focus for their business entirely, we are lucky in that we have diverse interests,” says Davy. “So, while our wholesale operation came to an abrupt halt in March, we already had a strong online, mail order and private client business. Considering what we’ve lost in wholesale and whilst we are significantly down year on year, we have managed to retain a lot of momentum because of record breaking sales through those other channels. Our internet sales are 600% up. As with any Merchant and Shipper, three months of stock has become two years’ stock over night but online is helping to keep it moving and our sales teams are picking up new customers all the time.
“A time like this calls for fresh thinking and a collaborative approach. Our wholesale team are supporting the other independent merchants that we supply as much as they can and we are seeing benefits from that. We are working closely with private clubs, caterers and restaurants that we supply and finding new ways to support their members and customers.”
Justerini & Brooks
Founded: 1749 Locations: Headquarters at St James’s Street, London; Sales offices at Golden Square in London, Alva Street in Edinburgh and Central, Hong Kong. Turnover: 2018 in £57.2m vs. £47.2m in 2017 (up 21%) NB: most recent accounts filed at companies house as of 10 May 2020
Established in 1749 by Giacomo Justerini, Justerini & Brooks has more than 270 years of experience under its belt and still operates from its historic Pall Mall location where it first began. J&B was awarded its first Royal Warrant by King George III in 1761, and has been granted the honour by every successive British monarch since, including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
It now includes an en primeur service, online shop and cellaring service, which operates under its Cellarers Wines Ltd business and also offers a broking platform. The company currently holds close to £200m worth of wine for its customers as part of its cellaring service. It also stocks the cellars of bars and restaurants across the UK, including Le Gavroche, The Fat Duck, Claridge’s and The Goring.
Its range features more than four thousand wines from across the world, with a strong focus on fine wines from Burgundy, Barolo and Germany, as well Bordeaux, the Rhône, the Loire and Champagne. A buying team of five is headed up by buying director Giles Burke-Gaffney, who under the guidance of former buying director and now chairman Hew Blair, worked his way up to the role having joined the company as a cellar hand in 1997.
Whisky is also a big part of its offering, with the company boasting access to 29 distilleries across Scotland, including Port Ellen and Brora, and a single cask programme for collectors. The merchant recently released a Brora 40-year-old to celebrate the 200th anniversary of a distillery, priced at £4,500 a bottle.
Speaking of the current Covid-19 pandemic, a spokesperson for J&B has said: “Some châteaux and estates have been beginning to close their operations on a temporary basis. However at this stage we do not foresee any material impact on our ability to continue to supply you with our portfolio of wine and spirits. Our warehouses in the UK and France currently each remain open to facilitate that service – though on a reduced schedule, and our delivery teams are taking all extra precautions to ensure both the safety of their staff and our customers. Including additional hygiene measures and implementing contactless deliveries.”
At time of press, the company was continuing to ship across the UK, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Corney & Barrow
Founded: 1780 Locations: HQ in St Katherine’s Dock, London. Offices in North Yorkshire, Edinburgh, Singapore and Hong Kong. Shops in Suffolk and Ayr, Scotland. Turnover: 2019 £79.7m vs. £69.2m in 2018 (up 15%)
With nearly 250 years of experience Corney & Barrow is a behemoth of the fine wine retailing world, which started out as a simple wine shop opened in 1780 by Edward Blanc Corney on London’s Old Broad Street. At that time, it offered a small selection of Port, Sherry and Bordeaux. The Barrow name came to prominence in 1838 when Edward’s son, Thomas, invited his cousin, Robert Barrow, into the business.
Today, it encompasses two bricks and mortar shops in Suffolk and Scotland, an on-trade business and online operation from its headquarters in London, with offices also in Hong Kong and Singapore. The company also boasts two Royal Warrants, the first awarded by George V in 1912, and currently supplies both HM Queen Elizabeth II and HRH The Prince of Wales.
Speaking of the approach to its range, wine buyer Rebecca Palmer explains: “We try to work with producers who we feel have a certain star quality, within a particular region or style,” explains wine buyer Rebecca Palmer. “And this does not necessarily mean the most expensive either (it sometimes is, but often isn’t).
“In addition, it’s about philosophy: we want to work with producers who share our approach to work (and I suppose to life!). We try to do things properly, fully; we work deeply. If we have got to the point of signing with a producer, it’s because we mean it, and we commit. We want to develop a long-term partnership with producers we believe in, not hop in and out of bed with one then another, which is a waste of time (in our view). We see ourselves as an extension of our producers in the market, we see it as our job to build their sales and identity and reputation in our market, and we take it very seriously.”
The company remains privately owned with 75% of its portfolio exclusive to its buyers, with the likes of Achaval-Ferrer, Cakebread Cellars and Champagne Salon featuring. It also offers a cellaring and wine brokering service while en primmer sales are also a strong focus. In the past year, the company has invested heavily in the development of its warehousing and distribution operations, which takes its customer service to a “whole new level” in terms of order fulfilment and managing customer reserves, says Palmer, as well as the formal incorporation of its Asian arm and the launch of a new website.
For Palmer the relaunch of the merchant’s Chilean portfolio has been a particular highlight. “I went on an eye-opening trip in late 2018 which completely resolved me to give time to Chile and redevelop our entire portfolio,” she said. “So I really threw every spare moment at this, and, exceptionally, managed to persuade the business to sign five new producers in one go, but we absolutely believe in it.
“We have been working incredibly hard up and down the country, and will continue to do so, to raise profile for Chile, both internally and externally, with customers and with press. Chile is such an example of image-lag – a wine-producing country with so much going on, so much promise, so much innovation and grassroots effort, but a country that has been to some extent the ‘victim’ of its mainstream success and therefore pigeonholed as a ‘cheap and cheerful’ producer, and is now all too often dismissed.”
When asked about the current challenges facing the company, Palmer says Corney and Barrow is fortunate to the extent that the merchant is primarily a private customer business, with around 25% of its sales coming from the on-trade.
“The overnight shutdown of hospitality in the last few weeks has not affected us as gravely as some other operators,” she says “Nonetheless of course it has had a massive impact on us and it’s unclear how the situation will evolve. We are staying close to our customers and trying to support them wherever possible, rolling out various initiatives wherever we can. For example, some on-trade establishments have loyal private customers who are buying wine from them. We’ve sorted all the fulfilment and customer service.”
Corney & Barrow has so far avoided furloughing any of its staff, while its on-trade sales people have been redeployed internally as the company redirects its focus towards its private customer business and online sales.
“Fortunately for all of us, wine remains a ‘necessity’ product during lockdown, so we have been able to continue trading and our logistics, warehousing and delivery service has managed to keep running smoothly, albeit with adaptations, to accommodate social distancing guidelines,” she adds. “It has been unbelievably busy at C&B in this period, I can’t even describe it. It has been all hands on deck, a colossal effort across the business so far, and we will continue to build on this, in the immediate, in the next few months and beyond.”
Fortnum & Mason
Founded: 1707 Locations: Flagship store at Piccadilly Street, London, including The Wine Bar. Hong Kong retail outlet, opened in November 2019. Turnover: 2019 £138.4m vs. £126m in 2018 (up 10%)
Having traded for more than 300 years from its flagship store in Piccadilly, and as one of London’s oldest department store (with a stellar reputation for wine) Fortnum & Mason earns its spot on the classics list.
While recognising that wine is just one of the historic department store’s many products, (which should be noted in regard to its turnover) the retailer stocks more 1,300 wines and spirits, including an extensive ‘own label’ range that includes wines from Champagne, Bordeaux, Italy and South Africa. Its wine and spirits department has recorded positive growth for the past 5 years, while online sales of wine and spirits during the lockdown have increasing by 50% so far, according to Fortnum & Mason wine and spirits buyer Jamie Waugh.
“We are fortunate as most producers would like to have their wine or spirit ranged with us, so we have a wonderful array of wine and spirits to choose from. Evidently, you cannot work with everyone, and we currently have 1450 wines and spirits listed. Of this we have 162 lines under the Fortnum & Mason label, which is a very significant part of our business. What we don’t range under the F&M label, we aim to have the best of the best at every price point. Our buy has to be our edit of the wine world, which is forever evolving.”
Innovation is a key part of Waugh’s buying approach, with plans to bottle several new wines under the Fortnum & Mason label in 2020, including an English Bacchus produced by Laneberg, an urban winery located in Gateshead, and a “very undiscovered Nebbiolo from the Italian Alps,” produced from the Valtellina Single Vineyard Ca Morei, Marco Fay, in Lombardy.
The names of the producers that bottle F&M’s own-label wines are, unusually for some retailers, featured on their back labels. Fortnum’s own-label Champagne is bottled exclusively for Fortnum’s by Louis Roederer, its Madeira is bottled by Barbeito, its Sherry by Bodegas Tradicion and its Port is produced by Niepoort.
Champagne and increasingly English sparkling wine, remains a key seller at Fortnum’s, however Waugh notes an increase in sales of still wines recently, especially since the lockdown, explaining: “We are selling more still wines to people buying for themselves. It might surprise people that we sell 12 wines under £11 under the F&M label, 5 of which are under £10, and hence, this area of treating yourself as much as others, is an area we want to grow going forward.”
Berry Bros. & Rudd
Founded: 1698 Locations: St James’ London shop, warehouse/shop in Basingstoke. Offices in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Turnover: 2019 £223.2m vs. £169.8 in 2018 (up 31.4%)
The oldest and perhaps best known wine and spirits shop in London, Berry Bros & Rudd reached the grand old age of 322 in 2020, with a history dating back to 1698 when the site at which its flagship store in St James’ was first occupied, initially as a grocers. While wine would have always been sold from the site, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that the Berry family began to redirect its focus toward wine and spirits.
Today the company operates as a mail-order, online and bricks and mortar retailer of wines, beers and spirits, and also has offices in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, a Wine School and a fine wine and dining venue in London’s St James’s. Its London shop at 63 Pall Mall features a range of over 1,300 wines and spirits, from £10 to £10,000 a bottle, while its warehouse shop in Basingstoke offers discounts up to 30%, including bin-end bottles. It also holds two Royal Warrants for H.M. The Queen and H.R.H. The Prince of Wales and an established own-label range, which includes its Good Ordinary Claret and a multitude of spirits, including a London Dry Gin, Coffee liqueur and XO Cognac.
Speaking of its range, BBR wine director Mark Pardoe MW said: “We try not to be all things to all men, we know our strengths and established areas of expertise. Our range offers the classics but with an evolving selection of special interest wines from exceptional producers from other regions. In terms of our buying criteria, quality and integrity are key. Integrity in both what we source and how we price is fundamental to our range, so we always price as honestly as possible appropriate to the quality of the liquid in the bottle.”
As for the challenges of Covid-19, BBR’s home at No. 3 St James is still closed, however the merchant did report its biggest day of digital sales in its history last month. Writing on Linkedin, Luigi Barzini, who is head of sales and distributors at the historic mail-order wine merchant, said the merchant was set to deliver 18,000 bottles in one day, rising to with 24,000 bottles the following day.
Business will go on as it has for three generations, writes creative director and eighth-generation family member Geordie Willis, sharing his thoughts on a recent blog post, citing the challenges of the Second World War when its St James’ building at street level was gutted but cellars left unscathed.
“For the next four years the business was managed with the help of a greatly reduced staff. It cannot have been much fun. Rationing, regulations, the need to disappoint customers, and all sorts of other shortages and privations, though bearable taken one at a time, added up to misery in total: the only alleviation was in reflecting that nothing goes on forever.
“And so we find ourselves now, in the midst of a very different type of crisis. Our experience, however, tells us that we can make it through these trying times as well. We are lucky to work with an extraordinary team and to have customers who understand the challenges that businesses are faced with during these times. I have been humbled by the messages of support and the displays of solidarity. We are very much looking forward to the day when the shutters can come down again and life can return to No.3 St James’s Street. In the meantime, we will hold strong and remind ourselves that nothing goes on forever.”
BBR has in recent weeks made charitable donations to support staff initiatives at two of our local NHS hospitals – Basingstoke and London’s St Georges, the Drinks Trust’s Covid-19 Relief Fund and donated stock for the Worshipful Company of Distillers fundraising auction. It has also made a donation to City Harvest appeal, being supported by the Vintners Company and is supporting the NHS Charities Together Covid-19 Urgent Appeal with a charity case of wine, donating £25 of the proceeds of each case.
“No one really knows yet what the ‘new normal’ will look like but we, like all other businesses, will need to be on our toes and in a position to adapt quickly,” adds Pardoe.
Honourable mentions: Classic merchants based outside of London
While not based in London, we felt these stalwarts of wine retail deserved to be mentioned as classics in their own right.
Founded: 1842 Location: HQ in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, with two shops in Shrewsbury, and others in Chester, Bridgenorth, Hereford, Welshpool and Llandudno. Turnover: 2019 £21.1m vs. £20.5m in 2018 (up 3.2%)
Tanners was founded in 1842 and remains family owned and “fiercely independent”. Tanners’ chairman, James Tanner, is the 4th generation of his family to run the business from its head office in Shrewsbury. Tanners currently stocks around 1,200 wines from 20 countries, 60% of which it sells to hotels, restaurants and pubs and 40% to private customers across the UK. It operates six retail branches and modern temperature-controlled warehouses in Welshpool and Llandudno, as well as an online shop.
Averys of Bristol
Founded: 1793 Location: Flagship shop in Culver Street, Bristol Turnover: 2019 £12.9 vs. £12.4m in 2018 (up 4%)
With a history spanning 227 years, Averys is one of the oldest merchants in the UK, but its success really began with third generation Ronald Avery. Upon joining the business in 1923, he began travelling to wine estates during the 1920s to source wines direct, rather than taking the more common route of buying from an agent. Later, Ronald became one of the early champions of right-bank Bordeaux, listing Petrus and Cheval Blanc. Ronald son, John Avery, later continued this ethos, bringing both Californian, Australian and New Zealand wines to the fore of its selection. Today, Averys of Bristol is run under the guardianship of fifth generation, Mimi Avery, John’s daughter, selling wines from its historic vaulted cellar and shop in Culver Street, Bristol, as well as online.
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