Top 5 London wine merchants: The classics

Corney & Barrow

Corney & Barrow’s London headquarters

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.”

One Response to “Top 5 London wine merchants: The classics”

  1. John Edwards says:

    Lea and Sandeman seems a glaring omission?

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