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Open all hours: a new era for fine wine and spirits retailing

Fresh retail ventures from Sotheby’s, Berry Bros. & Rudd and Justerini & Brooks are testament to the changing relationship between traditional wine and spirits businesses and their customers, as Richard Woodard discovers. 

From the ecommerce boom to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s been a tough period for bricks and mortar retail, but high-end wine and spirits businesses are bucking the negative trend and unveiling new boutiques aimed at serving – and expanding – their clientele.

Over the past nine months, auction house Sotheby’s has opened a new Sotheby’s Salon within high-end Zurich watch store Bucherer, while in London both Berry Bros. & Rudd and Justerini & Brooks have launched ventures that signal a fresh approach from two merchants with centuries of history behind them.

The Sotheby’s outlet – located on the third floor of Bucherer, on Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s premier shopping street – is described as a “cross-category salon”, involving watches, jewellery, leather goods, fine art – and wine and spirits.

The concept reflects a couple of the priorities outlined by Nick Pegna when he took over as Sotheby’s global head of wine & spirits last year: taking on a more holistic role to serve the needs of the company’s clients, and encouraging cross-fertilisation between different luxury areas.

“Our partnership with Bucherer is to align ourselves further in the luxury field, leaning on their market-leading reputation for watches and bringing our wine and spirit experience together,” Pegna explains. “Our clients are very happy to come to the Salon to taste and meet wine producers, and they have formed a convivial group.”

Wine and spirits activities are focused on the Salon Wine Caveau space, which hosts tastings and features library vintages usually reserved for long-term preferred clients. “Rather than the experience of visiting a traditional wine merchant, the Caveau looks and feels like entering the world-class cellar of an expert collector, with rare bottlings from quintessential producers such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Coche-Dury, Krug, Petrus, Château Mouton, Ornellaia, Vega Sicilia and Screaming Eagle,” says Vanessa Conlin, Sotheby’s global head of wine retail.

That sense of bringing a more contemporary edge to a traditional business is also very much to the fore at  Berry Bros. & Rudd’s first standalone spirits store on the corner of St James’s Street and Pall Mall, which opened in April this year. The airy, welcoming space, with barrel staves suspended from the ceiling, encourages browsing of the almost 1,000 products on display.

Berry Bros. & Rudd has opened its first spirits shop

That’s three times the number of spirit skus that had been stocked by the old wine and spirits store, says shop manager George Turner – and, where the old outlet was Scotch-dominant (at about 70% of lines), the extra space enables a deeper exploration of today’s spirits scene.

There’s a cabinet of vintage Armagnacs from Nismes-Delclou spanning 1893 to 1997, a no/low section, and a refrigerated selection of sake – a real growth area for the business and, says Turner, “a great bridging-point between wine and spirits for us”.

The size and diversity of the agave spirits section reflects the current boom in interest in high-end Tequila and mezcal – something Turner partly attributes to the growth of Mexican cuisine in the UK, rather than celebrity endorsements – and rum is another “really, really exciting” area that is well-represented in the new store.

Speaking a month after opening, Turner says: “We’ve found a lot of new customers engaging with us who didn’t know we had spirits. This space gives us the opportunity to tell the stories of these products – and we’re also wanting to give people the opportunity to find something within their price range, whether that’s £50 or £50,000.”

A more inclusive approach is also part of the thinking behind Justerini & Brooks’ new store in the glamorous surroundings of Burlington Arcade, off Piccadilly. The space – which includes a ground-floor retail area, a first-floor tasting lounge and a basement whisky room – can accommodate 80 wine references (seven by the glass in the lounge) out of the merchant’s total of 7,000 bins.

Justerini and Brooks’ new shop in Picadilly

“That forces us to be dynamic,” says buying director Giles Burke-Gaffney. “It’s changing all the time – it just reflects our portfolio and the producers we work with. There are some wonderful wines at £15 a bottle, but of course there are also magical bottles out there that happen to cost the earth – everything from £22 to £5,000, and we really would consider all of those fine wines.”

The store had a “very soft” opening in March, and the company has been learning as it goes. “It started off as a retail idea, but now it’s also on-premise,” explains Burke-Gaffney, referring to the upstairs lounge. “The idea is that it’s not just a transactional retail exercise – it brings more people to us as they walk up and down the Arcade.”

The more relaxed, unstuffy feel of all of these outlets is in some ways a reflection of the shifting demographic in the fine wine and spirits market, with younger consumers increasingly to the fore. Burke-Gaffney describes the Burlington Arcade environment as “high-end, but quite contemporary high-end”, but he also emphasises that the new store does not signal a radical change for a business currently celebrating its 275th anniversary.

“That old model for us as a wine merchant is still massively important,” he says. “And we have no intention of being noisy either – but rather of just telling our story in a softly-spoken way.”

It’s early days for all three retail ventures, but Sotheby’s for one has already voiced confidence in the future success of its Salon concept, Pegna outlining plans to open something similar in the company’s Paris office, and within its new Maison in Hong Kong, before the end of 2024 – to be followed by another Salon within Sotheby’s new home in the Brauer building in New York in 2025.

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