When Grant Ashton describes the genesis of his business it reminds me of a line spoken by Richard E Grant in Withnail and I. The way Ashton tells it, he has built an international private members’ club for wine lovers – by mistake. (Withnail, by contrast, only managed to go on holiday by mistake.)
On a Zoom call from Singapore, the former City trader explains that, being in possession of a ‘decent-sized’ wine collection, he had planned to open ‘a small wine bar’ or restaurant – somewhere to keep his own bottles and invite friends. This, he reasoned, would give him and those friends a place to go to enjoy seriously smart wine without paying the exorbitant mark-ups of three or four hundred per cent that are charged by many restaurants.
This is not exactly what happened, however.
When Ashton was looking for a location for his small wine bar, he came across the Edwin Lutyens-designed building – 67 Pall Mall – that would eventually provide his club’s name. He knew this was the place, despite the fact it had been empty for a decade or more. So when Westminster Council initially refused his application to open a restaurant on the site, he made a proposal to open a members’ club. This was granted, and he was off to the races.
Ashton, it seems, does not do things by halves. When 67 Pall Mall opened in 2015, the 17,000 sq ft building became home to 26,000 bottles of wine, 12,000 hand-blown crystal glasses by the Austrian company Zalto, the biggest wine list in the UK (at 4,000 wines) and the largest selection of wines by the glass (800) anywhere in the world. His children, he says, jokingly describe his failure to keep a lid on his ambitions as ‘an epic fail’.
The club has achieved his vision of allowing people to drink excellent wine in convivial surroundings without paying punitive prices. Its wines have nothing like the mark-ups applied by restaurants, and members can store their own bottles on the premises, where they are kept at between 13 and 14°C in a vault used by the building’s previous occupier, Hambros Bank. Corkage is just £20 per bottle, meaning that revenue for the business comes largely from membership dues, which are £2,000 for the year (on top of a £1,500 joining fee).
The London club wasn’t the end of the matter, however. Ashton and I speak just three days before the launch of 67’s new outpost in Singapore. Spread over the 27th and 28th floors of the Shaw Centre on the Orchard Road it boasts a 1,000-bottle, 6m-tall wine tower and an intimate whisky lounge.
This expansion is part of an ambitious strategy that will see new clubs open in major cities (‘we’re looking at places like Sydney, Melbourne, Tokyo and Shanghai’) as well as in wine-producing regions. Talks are at an advanced stage for a club in Beaune in Burgundy and there may be another in Napa Valley.
Having sketched out this strategy, Ashton does admit that 67’s other new club, in Verbier, which I visited in February, is something of an exception to the rule. (There is excellent Swiss wine, which Ashton champions, although the vines grow at lower altitudes.)
It is in a prime location on the high street of the Swiss ski town – just up from the famous boutique hotel, the Farinet. The interior of the club feels both luxurious and robust – which is just as well, since members are able to clomp in straight from the slopes. There is also a ski-centric gym on site, from where the British ski coach par excellence Warren Smith runs sessions and clinics. So this is not a wine club that just happens to be in a ski town, but rather a true product of its environment.
A certain unstuffiness is part of the charm. The staff wear their deep oenological knowledge lightly but it is always there. The wine writer Jancis Robinson has remarked that 67 Pall Mall is one of the few places where the list will be given to her – rather than her husband.
This level of service was in evidence when I visited. As I tasted the 22-year-old Margaux that accompanied our fondue, it was hard to escape the conclusion that, as mistakes go, Ashton’s has turned out rather well.
Image: 67 Pall Mall