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December 15, 2016updated 23 Jun 2022 10:24am

How Britain’s oldest wine merchant is helping the time-poor, cash-rich to buy wine

By Olenka Hamilton

Olenka Hamilton had lunch with Berry Bros & Rudd’s Simon Staples and Hugo Thompson to discuss increasing demand from HNWs and UHNWs for a service that is truly personal 

Berry Bros & Rudd’s Simon Staples is, both physically and figuratively speaking, a giant of the fine-wine world. Jovial, jocular and disarmingly self-deprecating, he also goes by a witty moniker – Big Si The Wine Guy – which, when you meet him, makes perfect sense.

Staples invented the famous ‘Extraordinary Claret’, the younger, but no less delicious or successful, brother of the original ‘Good Ordinary Claret’, and both are now staples (get it?) at the most sophisticated Sunday lunch parties in the land, including chez Big Si. ‘The premise was that Berry Brothers would go to producers each year for something special, but we’ve actually had the same one for twelve years now- it’s so good you can’t replicate it, from a very famous French chateau. It’s what I drink at home, rather than Italian wine,’ says the half-Sicilian Staples under his breath as we are lunching at Franco’s on Jermyn St, where little other than Italian wine is on offer.

Staples admits he is still waiting for his eureka moment as far as his countrymen’s wine is concerned. ‘It’s not mellow or fruity,’ he complains, but concedes the white we have ordered is drinkable. When it comes to his favourites though, it’s red all the way, and especially Burgundy which is all the more pleasing, he says, given it took ten years for it ‘click’. ‘My head belongs to Bordeaux, but my heart’s with Burgundy – when it’s on fire, it’s amazing,’ he says.

Staples is an institution within an institution, a stalwart of Britain’s oldest and best known wine merchant which dates back to 1698. He started out as a wine waiter in a hotel in Henley – ‘I absolutely blagged it’ – before moving to the Harrod’s wine department, and finally Berry Bros &Rudd. At the firm for twenty years now, he made his name growing the brand in mainland China and later Japan, from where he has returned to look after the wine merchant’s most discerning HNW and UHNW clientele, a new role which we have met to discuss.

Joining us for lunch is former publican Hugo Thompson, private client manager at Berry Bros & Rudd, who started working for the firm in Singapore in 2012 during which period he got to know Staples. ‘He’s very much old school. He has an amazing reputation – a big personality as well as a big human being. I managed to ask him enough times for a job and eventually he said yes,’ says Thompson, clearly excited to be in the role, and to be part of a double act with Staples, who would be anyone’s favourite partner in crime.

The pair aims to take care of around a 100 customers each at any one time, a significant reduction from a regular wine sales team which could be looking after up to 1000. Clients are a range of drinkers, drinker/collectors and investors, and all are private individuals. Staples says it’s about spending more time with those customers who have financial means as well as an interest in wine but who don’t necessarily have the time to get the most out it. At the moment, Staples’ clients mostly come from Hong Kong and Japan, while Thompson’s are largely from Singapore and Malaysia. The fall in the pound following Brexit has certainly been positive in the short term at least, they agree, with a surge in interest from international clients.

Spend has increased dramatically since Staples and Thompson have got on the case. Knowing your customers is the key, says Staples: ‘I don’t think I’ve not met any of them’. Likewise Thompson, who says many of his customers have become friends over time, advocates getting to know the client: ‘It’s not a matter of meeting them Monday, and they’re involved on Tuesday – it’s about building a relationship over time. And it involves the odd lunch,’ he smiles. ‘We’re already working with far fewer customers, and they’re getting a much more interesting experience as a result. We spend hours on their account, rather than minutes or just a phone call.’ Because so much of their contact happens over email as clients spend so much time busy working, abroad or both, Staples and Thompson relish the chance to get them in for wine-tastings and suppers in their miraculous cellars, and their majestic and recently refurbished twelve-seater dining room in St James’s. Needless to say, it’s a unique experience, not least because the firm boasts more Masters of Wine – they have seven at the moment – than any other wine merchant.

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It’s not that Berry Bros & Rudd haven’t always been devoted to their customers, Staples stresses. ‘We were doing it before, but we’re just doing it better. All it is is time.’ He mentions the service he gave one client recently, spending a day on their account identifying and selling £200,000 worth of wine. ‘There were things we could do better than a computer can,’ he says. And clearly no machine has his well-tuned nose and taste buds: ‘I might say, “look, I think this 2003 Lafite might be a little bit toxic,” so I’m saying to my clients to get out now and use the money to buy some Burgundy.’

Private client departments, or versions of them, are popping up in every industry due to an increasing expansion of HNW wealth across the world. Fine wine has also finally made a comeback after a crash in 2011 caused by an oversupply in Asia, with more and more HNWIs looking at it as an investment, and for good reason: crises aside, BI estimate wine averages a long-run return of almost 10% per annum. Staples agrees, adding that wine investment continues to be popular largely because of the fact that wine is capital gains and inheritance tax free. ‘I only invest in wine. I know more about it and I feel comfortable with it, but the tax is a big part of it too. Someday I’ll liquidate half of it, hopefully drink the rest if I don’t die.’

But he’s realistic: ‘If you’re interested and you like wine, this is something you should look at. If it’s just cold, hard investment, there are probably other things that are more lucrative.’ He is firm that Berry Bros & Rudd is a wine merchant and nothing else, and a strengthened private client offering isn’t going to change that. But if you love wine, or you want to love wine, you’ll struggle to find a better mentor than Staples, whose passion for the tipple is equaled only by his knowledge of it and his experience in the industry.

Over our plates of Sicilian prawn and pea Ravioli, and an Italian red that’s ‘a little raw on the nose’, I ask for some words of wisdom. All roads lead to reds it seems (apart from Italian that is): ‘Champagne’s there to get onto the whites, which are there to get through to the reds, and that’s where it gets interesting. That’s the truth,’ says Staples, and for going back to basics he recommends starting with New Zealand Pinot Noirs, while a bottle of Bordeaux starting from £20 is almost guaranteed to be ‘delicious’. Tread carefully with Burgundy unless you know your stuff, and if you must, go for whites which become drinkable at around the £15 mark. And he really, really wants to like Italian wines: ‘I want to have this moment with Italian wine where I get it, but I just haven’t had that yet,’ he says with a sigh: characteristically honest and solid advice from one of the wine world’s true bastions.

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