Desert Island Wines

We enjoy a glass or two with wine expert Simon Berry, chairman of Berry Bros & Rudd

THE BOTTLE OPENER
bottle.opener@cityam.com

There can be few better ways to pass the time than sharing a few glasses of wine with Simon Berry, the endlessly convivial chairman of Berry Bros & Rudd, Britain’s oldest and grandest wine merchant.

To keep him on his toes, before I saw him I explained this was going to be an interview with a difference: we were going to play a sort of vinous Desert Island Discs, with Berry picking three of his favourite wines.

It turns out Simon has always wanted to be on Desert Island Discs (and why they haven’t asked him yet, Lord knows), so he rises to the challenge with enthusiasm.

His earliest wine memory? “I suppose I must have been four or five. It was Christmas at our home in Chelsea, one of the few times we had wine as a family because when you are in the trade you drink it at lunch with your clients. I remember my father saying ‘would you like some of this Jolly Boys wine’. Of course, it was Beaujolais – he had silly names for everything. I think it was watered down as well but I remember it was very grand and grown up.”

Simon was born into a family whose wine business dates back to 1698, so you would think he was always determined to follow the tradition. “Not a bit of it,” he says. “I really wanted to act. I wanted to write, to do something more creative. I took myself off after college and worked in various places – and gradually found that the world was full of ghastly people. When I did join Berry Bros, I realised this business is about so much more than fermented grape juice. There is a theatre to it and you can be creative within it. You can be both a moderniser and a traditionalist.”

This really encapsulates Simon’s eight year tenure as chairman. He has retained the historic theatre of the firm. You can still go into the 17th century shop in St James’s to be weighed and buy your weight in champagne. But behind the scenes he has been a relentless moderniser, a stance that rattled his elders and betters. Thanks to Simon, Berry Bros was an internet pioneer (this is why it has the cherished short domain name of www.bbr.com). The firm has also been at the vanguard of the vast new markets in China and Russia.

This brings us nicely to wine number one in our Desert Island Wines. True to form, his choice is unpredictable: a white St Joseph, Les Paradis St Pierre from Domaine Coursodon, a Rhone wine made almost wholly from Marsanne grapes. It is full, powerful and wonderfully complex, and an engagingly unusual choice. “When Thomas Jefferson was in France writing about wine two hundred years ago, he wrote about Hermitage wines like this. He practically passed over Bordeaux.”

How about the best wine he has ever drunk? Here Simon falters. Perhaps it is the ‘66 Chateau Lafite, which was served at his second wedding, he muses.

“No, I’ve got it! One of my great friends was Peter Sichel, who owned part of Chateau Palmer. He was a mentor to me. He and I were members of the Saintsbury dining club and the entry fee was a case of claret. He had given us a case of ‘61 Palmer, his father’s last vintage and one that Berry Bros had bottled.

“Many years later, before a dinner in 1997, he said: ‘I think it is about time we drank the ‘61.’ It was the most perfect glass of claret – it wouldn’t have been as good a week earlier or a week later. Peter died soon after.”

Wine number two? This one is to be expected – Berry’s Extraordinary Claret, which regular readers of this column will know is already a favourite of mine. “I chose this because it is really my wine. Berry’s had been selling Good Ordinary Claret for years but I had the idea for something more – something for people who would spend a little more but get a lot more.

“When I suggested it, the board thought it was a ridiculous idea and turned it down. It was only 15 years later when the team came to me and suggested it that I said ‘but that was my idea’.”

Extraordinary Claret is a lovely drop, with all the gravelly minerality you’d expect from a Graves, finished off with plums. Made by the Cazes family, it is indeed a lot of wine for a modest price.

Would he like to have been a winemaker himself? “No. You have to be so dedicated, it is a vocation. I love great food but I wouldn’t want to be a chef.”

On to wine number three. Like the others, this mixes great wine with fond memories and again it is a surprising choice – that combination of innovation and tradition. It is Paul Draper’s Lytton Spring 2007 from the Ridge winery in California. This is made, surprisingly, from mostly Zinfandel, with a little Petite Syrah.

“For me, Paul is the ultimate winemaker. He experiments with every single wine he makes. This Lytton Springs is up there with the great wines I’ve tasted and it just keeps getting better.”

In fact this is the one Simon would keep if there was only room for one on his desert island (“I could drink it now or in 20 years”).

After an evening in his company, I can think of worse people to be stranded with on a desert island. Thank God acting didn’t take him – the wine trade would be a poorer place without Simon Berry.