For 316 years, this venerable Mayfair wine merchant has had its shopfront at the prestigious No. 3 St James’s Street, opposite St James’s Palace (one of the oldest palaces in London) in Pall Mall.

Its Georgian facade, replete with elegant arched windows and heavy front doors decorated with elaborate pilasters, is sombre. Inside, every bit of the dourness synonymous with English wine merchants of old has been preserved – high panelled walls carved from dark wood; worn, uneven floors; shelves of giant ledgers and high desks; and scant bottles on display.

The reputation of Berry Bros & Rudd (BBR) as a supplier to the royal family since the reign of King George III also goes some way, perhaps, in fomenting its imperiousness. After all, the list of gilded luminaries who have passed through the doors of No. 3 over the years includes the likes of Lord Byron and William Pitt the Younger.

And the company has no shortage of colourful tales from over the centuries to roll out: wines carried on board the Titanic, supplying American alcohol smugglers during the Prohibition era, and sheltering Napolean III’s wine collection in the cellars beneath the shop being just some.

Yet, for all its formidable associations, and the fact that BBR prides itself on dealing in some of the most expensive wines in the world (mainly Bordeaux and Burgundy grand crus), the man behind the company maintains that price is not everything.

“Everything one should look for in a wine or spirit comes down to one simple question: ‘Is it good to drink?’” says Simon Berry, chairman of BBR and part of the seventh generation running the business owned by members of the Berry and Rudd families.

“Occasionally buy something that’s a quarter the price (of what you usually purchase) but interesting,” he advocates. “If you believe that just because you can afford the best, you have to drink the best, you’re cutting yourself off from a whole world of interesting wines.”

Simon Berry is part of the seventh generation to run the business owned by the Berry and Rudd families.
Simon Berry is part of the seventh generation to
run the business owned by the Berry and Rudd families.

Given Berry’s philosophy on the relationship between price and quality, it is thus a misconception that everything at BBR goes only for a king’s ransom. He explains: “Two selections, at random, from our Burgundy list might be a zippy and lip-smackingly fresh Maison Roche de Bellene that would give you change from a £20 note, or a £118 bottle from premier-league appellation Charmes-Chambertin.”

The same egalitarian ethos will ring true for BBR’s first dedicated tasting room in Singapore, scheduled to open in a historic part of Chinatown early this month. According to Nicolas Pegna, director of BBR in South-east Asia, the company’s latest overseas outpost that will house the Berry Bros & Rudd wine school will allow wine collectors to taste and learn about wines, and discuss its range of over 400 wines in Singapore, in addition to the 4,800 carried in Europe.

RENEWING A FAMILY BUSINESS

Given its long, successful history, it would have been easy for BBR to be entrenched in the past.

Instead, the firm constantly innovates. The later half of the 20th century marked the expansion of BBR’s traditional retail format into a mail-order business. In 1967, BBR became the first independent wine merchant to build temperature- controlled wine cellars. Now, these cellars – including a state-of-the-art warehouse opened in 2012 – hold nine million bottles in bond for customers who treat wine as an investment.

Today, the company’s driving force for change is Berry, who has been at the helm for the past nine years. On his initiative, in 1994, BBR pummelled its competitors to become the first wine merchant to create a website, bbr.com, which has since won a slew of awards.

While BBR remains a predominantly mail-order business, Berry regards new technology as an opportunity. Indeed, the Internet changed the company fundamentally. He says: “The Web has made wine more democratic. It offers customers who are fearful of seeming ignorant grateful anonymity. In cyberspace, nobody sees you blush. You can ask questions on a computer screen.”

In addition to bbr.com, members of Berry’s team have also embraced blogging and social networking. BBR’s app, recommended as one of the “10 wine apps to help you buy the perfect bottle” by The Guardian last year, is no less impressive, allowing one to search through a vast list of 2,000 bottles from around the world (particularly the European classics).

Berrys’ Broking Exchange (BBX) made its debut on the website in 2010. Touted as an “eBay for fine wines”, BBX allows customers around the world to sell and buy wines stored privately in the temperature-controlled cellars in Basingstoke 24 hours a day.

As early as the 1990s, the new generation of leaders, including Berry, saw it prudent to expand overseas and forged the company’s first presence in Asia in Hong Kong, followed by Japan. The alcohol merchant reportedly spent more than £3 million (S$6.3 million) recently, opening wholly owned companies in Hong Kong and Singapore to take advantage of a growing interest in fine wines in Asia. This is part of a £25-million five-year overhaul to refocus its strategy on premium spirits and grow its wine business in Asia.

Berry believes that 50 per cent of its business will come from Asia in the next 10 years, with South Korea and Taiwan becoming important markets.

He also observes that the flagship London store is attracting a growing number of Chinese and Hong Kong customers in recent years. More crucially, the Asian customers at the London shop not only bought wines for investment or drinking, but also wanted to learn more about them. “They are experimenting. In Singapore, our Burgundy list exceeds that of Bordeaux. Nowhere else in the world is this happening.

“There is a genuine thirst for knowledge about wines. That is why we decided to establish our own fully owned operations in Hong Kong and Singapore, as a basis for further investment and to raise the bar even higher on service levels. It is definitely a sign of our strong commitment to the region.”

With China being the eighth-largest producer of wine in the world, BBR got ahead of the curve by being the first British retailer to give wines from China a permanent place on its shelves in London last year, alongside some of the finest wines from around the world.

BBR’s flagship London store increasingly sees Asian customers wanting to learn more about wine.
BBR’s flagship London store increasingly sees Asian customers wanting to learn more about wine.

All these achievements are plenty for somebody who, despite coming from a family entrenched in the wine business, had initially considered a career as a thespian and joined a local theatre troupe. He quickly grew out of that fantasy and started working his way up the grapevine, starting with stints at French wineries such as Moet & Chandon in Champagne, Maison M. Chapoutier in the Rhone, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in Bordeaux, and Prosper Maufoux in Burgundy. He went on to earn his wine and marketing qualifications before formally joining the family business in 1977, and his involvement of over 30 years is a clear demonstration of his commitment.

To the question of whether the Berry and Rudd families would be willing to sell the business one day, a quick, sharp “no” is the response. Berry smiles and says: “What would we do with the money?”