If you have even a passing interest in wine, you will have noticed some dramatic changes over the past few years. Your favourite wine may have doubled or more in price while remaining of exactly the same quality. Your favourite restaurant may no longer be stocking your preferred little producer of Burgundy because they can’t get hold of it anymore. And if you are fortunate enough to hold your own private stock of good wine, you had better get it revalued for the insurance, because it might be worth a lot more than it was a few years back when you bought it. Partly, the boom is due to wine now being perceived as a legitimate alternative asset class by many investors. Joe Roseman, an analyst who used to work for the respected American investor Louis Bacon’s Moore Capital, recently coined the term SWAG for the new asset classes – silver, wine, art and gold. There are dozens of funds that will invest your assets in wine for you, and prices have been driven up concomitantly.
But new asset classes do not spring up without demand, and the demand for wine has been stoked by the rise of China as the world’s dominant luxury goods market and by the happy coincidence that Hong Kong, the main gateway for wine into China, charges no import taxes on wine. Other rising luxury markets in the former Soviet Union and Brazil have also had an effect, but the upper echelons of Chinese society have developed a very involved love affair with top French wines in particular, which have seen hallowed brands such as Château Lafite and Château Mouton-Rothschild tailor their labels to the Chinese market. Meantime, more than 30 Bordeaux châteaux have been purchased by Chinese buyers during the past five years.
A Chinese purchaser even recently managed to buy a renowned property in Burgundy, traditionally the most closed and insular of French wine regions in which purchases by incomers from the next province are greeted with horror, let alone by incomers from the other side of the world. The Château de Gevrey-Chambertin is now owned by Louis Ng, the chief operating officer of Macau-based casino and hotel empire SJM Holdings and one of China’s most renowned wine collectors. The xenophobic French National Front party has been making political capital out of the purchase; more level-headed observers point out that the Château and its vineyards are rundown and in severe need of investment, which Ng is providing by the millions.
The revolution in the high-end wine world has, therefore, hit everything from the vineyards to the price you pay for your favourite vintage of Château Lynch-Bages at Marcus Wareing. But for most consumers and collectors, it has not had any effect at all on one key aspect: wine retail. If you want to buy fine wine, you still have exactly the same avenues open to you as 10 or 50 years ago: you can walk into the generally rather uninspiring surroundings of a wine shop and be hit by a wall of wine-speak from a (usually) patronising young staff member. Or, for harder-to-find wines or bigger purchases, you deal with a big merchant and have your case delivered to you by a man in a truck.
Now all of that has just changed. If you take a left out of Claridge’s and walk down Davies Street, just after Cipriani and before the Porsche showroom, you will be greeted by a spectacular façade entitled ‘Hedonism’. Your first thought might be that it is a gallery. Walk inside, to be greeted by an attractive young woman or man, smiling (not a frequent occurrence in Mayfair luxury retail) and holding a pashmina for you to wear, and you realise that Hedonism is something else.
The decor in Hedonism is ultracontemporary: bare stone walls in places, long oak tables, plenty of glass and lacquered woods. Glasses hang from the ceiling like a chandelier; in one spot a glass floor allows a view down to an art installation on the floor below. The pashminas are offered because the entire two-floor space is chilled and humidified to wine’s perfect storage conditions: every bottle at Hedonism is stored perfectly, even if it is on a display.
And despite the decor, the wine is what Hedonism is all about. Any thoughts that this might be an indulgence of form over function are quickly dispelled. Hedonism’s 3,500 different labels are a wine-lover’s dream come true. The ground floor is all about champagne, white wine and spirits – there is a range of fine and rare whiskies, cognacs, gins and grappas to match anywhere in the world. The basement is where thousands of more spectacular whites and the world’s greatest reds are stocked.
Hedonism is not a wine store or a wine museum: it is a reference for the world’s most brilliant wines, without fear or favour to any one region
And its brilliance lies in the sheer imagination of its ambition. Hedonism is a place where the accountants really did write the cheques that the dreamers demanded. Any wine lover can challenge a wine store with an increasingly difficult set of demands for wines – the point where they don’t have it in stock but ‘can see if we can get hold of it for you’ is where you have caught them out, because they would likely be ordering it from the same online sources available to you.
I never got to that point at Hedonism. Every good or great vintage of Lafite, Latour, Petrus, Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc, going back to 1961? Check. That’s stage one, which anyone with a wallet can stock. Next, all the great producers, crus, and vintages of the most renowned Burgundy producers: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leroy, Rousseau, Coche-Dury, De Vogüé, Mugnier, Ponsot and the like? Check, again. This is harder, because these wines are made in tiny quantities, and even with the knowledge and an endless budget they are hard to find.
Italian wine is a rapidly rising category among collectors in China and elsewhere.
Does Hedonism stock the best vintages of big names such as Masseto and Sassicaia, as well as more esoteric wines like Redigaffi’s silken Tua Rita and Castello dei Rampolla’s Vigna d’Alceo, among many others? It does. You can even have Masseto – the most desirable Italian wine – by the bottle, magnum or double magnum.
Picking through this museum of fine wine (a museum where you can buy and drink the exhibits), a thought crossed my mind. One of the most obscure legendary wines in the world, a kind of Holy Grail for the most serious collectors and a mark of really knowing your stuff, is a wine called VosneRomanée Cros-Parantoux made by Henri Jayer, the now-deceased guru of modern Burgundian winemaking. The 1990 vintage of this wine – indeed, any vintage of it – is not just expensive, it is near impossible to find. I remembered reading, a few months before, about some of the 1990 that had sold at auction to a mystery buyer. It was such a rare event that it was news in the wine world. Was it here? ‘Yes, here it is,’ said a sales assistant, cheerfully. ‘Lots of people want to look at that one. We sold the other bottle last week.’
‘We wanted to open the best wine shop with the best selection of wines it is possible to take now, not wait two weeks or six weeks’
At that stage, I was willing to grant that Hedonism had passed my wine test, but the place had not done with me yet. It didn’t just want to pass: it wanted to defeat me, humiliatingly – in the nicest possible way, of course.
Californian wine is something of an enigma in the broader wine world. The top California cult wines never see the shops: they are purchased by American collectors who have their names at the top of the estates’ mailing lists, in allocations of three or six. Other California wines with near-perfect ratings by critics like the über-influential Robert Parker sometimes leak out onto the retail market and are attracting increasing attention from a Russian market that appears to like their rich, concentrated flavours. Either way, whether you are in San Francisco or Moscow, you are unlikely to find a good selection of the top wines in any physical place.
But they are all at Hedonism. Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Colgin, Araujo? Check, every time, in a display that would send a California entertainment tycoon’s heart aflutter. (Getting all these wines in one place is like putting together one of those Vanity Fair shoots with A-list celebrities: you can’t believe they are all actually there.) The obscure but fulsome 100-point Robert Parker wine from Washington State, Quilceda Creek? Present and correct. Completely wacky cult wine like Sine Qua Non? Not only here, but on display in various vintages and labels in its own room, the Sine Qua Non Vault.
And then Hedonism defeated me. There was Cayuse Bionic Frog 2006. What’s that? Only a 99/100 Parker-rated organic wine from Washington State. A salamanzar (nine litres or 12 bottles, in a bottle) of Schrader’s 2006 T6 cabernet sauvignon – quite likely the only one on sale anywhere in the world – from my favourite single vineyard in Napa, Andy Beckstoffer’s To Kalon vineyard. Would you like that gift-wrapped?Hedonism is not a wine store, or a wine museum: it is a reference for the world’s most brilliant wines, without fear or favour to any one region. And it is the brainchild of a man who, by his own admission, is ‘not a wine specialist’. Its peerless selection of champagnes – as impressive for the champagne connoisseur as the California wines are to the Napa geek – was bought under the auspices of someone who says, ‘I don’t drink champagne.’ In that, it is a complete departure from any wine retailer I have ever heard of – wine stores are usually set up by merchants, importers or connoisseurs.
Yevgeny Chichvarkin looks relaxed, playful and chic as we chat at one of his long wooden tables. ‘My background is retail,’ he says. He speaks slightly halting but enthusiastic English with a layer of his native Moscow. ‘I started buying and selling when it was real Soviet Union: clothes, alcohol, chocolate… Then when I finished academy, I joined my friend in his little mobile phone shop, selling phones and accessories. I came for one week and stayed 12 years.’
The little mobile phone shop turned into an empire of retail stores in Russia and the CIS countries of the former Soviet Union: among them were all the Vertu mobile phone stores in Russia. ‘It was my idea to bring Vertu to Russia, to put diamonds in, to work with the jewellery companies and push Vertu to do something extremely top level and create the most expensive mobile phone in the world.’ And then, in 2008, ‘We were… we had to… we sold it for big, big discount.’ It is a common tale in Russia and although Chichvarkin is smiling, I know not to probe further.
Like many of his countrymen, he moved to London, and pondered his next move. ‘I am in retail, and I was thinking what is a good business for me. Whenever I tried to buy wine I never found top-level customer service, and I thought, it’s a good opportunity to open the best wine shop with the best service in the world, with the best selection of wines that it is possible to take now, not wait two weeks or six weeks.
‘And I thought we should take a lot of wine from the New World, not just Bordeaux and Burgundy, and put some top spirits in the same place, and to make the customer feel like they are in wine and spirit paradise.’
In between the idea and the execution was the hiring of Alistair Viner, then head of Harrods’ fine wine department and a man with peerless contacts in the fine wine world, as their head buyer; and of Tatiana Fokina, a fellow Russian with perfect English, as the retail manager. She is sitting by Chichvarkin throughout our interview – I can’t work out whether they are a couple – and says that she shared his views on customer service in her adopted homeland. ‘Retail in the UK and particularly wine retail was lacking service and a particular type of experience, and when Alistair came on board he shared our views – we were all on the same wavelength.’
After they found the site – formerly home to a restaurant and a grocery store – they subjected it to a multimillion-pound rebuild and started acquiring the stock that would establish their legend. How much did it all cost? I ask Chichvarkin. A smile. He’s not telling. Can he at least give me a ballpark? ‘Eight digits, sterling,’ he says. That’s between £10 million and £100 million. That’s a lot for wine. And then there are the staff: professional, gentle, not patronising – you pay a premium for that in the wine world. ‘We are a little bit crazy about customer service,’ says Chichvarkin.Chichvarkin and Fokina are a little bit crazy about many things, which is probably why they created what they have when nobody else did. On leaving, chilled like a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne, I reflect: it has taken a Russian mobile phone tycoon to create the greatest wine shop in the world in the heart of London, the historical home of fine wine. Times are changing.3-7 Davies Street, London W1; hedonism.co.uk