Simon Berry interview

  • Monday 24 May 2010

Head of the UK’s best-known wine merchant, Simon Berry has much to say on Bordeaux prices, the market and Robert Parker. By Margaret rand

How often have you driven a Ferrari?’ asks Simon Berry. The question is rhetorical (I haven’t, ever). I’d asked if there was a chance first-growth claret might ever be affordable again by Brits earning less than £1m a year. Okay, it was a silly question. The trouble is that top Bordeaux turned from a wine lover’s treat to a luxury item so recently that we still enjoy being shocked by it.

I can’t begin to tell you how much a Ferrari costs – it’s irrelevant – but I can have a great time being horrified by the price of Cheval Blanc. Berry, of Berry Bros & Rudd, Britain’s oldest (est 1698) wine merchant, is more pragmatic. ‘If we have a world which, by and large, is getting richer, and if [the rich] decide to drink nothing but the most expensive wine…

The everyday wines of today are better than those of the 1970s. I don’t accept that every wine is necessarily better, but the top châteaux are making less wine than they did, and focus on quality. And as long as they do that… You can’t change market forces.’

Berry is a good one to talk on market forces because Berry Bros ignored them for so long. Until the 1980s, BBR was a time capsule, insulated from everything that had happened since 1950. But then one day – and it seemed as sudden as that – BBR sprang into the modern world. It has ridden the wave ever since. Last year its sales increased in volume while dipping slightly in value: fashionable, you see.

Simon Berry has been a driving force. He joined the company in 1977, became marketing director in 1987, deputy chairman in 2002 and chairman in 2005. Earlier this year, his father, Anthony Berry, died aged 94. Anthony and John Rudd had come back after the war to run the firm, and nothing much changed until 1990.

They got into mail order, it’s true, but they still wrote out the envelopes by hand. They’d probably not have been unduly worried by something like the American threats or promises not to buy the 2009 Bordeaux vintage en primeur (threats and promises voiced, like this interview, prior to the tasting week between 29 March and 2 April).

Nor is Simon Berry worried – but for different reasons. ‘For Americans to assume that if they don’t participate in ’09 Bordeaux it will be a failure is insular,’ he says. ‘The US is also denying the Asian influence: how Asia is exaggerated, how China is a lot of hot air; but if you look at the amount of wine being bought in Hong Kong and ending up in China…

‘China will buy en primeur this year.

The old idea that they wouldn’t, because the Chinese always want something concrete for their cash is naïve, it’s absurd. Hong Kong woke up to en primeur with the 2005 vintage and China will follow suit. We sold probably as much ’08 in Hong Kong as in the UK: probably the same value, but less in volume.’ More expensive wines, in other words: the ones we baulked at. But they’re not just buying labels: ‘We have customers in China who are building up a cellar, and buying everyday wines as well. It’s not just bling. And there are people in the UK just as blingy.

Berry is concerned with ’09 Bordeaux because, obviously, he hopes to sell a lot of it – ‘£5m to £7m’ is what he quotes. BBR already has one shop in Hong Kong and is opening another; but the role of a traditional (albeit extremely modern) wine merchant, there and here, preoccupies him. Being ‘a good, old-fashioned wine merchant’ involves advising your customers how to trade down successfully in a recession; it also involves not turning into Threshers [the now defunct UK high street chain].

‘If BBR had changed in the 1960s,’ Berry muses, ‘God knows what we’d be like now. We’d have sold out in the ’70s, changed into a chain of regional wine shops.’ No doubt suffering the fate of many. ‘It’s a question of scale,’ he says. ‘You can’t have a shop selling handmade wines on the high street’ – although he adds that Waitrose, the high-end supermarket is an exception.

‘The idea was that if you knew nothing about wine you bought it from a supermarket, and if you knew everything you bought it from a merchant.’ It should have been the other way round, but in any case, the internet has changed all that. ‘In cyberspace nobody sees you blush. The supermarket phrase was “grateful anonymity”.

The high street will become the domain of a few brave, brilliant independents, like Lea & Sandeman – those who have no ambition to be Threshers. They’ll know their territories, and they’ll have enough people to support them. The supermarkets will survive, but I hope the independents in future will be brilliant enough or mad enough to do their own thing. God knows there are enough people going through the traditional merchants, and they have to go somewhere.’

For BBR, the internet changed the company fundamentally. ‘Our Heathrow shop brought in the people, but the website made us focus on what we do well and less well. If you’re reinventing yourself for an alien environment, you have to work out what people want from you. The internet is fabulous for that: you can tell what they look at, for how long, where they come from and where they go to.’

From the traditional merchant’s view, the aim lies in encouraging people to ‘trade up’ to better, and more expensive, wines. ‘There are a lot of people out there for whom wine is still, and always has been, fermented grape juice that loosens the tongue and tastes good.’ If they want to buy at £3.99 from a supermarket, that’s fine, he says.

After all, ‘More people will buy a frozen shepherd’s pie than make their own. Why go to Wigmore Hall and listen to four people playing Beethoven sublimely when you can switch on Radio 3 for free? There is only ever a small number of people who say, “because it’s better”. We exist to say, “that’s better than this”. We can’t expect all the world to take wine more seriously. If they did, we’d be back to the old question of why can’t we afford first-growth claret any more? Any drinkable wine would be too expensive.’

Which brings us neatly to the subject of Robert Parker, and back, briefly, to ’08 Bordeaux. Berry is definitely pro-Parker: ‘He’s a very good taster of things he knows, which is what we all are; he’s been remarkably good, especially for Bordeaux, and he’s introduced the US to wine to an extent, which is fantastic.’

But ‘his reactions to the ’08s shifted attitudes, in that the wine trade was telling the Bordelais, “You can’t charge what you’re thinking of charging…” The first growths led the way and reduced their prices: it was a remarkable coup. Then three to four weeks later along comes Parker and says it’s a great vintage. The wicked wine trade had kept prices down, and the defender of the consumer pushed prices up. What’s going on?’

But the future of wine information may lie elsewhere again, he thinks. ‘The really exciting thing in the US is Eric LeVine. He’s an amazing man; I’m a huge fan. He used to be a Microsoft programmer – he invented the ‘report’ button when your software crashes.’

Now LeVine has invented CellarTracker, a wine cellar management software that gives you access to a community of 100,000 wine enthusiasts. First family wine merchants advised you, then wine writers, now consumers tell each other. ‘The question is, is there any role for the old-fashioned trade at all, other than selling en primeur claret?’

Some people buy en primeur claret to drink, others to invest; many do both. ‘That’s been going on for the past 70 years: my father wrote a piece in the ’40s about how to drink for free. You buy two cases and sell one later. A lot of the ’09s we sell will be to people who in turn will sell to other people who buy from us.’

It might be resold three or four times and BBR will get a slice each time. ‘Only one person will drink it, but four to five will have invested in it. And I suspect 80% of the money that’s invested in wine is put back into buying more wine, maybe younger vintages of the same wines. Most of our customers are wine lovers first…

It’s about investing in pleasure, not having a bigger cheque at the end. If we reached the stage where wine was like bonds or stocks and shares, life would be very dull. But we’re not heading in that direction. One of the pressures is that wine is being drunk too young; you can’t have both things.’

His father was ‘passionately against the idea of anyone investing in wine’, and Berry himself, when he was in his early twenties, went on television saying much the same thing. He’s modified his views since then. Market forces, perhaps?

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