William Asprey: my passion for wine
- Friday 8 January 2010
The 43-year-old scion of the Asprey jewellery dynasty, William Asprey, has popped downstairs to see what’s in his cellar, leaving me with a cup of tea. Jeweller to the Crown since the time of Queen Victoria, Asprey Ltd was sold to Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei for £243 million in 1995 and is now owned by a pair of US hedge funds.
Asprey left in 1999 to start William & Son, a luxury goods shop in London’s Mayfair. The shop, which received its Royal Warrant last January, counts Prince Pavlos and Marie-Chantal of Greece as clients, and sells everything from fine china to firearms, specialising in bespoke items – Asprey was once asked to put a pair of ruby testicles onto a lion statue.
Perched on a sofa strewn with cushions that read: non magni pendis quia contigit – ‘one does not value things easily attained’ – I’m surrounded by paintings in huge gold frames. I get up to admire a small landscape: ‘It’s a 1902 Pissarro,’ says a voice over my shoulder.
Jogging his memory with faxes from his five main merchants, including Berry Bros & Rudd and OW Loeb, Asprey reels off his wines like items on a shopping list: ‘Beychevelle, Haut-Batailley, Léoville-LasCases, Calon-Ségur…’ A traditionalist, he prefers the reassurance of the familiar to the excitement of the new. His taste is French, specifically Bordeaux, and he seems unwilling to step out of his bubble.
‘I only buy French because that’s what I’ve been brought up with. People will say that’s narrow minded, but my comfort zone lies in those parts of the world the Empire used to control. Write that down,’ he urges, ‘it will really irritate the French.’ Maybe so, though it doesn’t account for the lack of Australian, South African and US bottles…
Asprey’s cellar is largely made up of crus classés, Léoville-Barton and Palmer being two favourites, along with Clos du Marquis [the second wine of Leoville-Las-Cases] as well as Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which he grew up drinking. François de Lavaux, owner of St-Emilion grand cru Martinet and Château du Fort Pontus in Fronsac, is a close family friend – ‘those are my everyday drinking wines’.
He dips into Burgundy: ‘I’ve got a case of 2005 Echézeaux if you want a big name’ (though ironically he doesn’t know the producer), and is very fond of the whites, which he drinks as soon as he buys. He also has a soft spot for Yquem and foie gras.
An early starter to the wine world (‘the first time I tried it I was far too young to be legal’) Asprey developed his interest through his father John, ‘a great collector’. ‘It was always a treat being served a wonderful bottle. I got by in the early days stealing as much of his wine as I could.’
Today Asprey owns more than 2,000 bottles, most of which are kept at his country house in Berkshire, and the rest in London. He’s bought en primeur every year since 2000, abstaining for the first time on the 2008s, and has converted the coal cellar of the Chelsea home he shares with wife Lucy and their three children into a climate-controlled cellar.
He likes to keep all his wine at home rather than with merchants. ‘I open a lot of my bottles sooner than I should, but the excitement of trying what’s meant to be a fantastic wine takes over.’ For Asprey, occasion is built around opening a great bottle, rather than vice versa: ‘I drink most days and most evenings. I’m a great believer in drinking nice wine all the time. What’s an important occasion? Why wait?’
Asprey dreamed of becoming a chef after leaving school, working a summer in the kitchens at the two Michelin-starred L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence before a four-year stint in the army with the Royal Green Jackets, where he developed a taste for Sherry. ‘We drank Fino all the time in Gibraltar. It’s delicious with Manchego cheese and chorizo.’
A keen watch collector, Asprey draws parallels between timepieces and wine. ‘Romain Gauthier makes 30 watches a year. They’re precise and meticulous – hours of love and labour go into each. You can relate that to a small producer in Burgundy. The attention to detail, it’s the same with wine – you’re always looking for something slightly different, something made in an interesting way. It’s wonderful when you find it before anyone else.’