We all get caught out sometimes. It was one of those instances when you think you hold few preconceived ideas about a place or subject, until they are challenged. We knew of BBR's title as London's oldest wine and spirit merchant - the family business has continuously traded on their site at the bottom of St James's Street since 1690 - and we had also heard of their excellent wine school and hosted dinners in the vaults underneath. And not forgetting some familiarity with the 'off-license' too. But when Simon Berry unlocked the door to the private rooms at the back of Berry Bros & Rudd simply by placing his thumb on a fingerprint reader, we knew we had it all wrong.
The high-gloss black-brown front and arched windows decorated with gold type reading "Established in the XVII Century", and the seemingly non-sequitur sign of an old coffee grinder that swings from the drooping neck and beak of a brass bird - BBR is a highly recognisable destination in the area and distinctly St James's. But as we talk to its chairman, Berry's modest opening statement of their "reputation for being in some ways old fashioned and in some ways cutting edge" heralds a series of surprises that serve to raise our eyebrows ever upwards.
Berry is clearly well versed in talking about BBR's history. Touching on walls dating from Henry VIII's tennis courts to postulating on the probable first names of the business's enigmatic founder 'The Widow Bourne' - "we think it may be Katharine but we can't say for sure" - it is clear that the development of the shop and business is intrinsically linked with that of the area; an area undeniably influenced by the past social mores of the aristocratic classes and the court of the neighbouring palace.
As "the local corner shop", it was residents' insatiable thirst for tea and coffee and their associated profit margins that dominated the early years of the business. Standing on his chair and reaching to a high shelf, Berry reaches for an empty, bottom-heavy wine bottle coated in thick dust. From the time of these early years, he explains that the bottle's only markings are the stamp of its owner, for the bottle itself was more valuable than its wine and so would be reused and refilled - the historical equivalent of the printer cartridge. The first examples of the contents' value surpassing the cost of packaging came from nineteenth century South Africa. These distinctions of value are important in understanding BBR, for beneath the dark paneling and uneven floorboards, they are in the wine business, and the wine business is big business.
Wine revolves around values of rarity. Berry says that being part of the "street of merchants", there has always been a "prerequisite that it's not just from the next field along." And this has involved being at the forefront of emerging markets. Berry recalls how the first edition of the Atlas of Wine (by another St James's resident, Hugh Johnson) didn't even include New Zealand and barely touched on the US, which now has a professional vineyard operation in every state.
Recent new ventures include one red and three sparkling wines from China, but this has been a long time coming, for it takes years of investment and refinement for the wines to reach a level of sophistication appropriate to the BBR roster. Employing the skills and know-how of Austrian growers - there is an approximation of the same climate and soil - the Chinese are almost record beaters in having got a product to market in five years.
BBR are turning away more and better quality new suppliers. It is not only a knack of product selection that drives their success but an ability to carve out new means of bringing their selection to the market. They were the first to launch a website on the "information super highway, as we used to call it then." And Berry recalls the joy at receiving their first order within the week, back in the early '90s.
The order came on a Wednesday from a gentleman in New York who wanted a bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc for a wedding that weekend. They were disappointed to inform him that they would be unlikely to ship it in time but thank you for the interest. He replied that he was happy to make the journey himself, which he dutifully did, flying in and picking up the bottle from their Heathrow shop - another industry first.
The website has continued to grow and he proudly describes it is a compendium for wine lovers, with a wealth of information for buyers. In tandem with the main website - prepare for an eyebrow raise - they run a "like ebay but for wine" site called Berrys' Broking Exchange or BBX; a part of the business that brings in over a million a month. Oh, and then there was the first wine app.
The benefits of their investments in technology seem an obvious leap today, but Berry relates how it was born more out of wishing to develop their relationships with customers. "We say that we must always be the closest connection between the producers and the people." The evidence of this special friendship can be found in the ledgers of the recorded weights of willing patrons, who over the centuries have gamely climbed onto the large scales now in the foyer, including Lord Byron, Lawrence Olivier and the Aga Khan, as well as a sumo wrestler weighing the equivalent of at least seven crates of whisky. They also hold the largest collection of signed Vanity Fair cards, all given as appreciative tokens by the celebrated.
Computerisation can also been seen as an extension of an archivist's tendency. Back in June, two bottles of whisky were being sold from Italy as BBR single malts from the '30s and '40s, but after examination and a check of the records, it was ascertained that the bottles in question were fakes. Soon after, Berry posted an entry on the BBR blog, "having seen the damage wrought in fine wine circles by a few unscrupulous individuals, some of whom are now facing criminal proceedings, I am adamant that we will do what we can to prevent a similar situation arising in the world of single malt whisky." Much like the art dealers of Bury and Duke Street, the provenance of their investments are not only crucial in questions of value of investment but also in the value of BBR's reputation - a priceless part of their business.
BBR outgrew the cellars on St James's Street in the early '60s and now have warehouses in Basingstoke replete with air locks, sophisticated security systems and a capacity for nine million bottles: "If a family of four had started drinking a bottle a day - we're presuming the kids start early! - since the building of Stonehenge, we'd still have plenty leftover."
There are about three hundred Masters of Wine - a title earned through an immensely hard test on the art, science and business of plonk - and of that global total, BBR employ eight. One of whom is Simon Berry's cousin, David Berry Green, who perhaps drew the long straw in the family business, as he contributes by travelling the Italian countryside and visiting enologi or small-scale wine producers. You can also catch him on the blog, where posts introduce us to informal parties of producers celebrating a good Nebbiolo harvest, complete with accordion and the long shadows of a late summer sun, or take us to Japan where he is accompanying Italian producers as they share their wares with an ever-more-eager market.
"The important thing about being the new generation in a family business is to be the rebel." With new knowledge uncorked, and a small glass of humble Piedmontese red, it is clear that BBR continuously push to encapsulate the best of wine making, wine drinking and wine buying. They bring us excellence, interest and insight into the individual wine producers; curatorial expertise and good taste with their retail selection; and work to ensure the longstanding quality of wine as investment and provide a trustworthy service as its temperature-controlled protectors. The complexity of the business as a whole is astounding, and beyond the fingerprint hi-techery and once worthless dusty bottles, BBR are sure to continue to defy any preconceived ideas of London's oldest wine and spirit merchant.
Photography: Joakim Blockstrom