Wine, Women and History | St James's London


Wine, Women and History

Berry Bros. & Rudd may be Britain's oldest wine merchant, but it's never been an old boys club

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Operating from a most traditional, double shop front at No.3 St James's Street, Berry Bros. & Rudd is Britain's most venerable wine and spirits merchant, est. 1698. The company was first a coffee shop and then diversified into tea, cocoa, spices and snuff, evolving into one of Londons most fashionable grocers, serving the court of St James's and the thriving community that grew up around it. George Berry joined the company in 1803 and started to develop the wine and spirit side of the business, though it wasn't until the 20th century that fine libations became their sole focus.

Walking through St James's amongst the bespoke shirt-makers, the humidors, badger hair shaving brushes and fine pomades, I'm always struck somewhat in awe to be surrounded by such a wealth of timeless tradition. To the extent that by the time I reach No.3, I'm visualising the vintage charts of noble Clarets and Ports that I have spent the last week learning in order to pass muster. I feel ready to dust off a bottle, pulled ceremoniously from the cellars below one of Londons most traditional retail establishments.

I am met inside the beautiful, time-worn door of No.3 by BBR's Gemma Duncan, who immediately whisks me around the corner to the new shop at 63 Pall Mall. Gleaming banks of wine dispensers allow you to try 24 wines by-the-glass here, from as little as £1. The staff are young, knowledgeable and most-importantly unintimidating, while an award winning own-label wine range starts at £8.75, rising to £25,000 for DRC La Romanée 1999, with over 1,000 wines to choose from. For a retailer that's been here over 300 years, it couldn't be a more modern experience. I'm feeling a touch of awe yet again. So Gemma offers me a restorative glass of The King's Ginger, a ginger liqueur formulated by Berry Bros. & Rudd and the King's physician to revive poor Edward VII from the rigors of cold car journeys, as she talks history, revealing that women have always been at the heart of the business.

The company was established by Widow Bourne in 1698 and today is run by Lizzy Rudd a direct descendant of Hugh Rudd, who was brought in as a partner to the Berry brothers in 1851. Berry Bros. & Rudd now employ six Masters of Wine (there are only 370 worldwide), more than any other company, and four of these are women.

At the heart of the operation is a wine school that runs courses for all levels, to demystify the world of wine. It was the first UK merchant to develop a web presence (1994) and the first to open offices in Japan, Singapore and China. In 2015, they appointed Dan Jago (whose father invented Baileys), formerly the Group Wine Director at Tesco, as its first Chief Executive to further modernise operations.

BBR remains unquestionably and gloriously traditional, yet is also progressive, consumer-centric, diverse, and boasts centuries of female influence.

I grab an unplanned bottle of Berrys Good Ordinary Claret at £9.95 and head home, suitably educated, and struck as ever, by a visit to St James's.