On a humid Monday morning in June, they’re taking up Berkeley Square in spadefuls, pneumatic drills are yammering, but Tatiana Fokina looks fresh as a daisy as she emerges from a taxi at the door of Hedonism. She’s had an exhausting weekend, she says cheerfully. ‘What with the heat, and Russia.’
Without pause, we’re onto the ever-interesting topic. On Saturday, catastrophe in Russia was averted as the warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin halted his tanks just outside Moscow, in a bizarre twist to the continuing drama of the Ukraine war. ‘So my friends are all partying and having dinner and I’m calling them and telling them, “Guys, there’s a civil war about to start”, and they’re like, whatever,’ she says, laughing at the absurdity of it all.
We’ll return to Russia in due course but first the background. Evgeny Chichvarkin, a Muscovite, ran one of the biggest mobile phone networks in Russia before he fell foul of Vladimir Putin in the early 2000s. He managed to get out of Russia with most of his money.
Once in the UK, he decided there wasn’t a wine merchant he thought did the right sort of job. He wanted to open the best wine shop in the world but he wanted it to be accessible and democratic. Knowing little about wine, he employed Alistair Viner, then head buyer at Harrods, to scour the world for the finest and rarest. Hedonism opened its doors in 2012 to the delight (and sometimes consternation) of the London wine world. It was wine as theatre. There were witty April Fool’s and at Halloween, movement-activated groans and screams. The displays were imaginative and there’s a good music collection.
Sure, Hedonism attracts high-rollers. This is the epicentre of Mayfair, after all. You might see a Bentley idling at the kerb while the Prince of Malaysia browses the shelves. But here’s the thing: it truly is all things to all people. If you want extravagant, of course you can find it, in the verticals of Sine Qua Non and Screaming Eagle, of Yquem going back to the year dot, the golden bottles backlit like sacred icons; in the torpedo-like Methusalehs and Salamazars of Lafite and Araujo…
But Hedonism carries around 640 wines and 350 spirits under £30. If you want a nice bottle for a Tuesday night, how about a Telmo Rodriguez Al Muvedre Monastrell from Alicante at £13.70, or a Nicosia Grillo from Sicily for a couple of quid more?
The original idea, Fokina says, was to ‘cater to a different demographic and cover all the bases,’ and that ethos hasn’t changed. Chichvarkin adds: ‘Twelve years ago, we put a list together. The heading was “Open the best wine shop in the world”. Then we had twenty items – and we’ve achieved sixteen of them. That was our basic idea. And I think it works.’ Turnover is £50.6m across the group, which includes the Michelin-starred Hide restaurant, a coffee shop and a pub.
The shop truly is all things to all people
Chichvarkin hasn’t changed much since I first met him 10 years ago. Barrel-chested and soft-spoken, his English is still heavily accented (I suspect it’s deliberate) and he still dresses like a Samuel Beckett character. Today he’s wearing a faded t-shirt and voluminous Russian trousers that billow like skirts, a heavy pendant earring in his left lobe, a bright orange titfer and Cuban-heeled orange boots. He gives the impression of a man of humour but one not to be trifled with. The staff love him, as evidenced by the fact they hardly ever leave. He’s only the investor, he says, and he comes into the shop all the time ‘because people work harder when I’m here’. Fokina runs the show (she also has a design consultancy called Studio Caché – she’s just made over a 10-bedroom house in Oxfordshire). She was Hedonism’s first employee; now she and Chichvarkin are partners and have two children together, and he has four children with his previous partner. They all live in the UK.
I ask about the situation in Russia. This is relevant: Chichvarkin and Fokina have long been vocal critics of Putin. He has suggested that his mother was murdered ‘KGB’ style the day after her 60th birthday; they have donated millions to the Ukraine war effort. Do they ever feel they should be a bit less visible? Chichvarkin chuckles at this. ‘I think it’s a bit late for that. The first time I was properly worried was 23 years ago. There’s no point being scared every night for 23 years.’ Anyway, it must have been an exhausting weekend, I say. He looks nonplussed for a minute. ‘Not really. I was in the Côte d’Azur.’ He was hosting a fundraising dinner for Ukraine.
When you look at it, Hedonism is an eccentric venture. The last decade has been busy. The shop hasn’t really changed but the portfolio has. The Michelin-starred Hide opened with top chef Ollie Dabbous in 2018. Then there’s the Hideaway coffee shop, shortly to branch out in Riyadh, Qatar and all over the Middle East (I can attest to the deliciousness of the madeleines, which Chichvarkin and I nibble away at. He carefully breaks the last one in half and gives it to me); the White Horse pub just round the corner from Hide. Whose idea was it to open a pub? Sheepish laughter. ‘It was Tatiana’s idea,’ Chichvarkin says, deadpan. ‘It sort of happened in lockdown,’ she says, noting it’s part of the plan to get the widest possible audience. ‘Some people want a Michelin-starred dinner, others want it more buzzy – it’s super low-key, candlelight…’
Hedonism holds the same promise as a good bookshop
I wonder why they never opened another branch of the shop. ‘Many people asked us to open stores in New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, LA,’ Viner says. But there’s no point – they can send wine anywhere in the world and they only have single bottles of the rarest wines, so which store would they go into? There’s further expansion planned, with an auction platform that will sell stock from Hedonism and from ‘an external trading company.’ They won’t be charging commission on sales: again, an unconventional setup – I would have thought a broking platform would be more logical. But Viner says that brokerage is for investors, ‘and most of our customers are buying and drinking, not buying and holding.’
This is the key to Hedonism: no matter the rarity of the bottles, they are for drinking. Viner takes me on a rapid tour. ‘These are the halves, about 500 bottles, look at this, Lafite ’61, Inglenook 1970…’ On to the next shelf. ‘I got this from a cellar in Atlanta… that was a consignment from Panama City… Look at this, Auxey Duresses 1979 – or all this 90s Douro – 1970 Conterno…’ How do they check provenance? ‘A lot of them will have the original receipts but meeting the people and seeing the cellars is the most important thing because it gives you an understanding of how they buy and how they store their wine.’
Following Viner round the shelves I realise that Hedonism holds the same promise as a good bookshop – there are treasures to be discovered. Here’s a 30-year-old Portuguese bottle, Caves São João from Bairrada. Viner says he’d never heard of it but knew someone would be intrigued. ‘The fun stuff isn’t necessarily the rarest. The important thing is what interests our customers.’