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Behind the curtain at one of London’s top wine merchants

Harry Eyres lifts the lid on the venerable London merchant Justerini & Brooks and considers the role of such an august institution in an ever-shifting fine wine marketplace

Words by Harry Eyres

justerini and brooks merchant pouring glass of wine
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With its discreetly stylish 18th-century premises at London’s 61 St James’s Street, the image projected by Justerini & Brooks is one of an almost timeless institution. Within hailing distance of clubs such as Brooks’s, Boodle’s and White’s, and across the road from historic rival Berry Bros & Rudd, this is the St James’s carriage trade merchant par excellence, it seems to say. And it serves a clientele drawn from the aforementioned clubs, the upper echelons of the army, the legal profession and the banking world, not to mention the royal family, who have a couple of palaces within modest walking distance.

But is this all merely a facade? Take the timelessness for a start. Justerini & Brooks was founded in 1749 and has been awarded a royal warrant by every monarch since George III. But the firm has only been on St James’s Street since the 1950s; when founded by Bolognese distiller’s son Giacomo Justerini, who came to London in pursuit of an operatic soprano, its original address was 2 Pall Mall. Not far away, admittedly, but Giacomo only stayed in London for 12 years before selling up to his partner George Johnson (who in turn sold, in 1831, to Alfred Brooks). More recently, J&B became part of International Distillers and Vintners, later reborn as Diageo, a vast multinational.

justerini and brooks building in black and white
justerini and brooks in the 1960s, st james' London
Two of the shop’s many changing facades in the years since Alfred Brooks took over in 1831

So, is there any continuity at all, beyond the slightly deceptive name? The company’s buying director, Giles Burke-Gaffney, a dapper, slim, energetic man who looks younger than his 45 years, thinks so. ‘From the very beginning, it’s always been about a shared passion: sourcing and supplying quality wines. We still operate like a family company.’ I have the temerity to ask whether J&B is required by Diageo to turn a profit (remembering other wine divisions of multinational drinks companies, like Oddbins when it was part of Seagram, which famously didn’t). ‘We’re not an expense, put it that way,’ is Burke-Gaffney’s canny response.

If the passion and core values of the business haven’t changed since Giacomo Justerini’s day, the nature of wine selling and distribution certainly has. In Burke-Gaffney’s view, the changes are a reflection of the ever-intensifying moves towards greater quality and precision in the vineyards and cellars of the top producers with whom J&B works, spread all over the wine world – from Lafleur in Pomerol, to Harlan Estate in Oakville; from Liger-Belair in Burgundy, to Altare in Piedmont.

giles burke gaffney, wine buying director at justerini and brooks
J&B’s buying director Giles Burke-Gaffney says the merchant is focused on customers who will consume its wines rather than trade them

‘We can be the ambassadors for these small, quality-conscious family domaines,’ Burke-Gaffney says. ‘That’s what they want.’ In such cases, J&B is more than simply an agent or distributor. ‘They want their customers not to be just someone who buys, pays and leaves.’ For the merchant, as buyer Julian Campbell remarks, that means a lot more work. Or as Burke-Gaffney puts it, ‘How do we ensure that these bottles end up in the best possible condition for the person who’s going to pull the cork? And how do we get to that route most efficiently? That’s what these producers will be asking themselves, rather than selling to the highest bidder or the first person who knocks on the door. We can sell certain wines, as I’m sure you know, to anyone we want to.’

Justerini & Brooks is getting back to the passion for wine and, ultimately, the “love of life”

That sounds an enviable position to be in, but it’s not enough – for either J&B or its principals. ‘We need to ask ourselves who’s going to be buying them and enjoying them for their primary purpose – which is to be consumed. Who’s going to pull the corks on these wines? Because that’s how you create a sustainable business – not just by letting these wines churn around the secondary markets.’ Here, J&B is differentiating itself from other highly successful fine wine operations that operate more like stockbrokers. It is getting back to the passion for wine and, ultimately, the ‘love of life’, which Burke-Gaffney earlier identified to me as key threads of the company DNA. They are threads that, one hopes, link merchant and customers. So, who are these customers? And how many of them still hail from the clubs and professions associated with SW1?

a painting of alfred brooks above a bar
A portrait of Alfred Brooks sits proudly above premium bottles at J&B

‘It is a much more diverse group of people than it ever has been,’ says Burke-Gaffney. ‘There was a time when we’d be someone’s father’s wine merchants. The customer base has become so much more diverse, in all sorts of ways: age, gender, ethnicity. In terms of the areas that we specialise in, it’s not necessarily just about lawyers or bankers or whatever. It’s a whole range of different people who are interested in wine, beer, whisky, whether it costs £20 a bottle or £1,000 a bottle.’ This greater diversity is connected to what seems to me an entirely benign phenomenon: the explosion of interest and knowledge in wine, especially fine wine, that has occurred over the past 20 years. ‘If you wandered into a random restaurant in London and compared the level of knowledge, table by table, to what you would have found 20 or 30 years ago, you’d be staggered. Most tables will have some level of knowledge, and a lot of tables will have quite a high level of knowledge. That wouldn’t have been the case 20 years ago.’

Burgundy only really exploded in the past ten years. And Barolo and Barbaresco are perhaps where Burgundy was ten years ago

Where J&B might seem more traditional is in its adherence to the classic wine-producing regions of Europe. It is the UK’s largest importer of Burgundy, Barolo and estate-bottled German wines. But even that is slightly deceptive. Importing estatebottled Burgundy and selling it en primeur were not big things in the UK until quite recently. ‘Burgundy only really exploded in the past ten years,’ says Burke-Gaffney. ‘And Barolo and Barbaresco – which are much smaller than Burgundy – are perhaps where Burgundy was ten years ago.’ As for Germany, though this is in one sense a revival of great wine regions whose prices were on a par with top Bordeaux a century or so ago, the renewed interest here is largely a function of ‘a new, young, highly talented generation of wine growers, who have become experts in making dry and sweeter wines that go much better with food.’ In the New World, J&B has been cultivating some handpicked, top-end estates in California, such as Harlan, Rhys, Cain, Vine Hill Ranch and Ferren – the last two not particularly well known but of excellent quality. California now counts among its top five regions by value.

bottles of wine at justerini and brooks
'We need to ask ourselves who’s going to be buying them and enjoying them for their primary purpose – which is to be consumed'

Talking to Burke-Gaffney, I get a sense of optimism, something of a rare commodity in the UK in these turbulent, post-Brexit times. My final thought relates to the vocation of the wine merchant. Perhaps I think about this more than others, having been brought up as the son of one. But something here seems to have changed. What used to be, in many cases, a somewhat quixotic gentlemanly calling now seems to have morphed into a proper career. ‘You might not make a fortune in the wine trade,’ Gaffney-Burke replies. ‘But now you can probably make a living. That wasn’t really possible even 20 or 30 years ago.’