“I’ve had that rather weird feeling, like being Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone,” says Geordie Willis, brand experiences and creative director of Berry Bros & Rudd. Each year, 30,000 visitors usually cross the threshold of the UK’s oldest wine and spirit merchant to spend anything from £10 to £10,000 a bottle. But Willis, an eighth-generation member of the Berry family, has spent much of the last year cycling into its central London HQ while colleagues and customers have been forced to stay away.
The wine merchant has survived two world wars and been awarded as many Royal Warrants. It’s enjoyed the custom of Lord Byron and William Pitt the Younger, as well as supplying HMS Titanic with fine wine. More recently, it’s expanded to Asia, changed its shop address (from 3 St James’s Street to 63 Pall Mall in 2017) and branched out to selling spirits alongside its Bordeaux and Burgundy.
But when it came to the third lockdown in England last year, unlike many other wine retailers, the Berry Bros & Rudd shop remained closed. With a lack of passing trade, the central London area has been like a ghost town. As the rules shift back again, though, Willis says it feels like the right time to reopen.
While conditions are still uncertain for a business that relies on high-paying customers, year-round events and a sense of physical history, Willis points out that Berry, Bros & Rudd has a bit of experience in weathering the storm: “This isn’t our first rodeo when it comes to difficult times – and quite often during difficult times people are forced to be their most creative.”
Indeed, during the shop’s closure, the team has been kept on its toes. They have hosted around 225 virtual tastings (using full, not sample-sized bottles) and were selling tickets at £775 a pop for Super Tuscan events, entertaining attendees from Bermuda to South Africa. When the UK enjoyed a summer of relative reopening, Berry Bros & Rudd set up a pop-up restaurant with the business’s Masters of Wine acting as sommeliers. “I think what we learned is that we never want to do that again!” Willis admits – much to the team’s surprise, working a shift as a sommelier is pretty tough. And they even teamed up with London restaurants The Laughing Heart and Clove Club to deliver premium food and wine to homes.
If a year ago you’d told Willis that his family business would be pivoting to food delivery, he would have bet a double magnum of 2014 Château Lafite Rothschild that you were lying. But Berry Bros & Rudd is no stranger to innovation: in 1967 it was the first independent wine merchant to build temperature-controlled cellars (which now hold 8.5m bottles) and in 1994 it was the first to build a website. It turns out that having a strong e-commerce presence would put them in good stead for a pandemic – online sales have increased by 104% in the past year alone.
If online and virtual success has been mounting, why the need to reopen a physical store? “It isn’t just about selling bottles,” says Edwin Dublin, store manager at 63 Pall Mall. “It will be talking about tastings, the cellar plan, BBX [the business’s fine wine exchange programme] and producer-led events in the shop.”
When I speak to him less than a week ahead of reopening, he is in his office preparing for customers to walk back through the door – and they’ve already had the heating on in anticipation. When patrons do return, they will be welcomed by Siggi, a doorman loved by local businesses and customers alike, and there will be space for 12 people at a time to explore the many rows of bottles. The Enomatic wine systems will be back up and running by the summer, with Dublin keen for any Covid-related precautions to be secondary to service.
Willis is fully backing this approach: “Retail isn’t just a transactional space…it’s theatre. People come in and taste and talk to salespeople – sometimes the exploration happens in those conversations.” Berry Bros & Rudd may have gone through monumental change, even in a matter of months, but Willis still remembers his first visit to his grandfather’s wine shop: “The first time I came into the shop, I was 14 years old and arrived at this rather Dickensian, austere shop. It was pretty terrifying…I was in awe of it from the beginning.”
Is he worried about what the future holds for Berry Bros & Rudd in a changed landscape? In a nutshell, no. In fact, he considers the ability to connect with customers as crucial to the comeback. “If I were looking at BBR as a little wine shop in the centre of London I’d be nervous, but the way we developed the retail offering at 63 Pall Mall was all about experience beyond sales. Even though it wasn’t by design, I think we’ll benefit from people coming back in and indulging in longer conversations. We certainly have a few chatters in that shop.”