Three bottles: Simon Berry

Berry Bros & Rudd is a bit like an old school for me.  It’s where I learnt much of what I know about wine; it’s also where I learned how to sell it, how to buy it, how to do business with integrity and, most importantly, how to look after customers.  If you say “alma mater” to me I think of London SW1 not London SE21.

Any further intro to the company is perhaps superfluous and, moreover, will be overflowing with personal bias.  Briefly: if you seek an impeccable list, outstanding service and a merchant that can cover your every need, BBR is peerless.

The head of BBR is Simon Berry, the seventh generation of Berrys to work for the firm.  He has overseen much: the Heathrow shops (sadly no more), the website, the development of the St James’s Street cellars, the impeccable storage facilities in the playground of the beautiful that is Basingstoke, offices in Hong Kong, Japan, and more.  And, more to the point as far as I am or was concerned, you could always, and probably still can, stick your head round the door to his office.  It’s a special place, BBR, and much of that, if not all, is down to the families that own it.

I thank Mr Berry for his answers:

What was the first wine/bottle that got you into the whole wine thing?

That’s a little difficult to say – wine has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. My first distinct memory  of drinking wine was at Christmas 1964 when I was seven. For Christmas lunch my father was serving a bottle of Beaujolais – I can remember laughing at the name, and even more when it was translated as ‘Jolly Boys’, which seemed very apt given the circumstances. My nanny, with her wonderful deep Wiltshire accent made gravelly by forty cigarettes a day, expressed her opinion: “ooooh Mr Berry. I don’t like this. It’s very sharp.” But I found it delicious. It was probably, in that very civilized French custom, watered down (before the zealous reader starts ringing Esther Rantzen) but it marked the beginning of a lifetime’s love affair with fermented grape juice.

My father’s diaries – he kept a note of every bottle he tasted from 1931 (he was 16) until 2008 when he was 93 – reveal the bottle to be 1961 Julienas. Nanny was wrong.

What was the first wine/bottle that took you closer to your maker?

Even more difficult to say, as I’ve been astonishingly lucky in a career that is coming up to its fortieth anniversary to drink some truly amazing bottles of wine. However the one that springs to mind is a bottle of 1961 Ch. Palmer drunk in October 1997 – still the most perfect glass of claret I have ever had in my life. The circumstances were, as always, part of the experience. It was at the Saintsbury Club – a dining club founded by, among others, my grandfather and boasting a membership drawn in equal measure from the wine trade and the literary world, which stops either party from banging on about their own expertise and makes for far more enjoyable conversation. I was lucky enough to be sitting next to Peter Sichel, the legendary Bordeaux figure and owner of Ch. d’Angludet and the majority of Ch. Palmer. Years before, Peter had chosen the 61 Palmer as his joining fee to the club, and he had insisted on it being served that night. But not only was it the great ’61, it was also the Berry Bros bottling – and Peter announced to the table that it was showing better, after 36 years, than any chateau bottling he had tasted. I felt so proud you might have thought I had actually chosen the cask and tapped it myself. Peter was in dazzling form, and no-one would have guessed that he was dying. Within a few months cancer had struck at the age of 66 and I never saw him again. But the memory of that bottle will fix the memory of that evening and of that remarkable man forever in my mind.

What was the best wine/bottle you have had this year? – OK, the past twelve months.

That’s easy, because it was less than a fortnight ago. A 1963 Quinta do Noval, Nacional, served blind and freshly stolen from Jean-Michel Cazes’ cellar by his son, Jean-Charles. (His father was present, and ruefully admitted that he used to do exactly the same thing with his father’s cellar!) Utterly archetypal vintage port, it still had a wildness about it that perhaps came from its ungrafted, pre-phylloxera roots, and gave us a glimpse of how port was designed to taste by our maker. And, sitting as we were outside the Cazes’ own totally French cafe in their own totally French village of Bages, it was also proof that the Bordelais do (sometimes) confess that other parts of the world are capable of making great wine.

Simon, thank you again.