A flavour of Berry

Simon Berry is celebrating 30 years with Berry Bros & Rudd, the famous English wine and spirits merchant and owner of Britain's oldest wine shop. He has also just become clerk of the royal wine cellars and president of the trade charity. Christian Davis catches up with him
27 August, 2008
Page 24 

Sitting in a rather gloomy back office of Berry Bros & Rudd's illustrious office in London's St James's, it is not hard to imagine former occupant the Widow Bourne serving courtiers from the Court of St James's there in 1698. The royal court moved there after the Palace of Whitehall burned down. Apparently the shop sits on tennis courts built by Henry VIII .

Simon Berry seems very at home, as well he should. He is the seventh generation of Berry's (BBR) and this year he celebrates 30 years with one of the oldest and most famous wine merchants in the UK. There's a busy year ahead as he has taken over presidency of UK drinks trade charity the Benevolent and has taken charge of the committee that buys the alcoholic drinks for the royal family at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

To get it out of the way , the question on most people's lips has to be: "What do the Queen and Prince Philip drink?" The affable 50-year-old laughs and says: "I can't tell you that because if I told you today, I would be out of a job tomorrow." End of the chance to break a great drinks stor y.

Berry takes over from retiring Edward Demery, chairman of Justerini & Brooks, the fine wine merchant owned by Diageo . As BBR has been a royal warrant holder since George III's reign, Berry himself has been on the committee for 12 years.

Asked about Widow Bourne, he replies: " She must have been the Anita Roddick of her day. She moved in and started a shop - we think a grocer's. Then it moved into tea and coffee and was supplying wholesale to most of the expensive tea and coffee shops around London. In those days tea was £1 a pound (weight: 454g) and the average annual wage was £15."

Getting established

The business appears to have passed down through the widow's daughters until one married west country wine merchant John Berry. Again, little appears to be known about him other than that he had a shop in Exeter. His son George's progeny were the "brothers", George and Henry.

In those days securing supplies was dependent on foreign relations. "Companies sourced wine from whichever country or countries Britain was not fighting with," says Berry. "Hence port was discovered by the British primarily because the British were fighting the French and could not get Bordeaux wines."

There was also the problem of routes to market. Among BBR's collection of old bottles, and one of its earliest, is a bottle from Constantia in South Africa. It was easier to get supplies from there because it is close to Cape Town's port , whereas from Burgundy it would have had to come overland by horse, or ox, and cart. Nevertheless, the fact that Robert Louis Stevenson had his honeymoon in Napa Valley, shows things were beginning to open up.

A turning point for the company came around American Prohibition. Berry says his grandfather loved cruises and photography, and while in the Bahamas noted how much locally made whisky was being shipped to American speakeasies - the illegal bars.

He returned home and called a meeting at which the family decided to make a Scotch whisky. The y disapproved of the practice of adding caramel for colour and consistency and therefore opted for a light blend. It was named after arguably one of the most famous ships ever - the tea clipper Cutty Sark. In its heyday, around the 1970s, it was the biggest-selling Scotch in the world's largest Scotch market - the US.

"We were very lucky as it enabled the company to survive with the other side of the business," says Berry.

For most people Berrys is the St James's shop with its creaking, uneven floors. For those with a more intimate knowledge, BBR was a pioneer of the move into cyberspace with its cutting-edge website in the mid- 90s and, as a result, a significant mail order-business. It also has a slick warehouse operation with a bang up-to-date shop in Basingstoke.

Online pioneer

So who was Berry's Bill Gates? "I heard someone talk of an 'e-zine' and then I heard about this thing called the 'information super highway'," says Berry self-deprecatingly. "It stuck in my mind: the idea of something that only exists on a computer and I was the only board member with a computer.

"I talked to a company which wanted £20,000 to create a website. I only had £17,000 in my budget so I asked whether it would do it for that so I would not have to ask anyone (else on the board)." Berry drafted in the company IT man, Martin Brown, who set about co-ordinating the work. "We had no budget for it, no sales forecasts to worry about. Someone said: 'Don't put too many words on it.' We thought: 'No. There's an enormous amount of information we want to put on it.'"

The breakthrough came when BBR celebrated its 300th anniversary in 1998. "We got incredible publicity for it (the website). We were way ahead of everyone else so the investment was justified - if not in sales, in PR."

Berry has an interesting take on wine consumers and where they ought to shop. "There is a dichotomy," he opines. "Those who know about wine really ought to shop at the supermarkets because they know what they want. Whereas people who know nothing should come to traditional wine merchants like us and the rest of the bunch (a loose grouping of traditional independent UK wine merchants, such as Corney & Barrow, Lay & Wheeler, Tanners, Yapp Bros and Adnams). Unfortunately, that is not the way it works. People want grateful anonymity. I love this shop (St James's) but it is quite intimidating. Also, no one sees you blush in cyberspace (referring to the website)."

When it comes to outside interests, you would expect a man like Berry to be a yachtsman, keen skier - hunting, shooting and fishing - that kind of thing. But no. He quips he gave up skiing when he discovered it was "too dangerous". Berry's passion is the theatre (he also supports Chelsea Football Club, for his sins). You sense he has dabbled in acting but he is n 't letting on. Thespians and wine and spirits are historical bed fellows. He produced three West End plays and won an Olivier comedy award for Three Men on a Horse at the National Theatre on London's South Bank.

As the new president of the UK drinks trade charity, one of his pet projects is to put on a pantomime. With the likes of broadcaster/writer Oz Clarke (former actor, having toured with Evita), writer and author Charles Metcalfe (trained opera singer) and Tim Atkin MW, known to sing and play jazz guitar a bit, he should not want for participants.

Taking over from Vanessa Wright of Pernod Ricard's Chivas Brothers, Berry wants to "go back to square one ". He applauds moves to change the Benevolent's image and bring in younger people in the trade through the Buddies (Friends of the Benevolent) events. But what rankles are the number of companies, particularly substantial ones, which he says: "Are making a fortune out of the industry and giving nothing back. I want to get across that they should all share some of that success."

With BBR's heritage and Berry's standing, he is possibly in a unique position to tread on a few corporate toes. Although outwardly approachable and affable, he is not fazed by the prospect of ruffling a few feathers. What could loosely be described as "Berrying the hatchet ".

As to the next generation - Berry has two stepchildren by his second marriage - he says: "The eighth generation is my cousin's son, David Berry Green, who is one of our wine buyers. So the Berry succession is secured. There are plenty of Rudds too."

So that's a relief.

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