Wednesday 19 March 2014

Vinous Grand Guignol: on Hedonism, Yevgeny Chichvarkin and wine for a Tuesday supper

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

The London wine world prides itself on its cosmopolitanism, its central position between the great markets of east and west, its close relationship with dozens of renowned chefs and familiarity with some of the world’s greatest restaurant cellars. But it didn’t know what to make of Hedonism.
Hedonism: Peter Michael, and venerable old Inglenook

Never before has a wine shop generated such fascinated interest. “Shop”, in fact, is the wrong word: more than anything, Hedonism is theatre, performance art, a kind of vinous grand guignol. Nobody had seen anything like it. Victoria Moore of the Daily Telegraph suggested that if Tutankhamen had had a taste for fine wines, this is what his tomb would have looked like. It was as if Angelina Jolie, say, had turned up unannounced at a suburban dinner party.

Eyebrows were raised, and they stayed raised. Hedonism has hardly been out of the news since it opened its doors in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square in August 2012. From the back story of its extraordinary proprietor, the billionaire Russian exile Yevgeny Chichvarkin, hounded out by a vengeful Vladimir Putin, to the lavish verticals of Chateau d’Yquem, Screaming Eagle, Sine Qua Non, the vast collection of rare whiskies, the display of nine-litre Salmanazars of Bordeaux first growths, the £58,000 Mouton vertical, the 27-litre Torbreck The Laird, it is gold dust for journalists.

There was some disdain at first. ‘I can’t decide if all this makes me want to weep, or throw up’ the critic Andrew Jefford wrote last year on, on receiving a press release from Hedonism announcing the arrival of a £1.2m Penfolds vertical. He relented later, saying he had nothing against it: ‘It’s a great place for Russian oligarchs to do their wine shopping…’

Hedonism: Pingus
 Alistair Viner, formerly Harrods wine chief and now running the buying operation at Hedonism, insists his clientele is far more varied than that. Of course a good deal of it is well-heeled Mayfair (it’s a short lunchtime stroll from Asprey, Stella McCartney or the Bentley showroom), but there are also people ‘who pop in during their lunch break…it’s too early to see any pattern but it’s pleasing to see how many customers are from the UK.’

The plan from the beginning was to ‘make the space luxurious but welcoming rather than intimidating. No matter what your level of interest, you’re going to enjoy it.’ Viner and Chichvarkin asked the question, ‘how do you do the super luxury and not scare away the everyday person?’ and studied high-end shops around the world to see what pitfalls they could avoid. They paid attention to materials, for example. Hedonism’s fittings could be described as ‘playful millionaire rustic chic’ – lots of rough-hewn wood,  wheeled stools carved from single massive chunks of oak, a witty chandelier made entirely of Riedel glasses. ‘If you go to a Bond Street jewellers there is nothing bare or earthy about them,’ Viner says, and they often have small doors. ‘They have these wonderful window displays but this little door and you think, “do I dare go through the door?”’ So Hedonism has big windows and big doors, and the first display rack you see contains wines in the £15-30 range. Another detail: nothing (apart from the Yquem vertical, back-lit in glowing golden light like the Holy Grail itself) is behind glass. ‘People lose sight of the fact that everything put in a bottle was put there to drink. We make it tactile, you can touch a 27-litre bottle of Torbreck or a Salamazar of claret.’

Affordable Hedonism: Man O'War, Cloudy Bay Te Koko
 Viner says they ‘consciously worked to defuse those issues [of intimidation] and also to make wine fun.’ Indeed, there’s a pleasing Willy Wonka feel to some of the seasonal displays, designed by the window dresser who does Harvey Nichols. For Halloween they put in motion-activated scary voices around the shop, and a coffin complete with skeleton. On April 1st they put ‘Closing Down – Everything Must Go’ in the window. ‘It fell on a bank holiday but it still had a good impact, especially on the staff, who didn’t know,’ Viner says, deadpan.

That’s all very well and democratic – you can look and touch, and have a good laugh, but how many people pull out their (titanium) credit card and pay £25,712.80 for the magnum of 2006 Romanée Conti from Domaine de la Romanée Conti, or a bit less than £15,000 for a bottle of 1940 Macallan Fine and Rare 35-year-old whisky?

Not very many, naturally. Viner says he’s made ‘several’ sales of over £100,000, but stresses that out of the 7,500 lines it carries (including over 1000 whiskies, dozens of gins, rare bourbons, sake, tequila and almost every other kind of spirit) , Hedonism lists 800 wines under £30, and people regularly drop in for £15 bottles. This lower end of the list is eclectic and calculated to appeal to a discerning non-expert: Greek wines like Gaia’s Wild Ferment Assyrtiko from Santorini, Vin Jaune, a nicely-chosen range of lesser-known Spanish DOs, half-bottles of Napa icons like Shafer’s Hillside Select, interesting picks from Portugal, Germany, Sicily and Sardinia.

Not so affordable Hedonism: Screaming Eagle
Browsing Hedonism’s shelves is not merely an academic exercise. Half a dozen of London’s most influential wine critics, surveyed for this article, agreed. Neil Beckett, editor of the World of Fine Wine, says the range is ‘terrific’. ‘Most of us won’t ever be in the market for the 1811 Yquem and the like, but it’s wonderful to be able to walk in off the street, well into the evening or at the weekend, and find such a range of fine and rare wines, often with the maturity that they need.’

Beckett went on to praise the inclusion of ‘difficult to source’ wines like Equipo Navazos Sherry, Bussaco Branco Reservado or Château Chalon Vin Jaune. Another journalist, the food writer Fiona Beckett (no relation), had high praise on her website Matching Food and Wine for the staff, which she found the ‘affable kind of chaps who wouldn’t look out of place on the floor of Majestic.’ It is this common touch which makes Hedonism such an unusual experience. The staff are indeed affable, and seem equally at home whether pouring samples at the big tasting tables for billionaire whisky collectors, the Prince of Malaysia and his friends, or a local worker in his or her lunch break looking for a £20 bottle for supper.

It’s a mix of the high serious and the downright eccentric. Favoured clients who come in for tastings can choose their music – it’s not unusual to hear Tom Waits, Joy Division or the Nutcracker Suite swirling round the precious wines – and, because the tasting area is kept at a brisk 17C, they are given fluffy white blankets to put over  their shoulders.

Exotic: Yevgeny Chichvarkin among the Sine Qua Non
Then there is the exotic presence of the owner. Yevgeny Chichvarkin made his fortune in his 20s with Evroset, Russia’s biggest mobile phone company, which he sold in 2008 for (an unconfirmed) US$400m. He had to leave Russia in 2010 when he was accused of extortion and kidnapping – charges which have since been dropped and which he insists were cooked up by the Putin government, which he loathes and openly accuses of murder. He has never been back. He is a tall, dishevelled, handsome figure in his mid-30s, limping (he suffers from gout), sometimes draped in a blanket. He wears a voodoo-ish amulet around his neck, and the staff treat him with kindly respect. He insists he knows nothing about wine – ‘Alistair advises me and says I have terrible taste’ – but his formidable business acumen is in no doubt. The idea for Hedonism hit him when he first came to London and happened to have bottle of a fine Rioja, the Roda Cirsion 2001, and found it impossible to get hold of another. ‘That’s when I thought of an upscale wine shop with luxury service’. London is the perfect place for such a shop because he knows of nowhere else with such a concentration of the super-wealthy. It will take them three years – 2015 – to break even, he says.

Screaming eagle? Tom Waits
Viner, who joined in 2011, says it took ‘several million pounds’ and a year of ‘looking in all corners of the world for iconic wines’ to build the stock. He used his extensive contacts list to ferret out wines from private collectors, US and UK brokers, auctions and merchants. The signature collections like the Screaming Eagle and Sine Qua Non, and the 128 vintages of Yquem, came from dozens of different sources, ‘about 70 different people, private collectors,’ Viner says. ‘That gave me even more hair loss and sleepless nights.’ He likes to search out the quirky. ‘I’m always looking for interesting things, that may be affordable but are also exciting and newsworthy. It’s all about looking underneath.’ He’s just bought ‘a huge collection of kosher wines’, he says.

A charge that is often levelled at Hedonism is that it is more museum than shop. How, people wonder, are they going to maintain such a rarefied list? So many of the wines are, if not unique, then scarce enough to be virtually irreplaceable. Viner is unworried. ‘Do we worry about keeping restocked? Yes and no. There’s enough wine out there, and there are always other iconic wines to replace what we have. It would be almost strange if we always had those things in stock.’ If the great wines were easy to get hold of, it would defeat the point. ‘So we had ’47 Cheval Blanc but we sold it. Sorry, you’re too late. If you want it you’ll have to wait, and it’ll be a long wait.’
Let me titillate you some more... the jakes 

Hedonism could so easily be ludicrous, but the wine world has taken it to its heart. Winemakers visiting London make a point of dropping in and paying their respects to Chichvarkin and Viner, and the coolly efficient CEO Tatiana Fokina. Dom Perignon chef de cave Richard Geoffroy was there recently. It’s a natural fit, you might say – of course the likes of Geoffroy would welcome any merchant which puts his wines in front of Mayfair’s millionaires. What is more telling is the near-universal vote of confidence from journalists, a group which is quick to condemn excess. Look at the ridicule heaped on Penfolds for its Ampoule, a hermetically-sealed capsule of 2004 Bin 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon in a wooden display case that retails for more than £100,000, and of which only twelve have been made. According to Penfolds, when the lucky buyer decides to open the Ampoule, ‘a senior member’ of the team will ‘travel to the destination of your choice … to personally attend a special opening ceremony’. As an exercise in hubristic folly it couldn’t be bettered.

In fact, Viner got the only Ampoule allocated to the UK. After a year and a half it’s still there in the corner, gathering dust, its £120,000 pricetag hanging limply. Hedonism has many better things for the customers to spend their money on.

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